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The Hardest Song I’ve Ever Learned on the Guitar

A few months ago, I casually asked my brother Matt what song I should learn on the guitar.

As a guitar teacher, I am usually focused on learning how to play (and subsequently teach) songs for the benefit of my students (which – of course –  I love).

However, as a guitar teacher I don’t often take time to learn songs that I want to learn.

So I asked Matt what I should learn… he said: “The Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits.

If you don’t know the song check it out.

If you don’t know the super fast solo, wait until the end of the song and you will see.

I knew the song.

And I knew it was going to be hard as shit.

That little solo at the end was what I feared.  Little did I know that this simple request would turn into a 5 month journey.

So, I’ve decided to share the process with you.  I wish I documented it more thoroughly.  Maybe for future songs I’ll keep better records.

So buckle up, here’s how it went.

Step 1:  Research

Before I could begin to learn to play…. I needed to actually find some learning/teaching materials.

Here’s what I used:

I also researched what type of guitar Mark Knopfler used (usually a red Fender Strat).  And what kind of gear he used to get the sound/tone (this was tough, but I think this article covers the tone pretty well, and this covers the strings).

You’ll also note that Mark fingerpicks (or a kind of weird hybrid finger picking thing).  This was good news for me (finally, some good news)…. I’m actually not to shabby at finger picking.  Whew!

 

Step 2: Start Learning

I already knew the song… that is to say, I could sing along to it and hum along to the solo…. still couldn’t play any of it.

Normally I would start with what I’m good at:  Chords.  I’m a better rhythm guitar player than I am a lead/soloist.

However, I took a different route.  This time, I decided to start with what I thought would be the hardest part of the song: that last crazy little fingerpicky solo.

I figured:  If I can’t play the solo… I’m not going to learn the rest of the song… Let’s get the hard part out of the way.

Here’s what I did:

  1. Watched a few videos of Mark playing the solo (both old videos and new).
  2. Watched Justin’s video.
  3. Watched this dude’s video.
  4. Tried to visually follow along by looking at tabs and watching the videos.
  5. Started playing…. SUPER SUPER SLOW.

Ok.  When I say slow, I mean super slow.  Like one-slow-note-at-a-time.  But here’s the thing:  I made sure to use the right fingers and pluck the right notes.

Don’t get me wrong though:  It was frustrating.  

It was like my brain knew where my fingers should go and what the song sounded like…. but my fingers wouldn’t cooperate.

But I persisted.

Took little 20 second breaks.

Shook out my hands.

Kept going.

It took me probably 30 minutes or so to actually feel comfortable getting my fingers to move in the correct spots.  I was starting to develop a little bit of muscle memory.

Now it was time to pick up the speed.  I kept running the riff over and over and incrementally tried to go faster.

Most guitar players and teachers would tell you to use a metronome.  I didn’t feel like it.  Probably should have… but didn’t.

After about an hour or so of this I was done for the night.  It was late.  I was sweaty and tired.

All told, I probably spent (including research time) 3 or 4 hours on this little solo (not even the whole song).  This little solo…. that last 13 SECONDS!

And I still wasn’t that good at it!

Is that crazy?

Step 3:  Expanding

I kept working.  Anytime I picked up a guitar I would run through the little solo.  I would always pay attention:  Use the correct fingers, play the correct notes.

I noticed that as the days passed I was getting better and faster.  Sometimes just taking a break and letting my fingers rest helped.

At this point I figured that the solo was in my grasp…. still not there, but I knew that I COULD do it.

It was time to expand my knowledge of this song.

This is where Justin’s video series really saved me.

I started at the first video and just took the song riff by riff.

“Sultans of Swing” is a cool song in that each verse (really each line of each verse) has it’s own unique little riff or fill.  There are some repetitions (thank God!), but over all, my job (as a stand in for Mark Knopfler) was to be able to sing and play his parts.

So I just started with the intro and worked my way through it.

Most of the song consists of those riffs with some chords thrown in… but there isn’t a whole lot of strumming going on.

I was plugging along happily through each of Justin’s videos when I came to a sudden stop and made a bad decision.

I reached the first solo of the song.

And I did something bad………

I decided to skip it and save it for later…. a decision I’d later regret.

So in the period of one evening (maybe 3-4 hours) I finished the song (minus the first solo).

I could muddle through the whole thing (minus the first solo), while reading the tab, and going relatively slowly… but you’d know that I was playing “Sultans of Swing”.  In other words… it sounded (somewhat) like the song.

Total time spent so far:   7 or 8 hours. (Over a few weeks)

Step 4: Speeding it Up and Adding Pressure

At this point, maybe three weeks had passed since I first started learning this.  My practice on this song tapered off a bit as I was focused on other guitar-related work (learning songs for my students).

I still fit some “Sultans” time in here and there… maybe 30-45 minutes a week (if that much).

After about a month of this dilly-dallying I upped my game.  Here’s how:

Every month I meet with a group of my guitar students and we have a “Band Night”  we jam and we play through songs.  There are guitars, drums, basses, percussion, and keyboards.  It’s fun.  We try to sound good but don’t take anything too seriously.

Usually, I just go with the flow and play along with whatever the rest of the band wants.   Not this time… this time I suggested we learn how to do “Sultans of Swing”.

Everyone agreed to learn their parts.

Now I had to practice.

In preparation for the next band night (about 2 weeks away) I began to focus more intently on “Sultans”.

In order to become more proficient I:

  • Listened to MULTIPLE versions of the song (studio and live)
  • I continued my practice
  • I played along with the recordings of the song
  • I played along with backing tracks (like this one)

These last two points were what really pushed me over the edge into becoming much more proficient.  Whereas previously I should have been using a metronome, this time I had the actual recording from the actual band to back me up.

Honestly, it wasn’t too difficult to keep up with the backing tracks after a few rounds of practice.   All told, I probably spent a total of 2 hours (spread over multiple) days and nights playing with the backing tracks on YouTube.

Oh… still I was skipping over that first solo.

Step 5:  Band Night and Solo Number One

So band night came around… and it was time for me to test my meddle.  I was nervous.  But so was everyone else I think.

We ran through the song a few times… each time we skipped the first solo.

We tried different speeds.

We played it 3 or 4 times.

It wasn’t too bad.

We each knew that we had some work to do… but we knew it was within our reach.

I knew I couldn’t delay the first solo any longer.

A week after our band night, I sat down for about an hour one night and learned that first solo.  I used Justin’s video.  It was easier than I thought.  I regret waiting so long to learn it.  But in the end, I was able to do it.

Next I pulled up my backing tracks on YouTube and went at it again… this time I had the full song down and it was getting easier and easier.

The song itself is about 5 Minutes and 5o Seconds long.  And I’d been working for 8 weeks.

You read that right:  8 weeks on a 6 minute song.  Is that crazy?

Oh… and it still wasn’t even near perfect.  There were notes I’d miss, bends that didn’t sound right.  Even that solo at the end could use some work to sound more clear.

Step 6: Current Progress

When the next Band Night rolled around we sounded so much better.  Still, there was room for improvement, but I was pretty happy with how we sounded.  I could have done better (still a little nervous), but I as proud of how far we’d come.

We’ve had a few more band nights where we’ve played “Sultans of Swing”.

I’ve setup my guitar with super light strings to try and get that Mark Knopfler sound (I think they work better… but it could be all in my head).

I’m still not perfect at this song.

It’s been 5 months.

I get rusty at it when I don’t practice.

Every time a band night rolls around I make sure to put in some extra time to get this song dusted off.

The only moral to this little story is that it takes a ton of time and a lot of work to learn the guitar….. Even for people (like me) who have been playing for over 20 years. 

But…. 

Despite the work, I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun and felt so rewarded from playing music.  

Totally worth it. 

I can’t say enough good things about the resources I used to learn this stuff.

A special thanks to Justin’s videos… there is no way I could have learned this song without those videos.  Here are the resources again if you want them:

 

Other Places To Find Me:

Watch my handsome face on YouTube

Like me on: Facebook (pretty please?)

Check out my Awesome Guitar Book on Amazon!

And if you’re really cool: I do online guitar lessons. Inquire about lessons by e-mailing me at jake@jakeposko.com

And if you’re SUPER AWESOME, I teach in-home guitar lessons in the Annapolis, Maryland area including: Annapolis, Edgewater, Severna Park, Pasadena, Crownsville, Arnold and Kent Island, inquire about lessons by e-mailing me at jake@jakeposko.com).

 

 

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