Don’t Learn Songs Verbatim, Says Joe Bonamassa: ’Always Put Your Spin on It’

Learning all music note-for-note isn’t what you should be doing, claims Joe Bonamassa. Of course, as he said in his recent interview with Ultimate Guitar, one exception he named was playing the Eagles’ “Hotel California” with Don Felder. But other than that, Bonamassa says that doing things “note-for-note” all the time isn’t the best idea.

“Learn it, but don’t learn it to the point where it sounds exactly the same,” said Bonamassa when asked to share a piece of advice for younger guitar players. “Always put your own spin on it. I never learned anything note for note. I didn’t see the reason why, and I still don’t.”

“I mean, yeah, if I was tasked to play the solo from ‘Hotel California’ with Don Felder, you bet your ass I’m going to learn it correctly because it’s a very specific thing.”

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However, as he added, “If you’re just learning licks off of records from your favorite players, okay, learn the gist of it, maybe learn the whole thing.” On the other hand, Joe says that you shouldn’t “just go and play it verbatim.” He continued:

“Always try to put a spin on it because all your favorite players that have their own styles generally did this exact same thing, but then put their own spin on it. And next thing you know, they have their own style, and people are learning from them.”

But, above all, Bonamassa says that you should have fun with it. After all, that’s what playing music is all about, right? He offered:

“And the other thing about guitar… And I know this is a controversial statement — have fun. It’s supposed to be fun. All this arguing and nitpicking other people and competition, people go, ‘Oh, so-and-so’s better than you’, or ‘You’re better than that.’ None of it.”

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“It’s supposed to be fun. Just play and enjoy it and say to yourself, ‘Hey listen, I am who I am, nothing better, nothing worse.'”

During the interview, Bonamassa was also asked about some of the first songs that he learned in his beginner stages and whether he learned music by ear. The blues master replied:

“I learned by ear. Back in my day, we had cassettes and vinyl. And the very first song I learned was ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ and I was about seven and I had my first communion, so I bought a wah.”

Joe Bonamassa does Hendrix~

“Because Italian kids in upstate New York, when they get their first communion, you clean up. I had like a couple hundred bucks, and I convinced my mom and dad to let me spend $65 for a Dunlop Crybaby. I don’t have the wah. I don’t know what happened to the wah, but I have a signature wah now. So it goes all the way back to my first communion.”

Extreme’s Nuno Bettencourt has a very similar stance on the matter. In an interview from earlier this year, Bettencourt mentioned how young guitar players have everything at their disposal and could even see how the songs are performed in detail by guitar players who wrote them in the first place. Nuno offered:

“That means that they can look anybody up — a Van Halen solo, Eric Clapton, Five Finger Death Punch, whatever they want. And almost learn it verbatim note for note, slow it down on YouTube, do whatever they want to do, see the guys show you, maybe even see the actual guitar player show you.”

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“It’s great until it’s not great. What do I mean by that? Meaning that I would have loved to have that when I was 15, 16, 17, 18. But at the same time, I had the archaic version that was like, ‘Oh my God, you got a take a needle off an album,’ put the first riff down for ‘Runnin’ with the Devil,’ and hope that I remembered exactly what I played and grab the guitar and do just that little bit. And then go back and forth, go back and forth, go back and forth.”

“But, by the time I learned what I thought ‘Mean Street’ was, I realized that… I believed that I was playing it just like Edward. And I discovered later that I was playing it in a different part of the guitar, I was playing the notes in different octaves, different area. I didn’t see exactly how we did it. I didn’t know what amp was used. I didn’t know what was going on.”

He also added:

“But the good news was that it allowed me to interpret my version of Edward, my version of Brian May, my version of Led Zeppelin, of what was going on. And later, when you saw it live, you’re like, ‘Oh my god, I wasn’t even in the same stratosphere.'”

“But that was the good news. The good news made you play Jimmy Page the way you play Jimmy Page, not the way Jimmy Page is showing you exactly. And I think it’s super important that guitar players are very careful that they don’t get taught so much.”

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Photo: Alberto Cabello (Joe Bonamassa (Black Country Communion) – 5880505158)

  • David Slavkovic

    David always planned for music to be nothing more than a hobby. However, after a short career as an agricultural engineer he ended up news editor at KillerGuitarRigs, senior editor at, as well as a freelance contributor to online magazines such as GuitaristNextdoor and brands like Sam Ash.