Just Like The Record

I’m on the laptop, flipping through websites, doing transcriptions, whatever.

I go to Facebook. The first post I see is a fairly typical one: the artist is looking for a drummer, with details on how much it pays, and the dates.

Then, at the bottom in all caps: “MUST PLAY THE SONGS EXACTLY LIKE THE RECORD.”

There’s a significant problem going on right now in people’s ability to think creatively and to solve problems.

This is across all ages.

The issue is that people are now expected to memorize things verbatim.

To my memory, this started when I was in elementary school. Everyone my age knows what I’m talking about.

We were all expected to go to school and memorize for the standardized tests at the end of the semester. Somehow, this bled into older generations way of thinking.

At first this seemed really cool. Who wouldn’t want to have an infinite amount of knowledge in our heads, and be able to regurgitate it at will? Any question the teacher had, we would have an answer! Any time we were arguing with our friends, we’d be able to accurately smack them down with facts and figures, all stored in our heads!

That’s not how it worked.

The skills that were learned were memorization of facts for a short period of time. That’s all.

The problem with this method of learning is that as soon as the test was over, the subject was never revisited. And once you move on to the next test, the information was forgotten.

There was never any learning about what the information actually meant. There was only ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, and ‘where’, there was no ‘why’ or ‘how’. Unfortunately, when you learn this way, you really don’t learn anything at all. You just become a blank screen for other people to project their thoughts onto.

Before we go any further, I’m going to define what “memorize the record exactly” means to me. This is based on experience with artists and managers.

What is meant by that is to memorize, note-for-note, every fill, drum beat, hit, cymbal crash, guitar solo, harmony, texture, bass line, hi-hat pattern – I could go on forever.

Here’s my issue.

When you memorize, you have no room for flexibility. I absolutely agree that you have to know where the hits are, what the chords are, what the overall feel of the music is, etc. But to memorize a record verbatim leaves no room for flow. You can’t think about the music at all. You have to be so focused on executing the part perfectly that you miss entirely what music actually is.

When you’re in the act of creating music – whether in the studio, on stage, whatever – you have to be able to hear the music and react. You have to flow.

That doesn’t mean you wildly play whatever you feel like playing. That’s where studying the subtleties of the music and understanding the context of the musical situation comes in.

I’ve been in situations before where a hired guitarist was asked to play something different than what’s on the record. I watched him literally – and I do mean literally – break down in tears over not understanding what the artist meant.

It’s not that he wasn’t a great player. It was that the only skill he ever learned was muscle-memory of scales and patterns. To extend a solo was madness to him.

I want to make one thing clear.

I am a big fan of transcribing small phrases out and learning exactly what is being played. It adds to your overall vocabulary. It deepens your understanding of the music. You really start to understand why the musicians played what they played, the thought process behind every beat, solo, fill, harmony, chord.

However, at the end of the day, I learn the overall ideas and patterns of the songs, and then leave the rest up to my musical knowledge.

Essentially: learn the big picture. Don’t memorize. Use your head and think creatively.

Ah, yes, I can already hear what scores of managers/producers/artists/music critics are saying:

“He just said don’t memorize the record! He can’t play!”

“If I hire him, he’s just going to drum vomit all over my songs! I can’t use him!”

“Where’s the groove? He can’t play the record!”


I get it. I know that you want consistency. That all the anxiety over not playing exactly the record stems from a deep love of the music. You’ve probably dealt with crappy musicians who didn’t bother to learn the music for most of your career. Throwing on top of that the daily stress of playing music for a living – dealing with managers, dealing with artists, dealing with shady venues, trying to get the sound guy to just do his job and not be a pain in the ass – it can drive someone nuts. It can make you say and do things you normally would never do. Demanding memorization is the one area of music you have complete control over, so why wouldn’t you exercise that control?

If you want note-for-note execution every time, hire a laptop. I hear they’re much more reliable.

I won’t sit here and say that I can play something perfectly every time. I can get it remarkably close, but not every time. No musician alive or dead can do that. Whether or not you want to accept it, everyone makes mistakes. I can pull up dozens of records with the greatest drummers in history making “mistakes”.

The difference between a good musician and a great musician is someone who knows the record like the back of their hand, but can think creatively around it. It comes from a deep understanding of musical contexts and history.

The big picture is all that matters. The subtleties and details are up to you.



Aldous Huxley, “Brave New World”

Keith Carlock, “The Big Picture” DVD

Wayne Krantz, “The Improvisers OS”

Irène Deliège and Geraint Wiggins, “Musical Creativity”

Mayahan Sutras, “Lankavatra”


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