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How to *Really* Learn a Riff: Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog"

How to practice this classic rock riff on guitar for the fastest results!

Timing, bending, semiquavers and more!

In this blog post and accompanying video I run through the standard problems that crop up regularly when working through the guitar riff from Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" with students in lessons.

There's a big difference between memorising the notes that make up a guitar part and *really* getting them learned. You'll know that already if you've ever tried playing something that's weak in front of other people. My recommended method shows you how to make things strong enough to hold up in any situation!

Here's the video ...

Black Dog Lesson - Timing and more!

Click to play

The issues raised in the video are not only relevant to this particular riff but have to relate to just about anything you'll ever play. Strengthen your skills on this song and see them strengthen for everything else too! We're not just learning another lick, we're gaining *real* improvement!

Two sections

Today's challenge includes the two main (strongly related) sections from Black Dog. I usually call them the "A section" and the "E section" referring to the chords each fits over. The "A section" is covered to some depth in the video, and more so in the coaching sheets provided to subscribers in the appendix of my free Crash Course in Taplature. Below I'll be concentrating mainly on the notorious "E section" which gave me the most trouble for the longest time!

Overthinking things?

If you Google "black dog strange timing" (click to view) you'll find quite a lot of discussion of this section and it can appear very complex. Without doubt the easy way to learn the riff is to view the whole thing as a straight 4 count! If you want to think of it differently once you have it learned that's up to you, but I'd say it's first necessary to understand it as suggested here.

Bash for cash!

While at university back in the mid 1980s I was challenged by a guitar playing friend that I couldn't play this "E section". At that point I agreed he was right but accepted a bet to learn it by the next afternoon. The amount staked was £10, a sizeable sum for an impoverished student back then so the pressure was on!

Disappointed to find that I could make zero sense of the timing, I set about repeating the notes parrot fashion hoping to etch it in well enough to stand up under examination. By the next afternoon following at least 6 hours of brute force repetition I felt ready. When my friend came to test me out he was more than a little surprised to find me playing it with apparently no problem, but good to his word he paid up. I knew I'd got away with it, but wasn't quite sure how!

What had I learned?

I won the money, but felt no other benefit from the time and effort I'd put in on this riff. Soon afterward I'd lost the ability to play it (the way I'd learned it makes for a very short term "fix") and 10 years later when this started coming up in lessons I realised I still had no idea as to its structure and was thoroughly unable to explain it to others.

One day I made the effort to sit with a slowed recording and finally made the sense of it which I'm outlining here; however it wasn't until I began using Taplature in lessons that I found I was able to get others doing it too!

Building blocks!

As ever the Taplature approach is to chop things down into bite sized pieces and learn them well before building them into the whole. When practiced as recommended, with the foot tap and out loud count as the foundation, things become properly absorbed into the correct part of the brain so that they stick strongly ... forever! What's more, they become "vocabulary" you'll find you now understand how to use in other situations!

The accompanying video (at 11:20) shows the four lines making up the "E section". Once you can play each in isolation, looping back into itself, you can begin bolting them together. If the whole feels too complex try pairing line 1 with line 2 as a loop, then line 3 with line 4 as a loop before finally putting these two halves together to make the full four lines; however to get the rock solid understanding we're after, it's essential to examine each from different angles like so ...

"Leading in"

I talk in the video about the "lead in" or "pickup" taking us to beat one of the "A section". The technical term for this is "anacrusis".

In the video at (03:10) I demonstrate the following loop.

black dog 1st line loop timing

"A Section" - Line 1

Here we've taken the anacrusis (ringed in red) that leads into line 1 and put it in place of the last three 8th notes of line 1. This basic idea allows us to create any number of relevant loops and is a powerful way of gaining the focus we need to absorb patterns deeply, getting to know how everything fits together inside and out!

We can use this approach with any piece of music to examine the "links" that glue each line into the next, giving a greater level of insight into how things fit together and therefore a higher measure of mental strength!

All angles covered!

I've added plenty of examples of this way of twisting and turning lines to dig deeper in the free Black Dog coaching sheets available to all subscribers of the Taplature blog.

black dog timing coaching sheets

These free coaching sheets break things down further and let you

track your progress as well as offering further advice.

Watch yourself improve!

Once you can play all the examples in the coaching sheets you'll know the tricky bits of both sections like the back of your hand meaning that when it's time to perform, they'll flow out easily!


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