Maybe you’ve been playing for awhile. You’ve got some chords and scales under your fingers. You’ve been playing your exercises diligently. But then you realize that you’ve yet to learn a whole song! Something you know and love and can play for your friends!
Let’s dig into the process of how to learn a whole song on guitar. Some of these steps may be changed or altered depending on what kind of song you’re learning. There’s a big difference between Andres Segovia and Green Day. But the basics should work across the board.
A couple of caveats…
– You may find that once you’ve learned a song it’s not that interesting to play the guitar part by itself. There’s a reason that bands have additional instruments in them. None of the individual parts are super exciting on their own. It’s the sum of the parts that makes the song great. To truly feel how the part meshes with the rest of the song, play along with a recording of the tune. Or better yet, find some friends who play other instruments and jam it with them.
Solo guitar pieces (like the video below) are meant to be played on their own and can be more enjoyable in that format.
-. When you first start playing a song at a slower tempo, it may not sound like what you’re expecting. Along with the correct notes and rhythm, the tempo can make a big difference in the feel of the song. Once you’re able to speed it up it will sound more like the song you’re expecting.
– By the time you finish learning the song, you may hate it. If it’s a tune that takes you a long time to learn and yields a lot of frustration along the way, you may be sick of the song by the time you’ve got it down. That’s normal. Go on to some other songs and come back to it after awhile. You’ll be able to rediscover the joy of it then.
Tools You Need:
Best: An official transcription of the song in full notation (maybe from a magazine or something you’ve purchased), a recording of the song (that matches the transcription), and a metronome.
Not as good, but workable: An amateur transcription of the song in full notation (ie. a Guitar Pro file), plus the recording and metronome.
Least useful: An amateur tab transcription or chord chart plus recording and metronome.
Videos can be handy too. Use them in conjunction with the other resources for maximum benefit.
Step 1: Break the song down into sections. Basic pop song format is:
Some song will have more sections, some less. But you’ll always find that repetition in there. You want to learn one section at a time and you’ll be able to mostly reuse that each time that section comes around.
Step 2: Figure out what the important notes are. Just looking at the notation, it looks like every note is of equal importance. Not true. Some notes hold the skeletal structure of the riffs together, others are embellishments that are decorative but not vital.
The proportion will depend on the song and the guitarist. For instance, if you’re learning a Metallica song, just about every note is there for a reason and the guitar parts lock tightly with the drums and bass. There’s not much room for leaving stuff out. On the other side, if you’re playing a Jimi Hendrix song, the exact performance can change slightly every time. You should learn the main riffs and make sure the groove is good. But the embellishments can change. Even Jimi played the songs a little differently each time.
A good way to find out which notes matter is by listening to the recording and following along with your eyes on the sheet music. If you see a part on the page that is barely audible on the recording, it’s probably not as important.
Keep in mind, I’m not telling you to learn a song half-ass. This technique is used to simplify a piece to make it easier to learn. Then you can add the decorations later. It actually mimics the way songs are written as well.
Step 3: Look for repetition within the sections. For instance, many verses are 4 or 8 bars, repeated a couple of times. If you have chord symbols, look for repeating sets of chords. We’re breaking the song down to it’s most basic parts so as to eliminate extra work.
Step 4: Learn the important riffs, chord, and structures, just like you would anything else you’re working on. Use your metronome to slowly bring them up to speed. Always feel free to play the sections you’ve learned along with the recording to see how they mesh with the other parts.
Step 5: Write out a rehearsal arrangement. This is a shorthand list of the riffs and how many times to play each one. It may look like this:
Intro (verse riff 2x)
Verse riff 4x
Pre-Chorus riff 2x
Chorus riff 8x
By doing this you can avoid flipping pages and such while you’re trying to play. Yes, that involves memorizing each of the riffs, but if you’ve practiced it to the point of being able to play up to speed with the recording, you’ll pretty much have it memorized already.
Step 6: Work on your endurance. Up until now you’ve just been playing sections by themselves. Now you want to start putting them together. Try just a verse and chorus at first. Then start building the other sections on. Playing a complete song demands total focus. Don’t let your mind wander off.
As you do this step, you’ll start to notice that some of the transitions between sections are fuzzy. Go back to your sheet music and see how the artist smoothed those transitions. This is where you start to put some of those less important notes back in.
By this point you will have learned the whole song. If you skipped over little bits you can work on putting those back in. Or, if it’s the right kind of song, working out your own embellishments.
The main idea that you don’t have to learn a song note for note from beginning to end. Learn the basic riffs first. Then start putting in the transitions and embellishments to fill it out. By doing this you’ll be able to learn the song quicker and with less frustration.
If you have questions about any of this, drop a comment below!
Learning songs by ear goes faster when you can identify intervals. Click here for tips on how to learn intervals by ear.
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