Learn Songs on Guitar Quickly (and Well)

Andy | April 16, 2015 | 8 Comments

Roy Fulton - Learn Songs on GuitarAs a guitarist who plays with more one than one band, also playing with a variety of artists and constantly learning ‘new’ material, one of the subjects that comes up time and time again is learning new songs. Here is the process that I use to learn songs on guitar. This has served me well over the years and continues to work for me.

Listen

The first thing I do before even going near the guitar is get the song(s) onto a CD, iPod etc. so that I can constantly play it in the car, house or anywhere I can listen to it. Before you can play the song, it helps if you know the song! Such an obvious statement, I know, but it’s definitely the starting place for me. I simply listen to the song. Many, many times!

I do this not with the intention of learning it, but more as a process of just absorbing it and hearing it time and time again, so that it starts to sink in naturally. How many great songs can you recite lyrics, verses, choruses etc. to, or even sing every note of the guitar solo or intro? This happened not because you intentionally ‘learnt’ them, but because you listened to and enjoyed them, time and time again, until they became imprinted in your musical brain.

Tip: When I’m in my music room, I don’t allow myself to listen to any unrelated songs whilst I am endeavouring to learn new material. The only songs I will press play on are those that I am trying to learn.

Create a Song Chart …

After enough casual listens it’s time to get more focused and to start looking at the structure of the song. I’ll normally write this out. A typical chart structure might look like this:

Intro – Verse 1 – Verse 2 – Chorus – Verse 3 – Chorus – Solo – Chorus – Outro etc.

By writing it out, I find it so much easier to understand and follow the structure of the song. This helps me to remember what comes when etc.
Again such an obvious thing, but it that means when you are actually playing the song, you don’t have to start thinking ‘what comes next?’ This frees you up to concentrate on your actual guitar playing.

… and a Chord Chart

OK, now that we know the song’s format, it’s time to work out the key and the various chords that are used. Again, I’ll write out a chart. (We do a similar type of thing in the recording studio as well, but we’ll leave that for another time.) Writing out a chord chart helps me to get a real sense of the overall structure, but in chord form. Then I’ll look at either the actual voicings used in the recording or come up with alternative chord changes of my own, if the situation allows for it. This way, I can find the best route from the intro to the outro. Then it’s time to SLOWLY practice the changes, concentrating on any problem chords or chord changes etc.

Learn Songs on Guitar with Chord Charts

I’ll initially walk through the chord changes, allowing my fingers a chance to get familiar with all the various voicings. Never at this stage do I attempt to play along with the original. At this point I am simply making sure I know what I’m meant to be playing, albeit at a slower pace.

Chord Chart

Learn Rhythms Gradually

Once I have mastered all the chords and changes, I’ll start practicing along with the music. But initially I won’t attempt to strum along with the song in its entirety. Instead, I’ll aim to strum on the ‘one’, the first beat of every bar. This again gives my brain and fingers a chance to start putting everything together, but in a relaxed manner and in a process of natural growth … and not in a panic. Once I’ve done this a few times, I’ll start to listen for the rhythm pattern(s) being used and then, if need be, stop the song and work on any complex rhythms etc.

Then I’ll go back to playing along on the ‘one’ of every bar, but now, start to fill in the blanks. I’ll start playing over all the bars and gradually build this up until I’m playing the song in its entirety.

Practice

Now that I know the song, its structure, the chords (and any awkward chord changes), and the rhythm pattern(s) involved, well, it’s a bit like riding a bike from here on. I simply play it over and over repeatedly with the chart still in front of me. The more times I do it, the less reliant on the chart I become, until I can remember all the various parts etc. without having to look at it. Lots of practice is the key. Lots and lots of practice! Having said that, sooner than you’d imagine, your musical brain, hands and ears all start to function in a combined and natural way and everything starts to take shape, of its own accord.

Summary

We don’t all learn at the same pace or in the same way, so this method of learning new songs might not suit everybody, but it has worked for me over many years. Having learnt hundreds of songs, I have found this to be the easiest and most efficient way (for myself at least) when it comes to learning new material.

Roy Fulton
www.royfulton.com

Category: Tricks & Techniques

Comments (8)

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  1. JoJo Wats says:

    Man, I do the same thing! I listen to the song until it’s in me!
    Then write out the lyrics with chord changes
    Then practice it and make parts my own
    But basically it’s all about passion and practice!

  2. Mickey says:

    Always had trouble with remembering the different licks (fills) which followed different lines of a song especially if the song had numerous licks. This simple song chart allows me to play the correct fills as played in the song. It has been a BIG help.

  3. Roy Fulton says:

    George – No problem. I already have some lessons planned on rhythm guitar and developing rhythms planned for the future. Watch this space…

    David – Yes, hearing oneself on playback is the cold hard truth and the results can be quite daunting, but definitely a worthwhile process on the learning curve.

    Larry – Good idea! An article on Chord Progressions could be very useful to many a guitarist. I’ll get on the ball…

    Tom C – Good to know, we’re all coming from the same place on this. LOL

    Tom – All good stuff and sounds like your on the ball with it all.

    cheers
    roy

  4. Tom says:

    Great to read this…my 1st teacher taught me this “method” some 35+ years ago. I refined it to the point where I made a blank song chart that I could print out and bring with me for any on the spot stuff. I even “taught” (more like passed on) the basic concept to the singer I worked with (who played keys) so we could work on her new songs out of the gate without me having to ask (or guess) what the chords were/are.

    I also use this method for my own songs so when I’m auditioning anybody for a project I can send them the audio and the chart (seems like such a simple process but so many people don’t do this).

    Based on a couple of other comments here you can make your own notations on the rhythms and/or comments using standard musical notation or something of your own to indicate what’s going on. Whatever is relevant to your understanding of the tune…it’s your chart right?

    I would suggest, and this is what my 1st teacher had me do, to any and all just apply this to a song you want to learn. Do it by ear, don’t look at an online TAB/Chart or a video, go old school all the way.

    I should further note that when I learn tunes now I often use Audacity (a freeware program so I’m not plugging here!) for listening/breaking down nd charting tunes. Once you import a song you can slow it down, loop a section (even change the key), remove (most of) the vocals, pan hard L or R and use EQ/Filters to center in on things to get those “little bits”.

    The object, if you will, is to develop your ear as well as your style and be able to communicate with other musicians.

  5. Tom Copeland says:

    Hi,

    I found your song learning process very interesting. At 58 years old I myself have been playing for about 7 years. I have a catalog of music in my brain that like you say, has been “burned in there ” from all my years of listening and singing them. I pretty much make a CD of a song I want to learn, play it a million times and sing to it, and load it into some form of slow down player, albeit be Guitar tux, guitar pro or some other device. Then I find different versions of written materials and play some chords from the song to get with a KEY, that I thinks SOUNDS correct.
    Next steps fall directly in line with your thinking, about the learning process. Thanks for the advice now I know I’m on the right track. I will check out royfulton.com and love Guitar coach!! LOL

  6. Larry says:

    Great article – although in my case I don’t think I would use “quickly” to describe the process – lol.

    However a question popped into my head along the way – do you have an article, or perhaps an idea for a future article for those of us who write lyrics and want to create a progression of chords to match the “tune” we hear in our heads.

    I’d love to be able to give some lyrics to the front men I know and already have a progression for verses and changes. Rather than trying to “hum a few bars” in my really bad karaoke voice.

    Thanks – keep up the good work.

    LT

  7. David says:

    I do this and it works really well. The final stage for me is more how I accelerate the practice. I often film a lesson of the song. Not to post on YouTube but filming it soon uncovers the bits I cannot explain or demonstrate which means I don’t know it well enough

  8. george says:

    Very interesting and exciting that one feels they are straight away going to do it.
    If you could also elaborate on the rhythms I could be very grateful.

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