Over the years I’ve tried various methods to learn songs. I’ve concluded that there isn’t a “best” method to follow. Your approach to learning a song will depend on how much time you have and how accurately you wish to learn the song.
I’ve come up with 7 tips that I follow to help me learn songs on guitar. They are:
- Set your goals
- Find tools to help you
- Identify the song’s core elements
- Learn the chord progression
- Learn the lead guitar part
- Record yourself
- Perform the song
#1 Set your goals
After you pick the song you’re going to learn, establish your goals.
Will you learn both the rhythm and lead guitar parts? Will you learn the parts exactly as they are on the original recording? Or will you get to a “good-enough” state so that you can play along with the song? Are you going to learn the vocal part as well?
Consider how much time you’re willing to spend learning the song. For example if you’re short on time, learning the parts exactly as they are on the recording may not be an option.
Setting your goals in advance will help you pursue the right strategies for learning the song in the most effective way.
#2 Find tools to help you
For many well-known songs, you’ll have multiple tools to choose from to help you learn the song. First, get a good recording of the song that you can play on repeat. I typically use Spotify or YouTube.
The most commonly used tool is a guitar tab. Googling “song title tab” will present you with multiple results of different tabs for the song. You can also search for “song title chords” to get results containing the lyrics and chords for the song. This is a great tool if you need a quick start on playing the song. Check out my beginner’s guide to guitar tab symbols post for an introduction.
YouTube is a great option if you’re looking for a tutorial lesson on how to play the song. Search for “song title guitar tutorial” or “song title guitar lesson”. The results will have a guitarist who will walk you through each part of the song and demonstrate how to play it. In some cases I’ve found the original guitarist had recorded a lesson teaching you how to play his song. For example, here is Alex Lifeson, the guitarist of the band Rush teaching you how to play “Tom Sawyer”.
If you can’t find a lesson, see if you can find a video of the guitarist performing the song. Or try to find a video of another guitarist covering the song. This can be useful as you learn how to play the song. Sometimes just seeing what area of the guitar a part is played in can be tremendously helpful.
Pro tip: Use YouTube’s playback speed setting to slow down any video. I’ll often set the playback speed to 0.5 or 0.25 whenever I’m learning a guitar solo that has fast moving parts.
If you can’t find a guitar tab or a YouTube video, or if you’re looking to improve your musical ear, consider learning the song by ear! This means listening to the song and figuring out the guitar parts on your own. This has tremendous benefits by training your ear to hear different chords and notes, and learning to play them back on the guitar. This method has a large learning curve, and it will take time to develop your ear. You’ll also risk playing the guitar part in a different way than the original guitarist played it (but this could be considered a benefit as it will help develop your unique style!).
I often will use multiple tools when learning a song. I may start by learning the chord progression by ear, and then supplement with a guitar tab or video lesson on YouTube to help me learn the trickier parts of the song.
#3 Identify the song’s core elements
When learning a song, start by identifying the song’s core elements. This includes figuring out the song key and the time signature. Most popular songs will be in 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8 time.
Next, slice up the song into its different sections. Sections may include: intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, outro. You’ll now have the core elements of the song and are ready to start learning the chords.
#4 Learn the chord progression
Learning a song’s chord progression will set the foundation for playing the song. Pick a section of the song and learn the chord progression. You can learn the song sequentially by starting from the intro, or start by learning the chorus or a verse.
After you know the chords for a given section, see if you need to adjust any of the chord shapes you are using. For example there are many ways to play a G major chord on the guitar. And if you are striving to play the song close to the original recording, you may need to try a few different variations of chord fingerings to find the one that matches the recording. This is where watching a video of the song being played can help, as you’ll see how the guitarist is playing a particular chord.
As you start to learn the chords for the different sections, I recommend creating a quick reference chord progression doc in order to remember the chords. You can see an example of this in my Easy Guitar Songs post. Having this chord reference doc as I learn the song helps me memorize the different parts and chord progressions in the song.
After you have the chords for all the sections, practice playing along with the song! I personally set the song to play on repeat on Spotify and play along to it.
#5 Learn the lead guitar part
Learning the lead guitar part is optional, but it depends on your goals.
Consider how important it is to your goals with this song to learn the lead guitar part. For example, in the song “Faithfully” by Journey, the outro solo is an iconic solo that is an important part of the song. So if you’re learning the song on electric guitar to play with your band, you’ll want to consider learning the lead guitar part. But if you’re learning the song on acoustic guitar to play at a campfire, the lead guitar part is less important in that setting.
If you do wish to learn the lead guitar part, decide on if you want to learn the part exactly as the original guitarist played it, or play it with your own embellishments. Using “Faithfully” again, I play about 75% of the solo note-for-note to the original recording, the remaining 25% (the fast bits of the solo) I improvise where it sounds “close-enough” to the original.
And as previously mentioned, take advantage of YouTube’s playback speed setting to slow down lead guitar parts! This will help you identify the notes being played. Alternatively find a guitar tab that maps it out for you.
#6 Record yourself
After you get comfortable playing through the entire song, record yourself so that you can hear how it sounds.
The easiest way to record is to use your smartphone. On the iPhone I use the “Voice Memos” app to record myself playing. In the recording pay attention to your timing and the chords. Are there any sections that sound off? Make note of these sections and revisit them to fix any issues.
#7 Perform the song
Finally you reach the point that got you started to play the guitar, the point where you can play for others!
Whether it’s to a family member or friend, perform the song in front of others. It’s the best test on if you have learned the song or not. This is the equivalent to teaching someone else a concept in order to validate your understanding of that concept. If you can teach it, then you know it. And thus if you can perform the song, you know the song!