You want to be able to play your favorite song, but how do you get started at it? There are so many elements to it. Logically, you start at the beginning and work your way towards the end, but is this really the best method?
It’s one thing to learn a part of a song, the intro seems to be the most popular, but learning an entire song from beginning to end correctly is something entirely different.
So how do you do it? How do you learn songs on a guitar? I’ve broken the process down in four simple phases, that will hopefully help you master any song you like.
How to learn songs on a guitar
Phase One – Listening
This is the part where you listen to the song and get to know it, not as a guitarist but as a listener. You’ll get a better feel of how the song is structured, what the lyrics are, what the guitar sound is like…
This is a very obvious phase, but I think it’s an extremely important one. In essence, it’s the exploration phase, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the part where you get emotionally invested in the song. As a listener, as a fan, you’ll have a much bigger grasp of what the song is all about. You get what parts are supposed to stand out, which parts are supposed to move the audience.
If you’re trying to learn one of your favorite songs, you’ve been in this phase for a long time. If you’ve been listening to Shallow by Lady Gaga on a daily basis ever since A Star Is Born came out, you won’t need to spend much time in this phase anymore. You probably know all the parts already. You know what the intro sounds like, how the song evolves. You know Bradley Cooper’s parts, Lady Gaga’s part, the part where the drums kick in, the big build-up in the bridge and the bombastic ending.
If somebody would be to learn that song without having heard it first, or if they’d heard it a minimal amount of times, they might miss all those things. They might not get why it’s so important to make that ending as big as possible. They’d just play the chords without the intensity needed, and any fan of the real version would be dissatisfied with that version.
You’re not going to be emotionally invested in every song you’re going to learn at first, especially if you’re in music school and your teacher is making you learn songs. But many repeated listens will at least make you “get” it.
Phase Two – Gather Information
Phase one was just listening. In this phase, we’ll start preparing ourselves. We’ll start asking ourselves some important questions: What, how, when, where, etc…?
-What is the song structure of the song?
-What is the key signature of the song?
-What is the time signature of the song?
-What gear do I need? Do I need a capo, do I need a guitar pick, etc…?
-How am I going to learn this song?
-Where am I going to look for information?
-When am I going to practice?
Some of these questions are musical, others are more practical. Some of them seem really obvious, and others seem redundant. It’s good to ask yourself these questions, or at least be aware of questions like this.
In phase three and four, we’re going to actually practice. And that’s what we want to focus on during those phases. We don’t want to get distracted because we need to look up information we could’ve already have.
So write these things down or save them on your computer. If you have found some great tablatures or chord sheets, save them in an individual tab on your computer. If you’ve found a great YouTube video about the song, save it in that tab as well.
Lastly, I advise you to write down the structure of the song. These are all sections that you’re going to learn. Having an overview of what you’re going to learn will be of great help. Songs are often structured the same way. There are many repeating parts. Here’s an example of a typical song structure:
After you’ve finished a part, cross it off. It will be rewarding to not only hear your progress but also see it.
Phase Three – Learning Globally
This is the part where you actually pick up your guitar. But instead of trying to nail that fingerpicking intro, let’s take a step back first.
Let’s first see what the chords are. Don’t worry about all the extra techniques that are being used. Just try to understand the song globally first. This is really a practical extension of the previous phase. What are the chords being used in each section? Do you know these chords? Maybe focus on learning those chords first, before you try to learn the entire song?
I think people often start in phase four, where you start to learn exactly what the artist is playing. And I agree that’s the ultimate goal. But that’s exactly it… It’s a goal, not a starting point. How often do people attempt an intro, and give up in the first verse because it simply seems to hard?
Learning the chords first is already a big accomplishment. You’re playing the song. Just a basic version of it. Anything after is refinement.
Phase four – Details
Now that we know the song globally, we can start focusing on the details.
This is the part that will require the most time, the most effort and the most repetition. But, this phase will go a lot smoother if we’ve done the other three phases first. You know what you’re learning, you know what it means in the context of the song, you know exactly where you are in the process of learning the song, etc…
So let’s say we’ve just learned the song globally. We know all the chords, we can strum along just fine. What now? Where do we start?
The intro seems like an obvious place to start, and often that indeed is the case. But why not change it up a little? I think learning the section that repeats the most often is a lot more rewarding. Being able to cross of “chorus 1, 2 and 3” is a lot more rewarding than crossing off “intro”.
Maybe there’s a fingerpicking pattern that repeats itself throughout all the verses. That’s a great place to start as well.
When you learn this fingerpicking pattern, don’t just directly learn it note by note. Consider this piece as an isolated composition. What are the chords again? Which notes are played on the beat? Which notes are played between the beats? What is the bass note?
Try to play it as minimalistic as possible. Try to discover the skeleton of a piece. Then build it up. Start adding all the little fills and frills, that make it seem complicated.
It’s like a video game. It starts easy and with every level, it gets a little harder. Slowly, you build up a skill set. If you ignore the first nine levels of a video game and start at the last level in order to finish the game faster, you will most likely fail. It will be frustrating, confusing and demotivating.
So next time you learn a new song, keep this article in mind. Start simple. Take your time. Don’t be ahead of yourself. If it doesn’t work, try a different approach. Ask for help. There are hundreds if not thousands of people online dedicated to helping beginning guitarists, myself included.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them below. I’ll be here.