Most of the time, we learn guitar because we want to play songs we have listened to, the songs we love. Playing those songs gives us a way to connect to the music that has been a significant part of our lives, on a much deeper level.
Learning those songs also allows us to connect to others, by playing the songs together. Every guitar player gets a kick from jamming their favourite songs with their friends.
Sometimes, beginners have a lot of trouble learning their first song all the way through.
Why is my opinion on this subject worth listening to?
In 2017 I performed two of Bach’s cello suites from memory. Now I got kinda nervous and didn’t do a great job of performing them (it was ok, but not great), but – I did have them effectively memorised. The two suites were around 7000 notes in total.
I had to develop a strategy and a set of tools to memorise all those notes.
I’ll cover all of them for you in this article.
The biggest obstacle when learning a song is uncertainty
You aren’t sure if the results you are getting are typical. Surely everyone else learns faster than you, right?
It’s easy to find some way to justify why we are struggling. How much data do you really have, to be able to know if other people learn faster than you? Have you looked at their practice routine and habits? Probably not.
Annoyingly, and I do not know why, some people will lie to you about how long it takes them to learn songs. Who knows why. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you find a way to learn these songs.
You need to have the right expectations about yourself – not in a negative way, just a realistic way.
I’ve laid out those expectations for you.
It’s very easy to worry, get frustrated, get annoyed etc. I still do.
When I get annoyed memorising something, I swear, throw a 10 second hissy fit then laugh, clear my mind completely, and get back to business – back to focus.
Indulge the ridiculous emotion. Ridicule the ridiculous emotion. Set aside the ridiculous emotion. Get back on it.
All these steps can be applied to learning guitar in general. For example, if you want to learn how to sweep pick, applying these concepts (especially the mental attitudes) will help you a lot.
As a side note: This assumes you have the level of technique necessary to play the song you want. If you are a beginner and you want to play the entirety of Metallica’s Ride the Lightning album… well, you are going to need another year or two of practice at least!
A technically accurate, but less catchy name, for this article would be “how to learn any song on guitar, that is within your ability level”.
12 steps to learn any song on guitar
1. Don’t worry about it
We are plagued by worrying – I’m just as guilty as anyone. We worry about this. We worry about that. “What if this” and “what if that” take control of our mind.
We are trying to learn a song. Imagine that learning a song is like taking your car from stand still, and accelerating to 100 mph.
If during that acceleration, you stalled… it’s going to take you a lot longer to reach 100mph than if you just accelerated in a straight line, right?
Worrying is like stalling for your ability to learn / do / progress at anything.
So if you are worrying about your ability to learn a song, worrying if the song will suck when you play it, worrying if people will laugh at you… stop.
Every time you worry, pinch yourself. You will build a neural association between physical pain and worrying – which will help you stop.
Another tool to stop worrying, is every time you catch yourself worrying, say out loud “it’s just a song – who cares??”. Then laugh – have an audible giggle, and get back to business.
2. You’re going to mess up – expect it
It isn’t a reflection of your value as a human, it’s a fact about being human.
We learn by making mistakes. I read a book a while ago that said something along the lines of, before you can learn to do something, your body has to learn all the ways of not doing it.
You’re going to make mistakes through the process of learning a song. It’s not a big deal. I mean… if you didn’t make mistakes, that would imply you already know the song… which you don’t!
Yes we want to play it perfectly and that is the goal. But we move there one mistake at a time.
Making a mistake isn’t a value judgement on you as a person, your worth, or your ability as a guitar player. It just means you have some more practice to do.
So you better get to it!
3. Give yourself too much time
It’s easy to over-estimate what we can do short term, and under-estimate what we can do long term.
So give yourself a big time frame, and allocate an amount of time each day, every day, that you are going to work on this, for the duration of that time frame.
For example, a good approach for starting, would be to say you will do 30 minutes, twice a day, every day; for 60 days.
We want to on purposely choose a time frame that is probably a bit too long.
Under commit and you end up with nothing.
Over commit and you will be able to play that song!
4. Create some sort of accountability to stick to your daily time commitment
You could have a paper and pen journal where you put short notes on what you do, have a blog, or run a YouTube series. I’m currently learning The Lark Ascending on guitar, so to keep my 1 hour a day time commitment, I’m videoing my practice session and uploading them to YouTube (well, most of the time).
Put “Learning to play SONGNAME vlog” in the title if you put it on YouTube. This gives you free reign to make as many mistakes as you need to 🙂
Another way would be to find a friend who wants to learn a song. Send each other a text each day to say you’ve done your 2 x 30 minutes, or something like that.
5. Understand the structure of the song
Music has structure. The song you are learning will have different components (or, ‘structural elements’), for example:
- Chorus B
If you look at the entire song on a “note by note”, or even “riff by riff” basis, you give yourself a phenomenal amount of information to memorise.
Instead, you want to think of the song as sections.
Grab a pencil and paper, listen through to the song, and physically write out the sections.
Then, work on memorising this structure.
Physically write it out 50 times in a row and you will memorise it pretty fast.
This is going to help your brain organise all the parts of the song that you are learning.
6. Understand the riffs involved in each element of the song
Usually each structural piece (chorus, verse etc) has a riff, that is repeated a certain amount of times. Maybe a couple of riffs.
You have to get your head around the riffs in each structural element. Open the tab for the song, and listen to the studio version of the song, reading through the tab while the song plays, so that you can identify where the riffs are in each structural element.
You will probably find each structural element contains one riff repeated 4 times, 8 times or something like that.
So next to the structural element on your page, write down:
Verse: Riff 1 x4, Riff 2 x4
Chorus: Riff 3 x4
7. Approach learning the song one section at a time
Most songs can be broken down the following way:
Song > Structure > Riffs > Notes
You start with the notes, while keeping the bigger picture of the riff in your mind.
You chunk the notes into riffs, keeping the bigger picture of the structural element in mind.
You chunk the structural elements together, keeping the bigger picture of the song in mind.
Learn each riff, keeping in mind where that riff fits into the “bigger picture”.
8. Each day does not have to be perfect. But it does have to be 5% better than the day before
The objective when practising something, is not to make it perfect, but to make it 5% better than it was the day before.
This is actually quite easy to do on guitar, with consistency and persistence.
You constantly want to frame it in your mind as being a bit better than you were yesterday.
The “song” is where you are aiming yourself at long term, it is not what you have to achieve today.
9. You will forget what you memorised yesterday
Memory, like everything else on guitar, takes training. There are good days and bad days.
When you work on memorising a riff, you will probably find that the next day, you need to look at the tab again to play it.
You will learn it 10x faster than yesterday.
That’s ok and to be expected.
Sometimes it takes several days like this before the riff will “settle” in your memory.
10. You must work on it everyday
To effectively train your memory, you have to be working on this song every day, at least 6 days a week.
No-one achieved anything noticeable going to the gym twice a week. You aren’t going to achieve much on your guitar practising twice a week.
It has to be every day.
11. Learn small sections and integrate them with small sections
Don’t try and memorise a huge amount of song at once. You can’t do it. Only people with years of training at memorising songs can do this. And Nita Strauss!
Here’s what you do:
- Memorise just a little bit at a time – say, riff #10
- Then memorise the transition (or maybe the riff) before going into that – so you practice riff #9 into riff #10
- Then play the song through from the start
This process is highly effective.
You have to memorise the riff, practice the transition into that riff AND THEN practice playing through from the start to that point.
12. Think about it during the day
When you have a few minutes to kill during the day, visualise the song in your head. Could you write out a tab for the riffs without using your guitar? Can you picture yourself playing the riff? Can you “see” the notes on your guitar neck, in your mind?
I have a student who is able to learn theory concepts incredibly fast. After I teach her some theory, she practices it on guitar, then, while doing every day activities over the next few weeks, she is visualising that theory, constantly.
When she goes to sleep, she has a visualisation exercise that she works on for 10 minutes or so.
Visualisation is a highly effective tool.
If you have not done it before, it sounds a bit esoteric. But what the hell – try it for 3 weeks and see if it creates results for you or not.
Bonus: How to memorise huge amounts of information
The way you memorise information is by chunking it down.
When I learned those 7000 notes for the cello suites, I chunked it down. I looked at the first 4-8 notes. I memorised those. Then, I turned those notes into a pattern, in my head.
Turning those notes into a pattern takes them from being 8 pieces of information, to one.
Then I leave that, and work on the next 4-8 notes. Once I have the hang of playing those, I, in my mind, turn them into a pattern.
Then, rather than take 16 notes, I can take two patterns, and practice playing those back to back.
And then I do the same with the next 8 notes or so.
Then, I start combining patterns in my mind. So the first three patterns… I start to view as one bigger pattern.
So I constantly chunk information down into patterns, and those patterns into bigger patterns.
You can use this process to memorise an almost unlimited amount of information.
And it will certainly work to memorise a song.
Enjoyed this article? Found it useful? Got a question? Leave a comment below and I’ll get back to you.
If you want some more scales to try this process with, then check out my free eBook, the Ultimate Guide to the Modes of the major, harmonic minor and melodic minor scales.
2 thoughts on “How to Learn Songs on Guitar”
This is great, Sam. This is exactly how I’ve done it for years, and how I tell my students to do it. As I was reading this, it was almost as if I had written it myself. Good work, and thanks for sharing!