What’s the Best Way to Learn Songs? - 056

Today, I take some well needed time to answer this very common question.



What is it really to learn a song?

What does it take to take a song apart, see how it is constructed, put it back together and play it.

Is it enough to just learn a song by numbers by memorizing “this finger goes here and then there”. Or is it important to understand the mechanics of how a song works.

Let’s take a look at these questions, and more!

Today I’m going to answer this question, with these steps:

  • Important best practices
  • Get the basic overview of the song
  • Decide your method
  • Ways to write it down
  • Getting to work
  • Know the things that can derail you.
  • Learning a group of songs


Important best practices

If you’ve gone the DIY route with anything in your life, you know what a time waster that can be. Just jumping into a difficult task without a good game plan can get you lost and frustrated very quickly.

In any important undertaking, getting some good preliminary direction is like gold. It can save you tons of time and frustration. Not to mention, boost the chances of your success a ton!

Going into learning songs, there are a few decisions that you would be wise to make.

The first is to:


Decide that you are going to learn the whole song.

Yes the whole song. Not just a few of the cool parts. Just learning parts of songs can be fun but you are stopping short of a great reward.

Having a good collection of songs that you can play at a moments notice, is a very valuable thing.This is currency down the road for getting in bands, getting gigs, building a solo show.

You never know when the opportunity to play one of these songs, no matter how obscure, will pop up.

It’s very hard to play with other musicians only knowing parts of songs. And yes, they may be cool, but you need more than just a lick or phrase to take a listener from one place in time to another.

So even if you are just starting out, it’s never too early to collect a repertoire of songs. Even the simplest song of them all had a place and time to be shared with an audience. 



Don’t overwhelm yourself.

Learning complicated songs can be very frustrating and take a long time. Giving yourself an impossible deadline to learn a tough song is never a good idea.

To really succeed, you should work up to that level. Give yourself a few quick wins with easy songs. Then, gradually work on ever harder songs. Pick the next one that is mostly at your level, but with one or two challenging parts to work on.

This skill of learning songs doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t pull a Matrix and just download mad song learning skills at the push of a button. So, stay close to your learning level. Push yourself a little at a time.


Save performance till the end

One surefire way to derail learning a complete song is to start with the performance. Let me tell you what I mean by this. I’ve seen this a lot and it can be fun, but it generally leads to nowhere.



Working on the tone of the song before you can play it is a big detour from the intended result of learning the song. Trying to get your guitar to sound just like or close to the original tone is not a bad thing, just in its place.

Before you start plugging  in those overdrive pedals, think about really being able to play and understand the song. Spend this initial time really understanding it.

I’ve found that, not only my students, but I’m guilty of this as well. I’ll listen to the song, fire up my amp and start turning knobs. The next thing you know, ½ hour has gone by tweaking things.

And then, once I would get close to what I wanted to sound like on the song, It becomes jamming time. Before I knew it, An hour or two may have passed and I didn’t know the song any better at all.

We all have restraints on our time with the guitar. By putting the learning first, you get the desired information in your head as early as possible.

Giving your mind more time to process and remember the chord progressions and melodies. There will always be time to work on your tone, here and there.

Good practice time is valuable and It’s a great idea to get these things underway as soon as possible.


Pay attention to the why

Songs make sense. There are reasons why a composer makes the decisions that he or she makes. They are important, and lucky for you, these decisions are repeatable.

The way a certain melody fits over a certain chord progressions can be something very unique. A little bit of music theory is all you need to be able to recognize the basics of a song.

And once you understand the Why of a song, you can use parts of it in your own songs or lead lines. You aren’t just learning the one song, you are learning ideas that can be used over and over in many different situations that don’t sound like the original song.

So, take a little time to pay attention to how the cords go from one to the other and what scale lines are played over them. You will be glad you did!


Get the basic overview of the song

First things first, you need to know what you are in for. A solid idea of the structure of the song can help you focus on the best things to spend your time on.



This, you would think would go without saying, but take a good listen to the song. A really good listen.

You are now coming at this from a different perspective. By learning this song, we need to take the magic and mystery out of it. We need to realize that there are common things being used and assembled to create this thing. These are things that you can definitely learn. 

This can put some people off. Some think that by picking apart the song you are ruining it. And you are in a way. You definitely won’t think of it the same way you did the first time you heard it.

But, I can tell you that the thrill of listening to a song is one thing, but the thrill of playing that song for someone else, and being a part of the experience is something greater.


Find the key

The next thing to do is to find the tonal center of the song. The key. At first, this can be a little frustrating, but you can get the hang of it fairly quickly.

For most songs, if the first chord and the last chord are the same, you can pretty much bet that the name of the chord is the key of the song.

It’s the note that you can rest on. It’s the note that that song could finish on. If you stop on that note or chord and go home you would feel finished.

For those who are struggling finding the key, I’ve seen some who just play up and down the low E string until they find the note that sounds like it matches the most with the song.

It’s important to know the key to base your chord progressions on and find your scale patterns.



Understanding the basic structure of the song is next. Songs are broken up into sections, and these sections could have similarities or differences depending on their function.

The typical popular song follows a basic verse chorus format. Typically you might find something like this:








Verse 2


Chorus 2




Chorus 3




You will also find other types of sections like Pre-Chorus, instrumental/solo section.

Most composers do not stick to this very basic format and make small changes for artistic license.

You could also find different types of forms for the song. AB, ABC AABA and so forth.

Understanding the form of a song will give you a plan of attack and you can keep yourself from getting overwhelmed by working one section at a time.


Quick tip

What I like to do is print out the tab, chord sheet, or lyric sheet, and mark the different sections as I listen to the song.

Just marking with a quick

  • I for intro
  • V for verse,
  • C for chorus

can give you an easy visual reference for what sections are the same and which ones will need a little work.


Decide your method

How are we going to do this. What is the best method to use. It can be different for everyone. Someone who had a good ear may find it easiest to just listen to a song and make a quick chord chart. Or, for a new guitarist, a video that shows each step to take may make more sense. Let’s go through a bunch of the different ways that you might try to learn a song.


Old School

Let’s go back, way back before we had the internet. Records, tapes, Cd’s, and the radio were all you had to hear your favorite songs.


Learning by ear

You would listen to the song, focus on the part you wanted to know, figure out the key, split the part into sections, and write it down. This is the toughest way to do it, but, if you can get good at this, you are golden. You’ll be able to hear a song and instantly visualize it on the guitar. This is a skill that is worth your while to develop, and something I plan on going over in future episodes.


Sheet music

Back in the day, you would go to the local guitar store and there would be sheet music for sale. They got better over time, but early on, a lot of the guitar sheet music for sale was really just rebranded piano music.

Totally not helpful for the guitarist. I was burned by buying thess a few times. At some point they got better when they switched over to tablature, but a lot of the time, those didn’t sound much like the recording either.



The one way that usually gave the most results was help from the guitar community. I remember an interview with Paul McCartney, who said something to the effect that they would ride a bus all over liverpool, just to hunt down someone who knew a fancy chord.

Getting together with guitar playing friends, was always fun and informative. Sharing what you knew and learning new things from other guitarists, was often more valuable than buying new music or gear.


New methods

Although, in my opinion, learning by ear is still tough to beat, we have many different ways to learn songs today that require a lot less effort (than bus rides all over the city).

The go to way to learn songs these days is either tablature, chord sheets, or youtube.

Tablature is shorthand for the guitar. It is six lines that represent the six strings of the guitar. You will find a bunch of numbers on the lines that represent a certain fret on the guitar. Reading from left to right, you can play the notes from the song perfectly, assuming that whoever wrote it knew what the were doing.

The problem with tablature is that it usually assumes you know the general rhythm of the song. Sometimes you may get a strum pattern written out at the beginning of the song, but not often.

It’s easy to find the tablature for your favorite song. Just type in the song name in Google followed by tab.

Chord sheets can get you playing the basic chords of the song very quickly. Chord sheets generally have the lyrics printed out and a chord symbol above the word or syllable where the new chord starts. That’s it.

It’s easy to find the chords sheet for your favorite song. Just type in the song name in google followed by chords.

Your best luck for help learning a song would probably be from Youtube. There are tons of videos from guitar players and teachers to help you learn a song. No explanation necessary here. If it is a good one, you will get all the help you need from the video.

What if you are having a hard time. What if the resources that you found aren’t quite helping or you have a passage that is giving you a hard time.

For years, slowing down a song, so that you have time to figure out a phrase or chord progression, has been used to great affect. Back in the day, you could slow down records either by selecting another speed, or putting your finger on the center of the record to slow it down. The problem always was that the slower the record went, the lower the pitch would go. This was bad news.

Today in most media programs, there is a speed control that doesn’t change the pitch of the song. Windows Media Player, Youtube both have this and it can really help you pick out these parts and not have to retune your guitar.

You can also get the Amazing Slow Downer, which does this with a lot more advanced controls and looping.

Another big help for guitarists is live youtube videos. Because there are multiple ways of playing anything on the guitar, sometimes you may be learning something in an area of the guitar that makes it more difficult than the original way. Taking a quick look at what the original guitarist played can give you a good reference point for where to base your chords and scales.



The next thing to decide is the way you would like to write down your findings.

Just learning the song by memory, at first, is not a great idea. How many times have you figured out something on the guitar, only to lose it after a few hours. If you are doing the work, make sure you document your findings so it is easy to pick up where you left off.

Let’s start with the easiest first. Just jotting down your quick ideas. This is a good idea to use as a supplement as well, even if you choose to use other more advanced methods. 

Post-it notes are always close to my music computer. I find myself jotting down quick chord progressions or scale choices all of the time on them. They work well but I also use the notepad on my computer a lot as well. Some very quick place to dump findings and ideas is great to have.

Next, chord charts can help. These are usually done with the chord choice broken down by the measure. I have a chord chart template in my word processor that has lots of 8 measure staffs ready for me to write down chords. This is a great way to visualize the progressions of a song.

These charts are used a lot with something called the “Nashville number system”. This is a way to write down the function of the chord instead of the actual name of the chord. If you have to change the key of a song, it’s super simple, just plug the chord numbers into the new key. ( I”ll have a show in the future all about this).

The next way would be tablature which I talked about before.

And the last for guitar, which would be the first for most instruments is standard music notation. Reading and Writing music is becoming a lost art for guitarists. I would highly encourage you to at least learn a bit about reading music for guitar. It’s really incredible for the guitar, it just takes time to learn and get used to using it. Standard notation takes all aspects of music into consideration: rhythm, dynamics, and harmony.


Get to work

Start with one section at at time. Which one? That’s up to you but I like to read the song down from beginning to end. Start with the intro and slowly work your way through each part. In the beginning you will be learning verses and choruses. Most of the work is up front. As you progress through the song, you will find a lot of repetition of sections you have already figured out, and things go much faster.

Well, OK, If I start at the beginning, what do I focus on first. I would say chords, chord progressions and strum patterns first. Understanding the chord progressions is like a map to the song. Everything is built off of it. I would write the basic chord progression down for each section starting the beginning.

After you have the rhythm part down, then work on any single note riffs. Now that you have the key and the general chord progression, you will be able to find the main scale that matches. This will generally be what the riff is built from.

At this point, the rhythm part is done. Let’s move on

Solo or instrumental sections. This is where a lot of guitarist fall apart. Either they just learn the cool lick of the song and nothing else, or the just jam over the solo section hoping that they will get something similar.

I recommend learning the solo note for note at first. Even if you never intend to play the solo exactly, the tonal choices that the instrumentalist played are important to the song. There are many melodic and not so melodic choices that may have been made. You can learn a great deal from transcribing these lead lines. Now that you know the underlying progression, you can take the choices from this solo and incorporate it in your own playing. This is a great way to build a lead guitar vocabulary.

Once you have figured out the lead part, then try improvising over the chord progression in the style of what you just learned and add some of your own ideas to it.

Finally, if you are going to play and sing at the same time, work on the lyrics. Specifically work on how the rhythm of your vocal melody lines up with the strum patterns of your chord progressions. Playing and singing at the same time is usually tripped up by rhythm. Getting them locked together is the key to performing the song correctly.


Come back to the difficult parts.

Get as much of the song down as you can at first. If you see that a part is going to take a lot of work, save it for later. Once you have the majority of the song finished, it’s easier to focus on these difficult parts and finish off the song


Things that can trip you up.

After learning a lot, I mean a  lot of songs, you start to run into similar things that can be stumbling blocks to getting the song finished.

The first is the tuning of the guitar. A lot of guitar players like to tune their instruments differently that standard. This can create a lot of confusion for someone trying to learn the song. Some like to tune the whole guitar down a half, or whole, or more. Figuring this out ahead of time is essential. If you start to learn the song and nothing seems to line up. For example, chords are sounding lower than your guitar will allow, do a bit of research to see if the recording guitarist uses different tunings and what they are.

I always learn a lot when I learn a song in a different tuning. It take a little more time, but it’s worth it.

The other thing that is challenging is when the recorded guitarist uses a capo. You may find chords that are technically correct but don’t sound quite right. The songs chords may sound higher pitched. A capo is a device that clamps down on a certain fret, and allows you to use your open position chords in higher registers of the guitar. They can sound great and can make it easy for singers to match a song to a key that is comfortable for them. Experimenting with a capo if your chords aren’t sounding like a match may give you the results you need.


Learning more than one song.

I would recommend, if you are wanting or needing to learn a group of songs, to go one at a time. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed with all of the different parts and forms and licks and riffs.

Pick the easiest song first and stick with it until it’s finished.The feeling of accomplishment when really knowing a song is awesome and gets you inspired to tackle another one. If you get to a song that just stumps you. Set it aside as a special one, and continue with your list. Come back to the difficult ones at a later date.



Well there it is, my answer to what’s the best way to learn songs. When you have a good system for learning songs, it doesn’t seem so intimidating. You will slowly build your own repertoire of songs to play at a moment’s’ notice and be ready to add more.

Today I went over:

  • Important best practices
  • Get the basic overview of the song
  • Decide your method
  • Ways to write it down
  • Getting to work
  • Know the things that can derail you.
  • Learning a group of songs

Thanks for hanging out with me today. I have a question for you:

Have you ever struggled with learning songs? Did you find a method that works for you?

Please let us know all about it right here in the show notes.


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