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A Simple 5 Step System to Learning Songs

In order to learn easy guitar songs, right through to the most complex of tracks, it is advisable to stick to a tried and tested system that works for you. Now, everyone is different, so more advanced players may have the confidence to listen to a song and work it out within minutes, whilst others, especially you players of a beginner through to intermediate level, will probably need some structure to help you.

I have a 5-Step System I have used and continue to use whenever I want to learn a new song and I would like to share that with you. In addition to learning new songs, it will also ensure you do not fall out of love with your guitar and continue to improve, eradicating those annoying little errors that plague all of us at some time or another!

Step 1: Listen

You think you know the song you want to learn to play? I wouldn’t bet on it! Even the simplest of songs will have subtle changes, nuances or a “slightly” strange chord you were not anticipating.

So, before you even pick up your guitar, make sure you are familiar with the song. First, go to your preferred method of music listening (YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, etc.) and listen to it, mentally or physically noting down the structure and any “bits and pieces” that are slightly away from the norm. For example: a key change or a chorus that has one more line than the others can be something to look out for. Listen to both studio and live versions, as well as any covers so you will get a full picture of what the song entails.

Next, I would recommend printing out or writing down the lyrics, so you are 100% familiar with the structure. Annotate these with some of the quirky bits to look out for, along with potential challenges, like technique and rhythmic pattern changes. These challenges may not come to the fore when you start learning the song in detail but, hey, why not make a note of them anyway. Also, add in where any riffs, solos or other breaks appear.

And finally, if you’re brave enough, sing or hum along to both the recorded and non-recorded versions (using your memory or printed off structure sheet) – this may even include any riffs or solos you will need to play. All this will be your template or blueprint – an invaluable resource. This will have the added benefit of really speeding up your learning, as you’re engaging both your physical and mental skills, to achieve your goal.

So, you haven’t even picked up your guitar yet, but now the song has been broken down into its component parts you are now you are ready to start playing.

TIP: Do not discount listening to bad cover versions. It will highlight things not to replicate!

Step 2: The Chords

OK – so let’s get started.

You now need to break down the song further by understanding and learning the chords and what you need to play and when. Using both online and offline resources available, note down the chords (either in diagrammatic or text format) you need to play in the song. If you have a printed-off structure, add in the chords over the top of the relevant lyrics, so you know where the changes occur.

It is now time to find your metronome and set it to a speed that is approximately one half the tempo of the original. Then try this out:

Play each chord in isolation, making sure they are accurate and ring out clearly. Then strum each chord in time with the metronome using:

          consecutive up and downstrokes

The next step is to start practicing changing between the chords in the song (both in the order they used, along with some other variations), as you have just done in the first exercise above.

Do not worry about the rhythm at this stage. You just need to be able to change between the chords in the song, making sure there are no buzzy strings and the correct strings are being played. We certainly do not want to add in any unnecessary strings.

TIP: If you are struggling, play something you are already confident with, and have a peek at step 3. 

Step 3: The Riffs, Solos and Rhythm

Hopefully, you are now confident in playing the chords and changing between them in accordance with the structure, albeit at a slower speed.

We now have a step to replicate Step 2, but now will learn the more technical aspects of the song. You should now be really familiar with the song, so let’s start incorporating the riffs, solos and rhythm patterns. The component learning parts are set out below:

The Solos and Riffs

          Learn each one independently of each other (whether that is an intro, outro, a note passing riff or, perhaps, a picking pattern)
          Play each one slowly, without a metronome, until each note is clean
          Play each one, with the metronome at half speed of the original, or whatever  speed is comfortable for you
          Once comfortable with this, ramp up the metronome speed by another 20%

The Rhythm and Timing

          Isolate all the different rhythm patterns in the song
          Play each one at any speed that is comfortable, muting the strings with your fretting hand
          Keep the strings muted and do the same with the metronome at a speed that is comfortable for you
          Transfer what you have learnt by playing the chords

TIP: Slow down the metronome if you are struggling to keep up. It is still accuracy over speed.

Step 4: Putting It All Together

So now we have the component parts, time to cement them all together…at last.

My first recommendation is to visualize each component part of the song and what you need to do with each of your hands. First, “think” along with the track (chord fingering/strumming patterns/licks etc.) and then, with just the metronome running – at proper speed.

Next, practice, without the metronome, to make sure you have both fluidity and accuracy as you transition between parts. At this stage, speed and timing are not important.  Then, off you go with the metronome, at a speed slower than the original and at a tempo that is comfortable to you.

Once you are comfortable and error-free, prepare to progress to between 80% and 90% of the original speed.

Step 5: The Final Version

This is a three-stage process:

1.         Think about the feel of the song, ie. the light and shade and how different techniques are deployed and add these in PLUS any other embellishments of your own. Maybe a triplet, a double stop between chords, or perhaps an extra bend in the lead solo, still making sure it does not take too much away from the original.
2.         Play along with the metronome at full speed.
3.         Play along with the original track at full speed – giving it your all.

TIP: Remember – If you struggle, there is no shame in returning to the previous stage or step.

You have now:

          created a guitar-playing goal
          achieved (if not exceeded) this goal
          learned to progress at a deliberate error-free rate
          played all aspects of a song
          added your own style, and
          hopefully motivated to learn another, possibly more challenging, song.

I hope you can use some or all of this template to help you achieve the success you desire…and deserve. Thanks for reading!

Article by Andy Partridge.

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