Learning Songs: How Do You Do It?

It's a rite of passage that's surely applicable to 99.9% to all musicians irrespective of denomination; learning cover songs, and lots of 'em.

So what the most efficient method of doing it? Here are some general tips, but one thing's certain: it'll depend entirely on your individual make-up and skill as both a player and a self-regulating student...

This is by far the most obvious method and one that'll ensure that you get the music exactly right...as long as the tab's correct in the first place, of course. Make sure you get yours from reputable magazines, such as Guitarist, decent websites (take your pick), or dedicated third party publishers, such as Lick Library or Hal Leonard.. the latter option gives you access to DVD video, which makes learning any music that much easier. So does the Guitarist CD...! If a resource has transcribed Smoke On The Water in A, you're safe in the assumption that the rest of the content will be useless too...

By Ear
To be able to pick something up by mere aural contact is a precise skill to say the least, more often as not something you'll have been born with. This method will allow you to get the right dynamics, but simple misinterpretation of chords are a constant hazard here. Decide on an existing version with your bandmates and stick to it: there's nothing worse than learning a live version and finding out the that everybody else used the relevant album as a reference.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition
This is linked in with point two to a certain extent, and we find it works best for us; playing the same song over and over and over until it begins to sink into the blancmange of the mind. The result is that you should, with time, be able to play the song without errors as your subconscious can take over and point your dithering digits in the direction of the correct note or chord shape. Mind you, it'll also ensure that you'll never want to hear the songs in question ever again...

Formal Tuition
Roping your teacher/mate/more accomplished cohort into sitting down and showing you a song is, again, an efficient method but is time-consuming and can, in extreme circumstances, cost actual money. Good teachers often assess students by how well the young 'un can play their own favourite song, so the choice is yours...

Asking The Artist In Question
Obviously entirely dependent on your access to such luminaries, not to mention their overall stature: Martin Harley, for example, is more likely to welcome you with his customary smile and an affable handshake than, for example, Bruce Springsteen at Glastonbury. Over the years, Guitarist has been fortunate to have had, in effect, private lessons with all manner of players in the course of compiling video for our CD - Tommy Emmanuel, Paul Gilbert, Brian May, Doyle Dykes and more - and if you reckon you'll get any mileage from strolling up to James Hetfield after a show and asking him to go over the middle section of Dyers Eve with you, then we wish you the best of British. Chances are his large security posse will invite you to pick a window before throwing you through it...although they may not.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, so how do you go about learning an existing song...?

Simon Bradley is a guitar and especially rock guitar expert who worked for Guitarist magazine and has in the past contributed to world-leading music and guitar titles like MusicRadar (obviously), Guitarist, Guitar World and Louder. What he doesn't know about Brian May's playing and, especially, the Red Special, isn't worth knowing.