One of the most common questions I get is, “How do you learn all of those songs?” Well, I can kind of tell you. But, honestly, I’m not entirely sure. Like, I know HOW I learn them. I’m just not sure how I remember them all.
I kind of touched on learning songs in my last blog post “Not Just Rainbows & Butterflies” by saying how hard it can be. Some songs take longer to learn and others don’t take half as long. It really just depends on the song. Let me break it down even further by explaining how I learn band songs vs how I learn my solo show songs.
When I am given a song to learn for the band, I have to figure out if I need to play it on guitar or just play tambourine. If I am going to play tambourine, I just need to learn the beat. If I am going to play it on guitar I will have to learn the chords. To learn the chords, I go straight to YouTube to listen to the song and see if it seems difficult. While listening to it, I open another tab and bring up ultimate-guitar.com. I have no idea how to read sheet music but I do know how to read tab. (For the non-musician, tab is short for tablature. Tabs are presented as the neck of a guitar/ukulele and numbers where your fingers are supposed to go.)
Chords look like this:
and lead parts look like this
IF the song is “well known” among the people who post tabs on ultimate guitar, I can click on the song and just read the chords from there. BUT, if the song is NOT well known or only well known by the beach music crowd, I have to figure it out myself. Then, I’ll put the song on repeat until I can figure out the chords by ear. This means that I just try a bunch of chords until I find the ones that sound right. At this point, I’ll put those chords in my word document that I keep of every song I play with the band. This document has the song names, if I need to put a capo on the guitar, and what the chords are. (capo definition: a little clamp thing that covers all of the strings on the guitar to raise the tuning. There are also capos that don’t cover all of the strings.) If I can’t figure out the chords, I usually just message somebody else in the band and ask them what the chords are and hope for the best.
If it’s a song that I’m singing with the band, there’s a really good chance that I’ve already learned it and am currently playing it during my solo shows. So, I don’t really have to do anything different.
Now, learning solo show songs are a little bit more difficult. Let’s pretend I hear a new song on the radio and I think I can pull it off with only my guitar and my voice. I buy the song on iTunes and put it on repeat (or if I just like the song, I may still buy it but not try to play it until a while later). When I say repeat, I don’t mean I listen to the one song and then others and then come back to the song. I mean, like, ultimate repeat. I don’t listen to any other music at all. Driving in the car, at the gym, brushing my teeth, in the shower, listening to my headphones if I’m riding with my parents; that’s all I’m going to listen to. There are many many times when I will purchase a new song, take a 40 minute drive home, and have all of the lyrics learned by the time I pull into my driveway. That doesn’t mean I’m ready to try to play it on guitar yet. I’m going to keep it on repeat for the next 4 days. Again, whenever I’m driving, in the gym, wherever I’m at where I can listen to that one song.
Once I get super confident with the lyrics, I’ll try to learn the chords to the song. Again, I’ll go to ultimate-guitar.com to learn the chords. All of the cover songs I play are known well enough that there are going to be different versions of how to play them online so, thankfully, I don’t have to try to figure out how to play them by ear. Sometimes, though, I’ll try to play it by ear and then look online to see if I’m right. If the songs are originally played on piano, I have to find a way to make them just as beautiful on only a guitar. If there are no actual instruments in the song and it’s mostly digitally produced (like most pop songs are now) I have to figure out what elements I can add and how to add them with ONLY a guitar and my voice. Once I pull it up online, I play through it and sing it a few times. Once I feel like I have that down, I’ll keep the screen up but look away unless I just absolutely cannot remember what chord I’m supposed to play. I’ll do this for a couple of hours.
Usually, I’ll keep playing it for a few days on the guitar until I add it to my set. Lately, though, I have found myself learning a new song and adding it unexpectedly at the end of my show and that’s how I end up deciding to add it permanently or not. There have been a couple of times where I’ll finish making my set list early and I’ll work on a new song that I’ve been singing and play it that night at my show.
It’s usually pretty intimidating to me to add a new song to my show because… Are people going to like it? Will they react to it? Will they know it? Will they know it but not like how I play it? Am I going to mess up because I psych myself out? A lot of it, in the moment at least, is just a big mind game. You can mess yourself up if you think too hard about it; you can also mess up if you think too little about it. You have to find a happy medium of thinking about it and feeling it.
Now that I’ve explained to you how I learn them, I still have no idea how I can remember them all; all of the lyrics and all of the chords. The best thing I can come up with is that my brain is good at recognizing patterns whether they’re in the form of beats, syllables, chords, or just all of it put together. That’s the best explanation I have. Songs are just sound patterns to me I guess.
Figure out the patterns. Keep playing.
PS: Shout out to Shubb Capos for being literally the ONLY capo I use. 10/10 recommend.