Having to quickly learn a bunch of tunes is a challenge that often pops up in the life of a musician. It has, once again, for me and I thought I would write out a post on the topic (partly to clarify my own process.)
Truthfully, I’ve got a fairly light task right now; I have to learn nine tunes (originals by a local songwriter) in about two weeks. In the past I’ve found myself having to learn more than twice that in half the time. Covers are usually easier than learning originals because even if I don’t know how to play the song I know the song in the sense that I’ve heard it for years. My goal with the learning process is to get the tunes so wired into my brain that I understand them intuitively as opposed to consciously. By this I mean that I don’t want to be onstage counting measures, or thinking “When he sings this line, I then play a C# maj 7 chord.” I want to just “know” when the changes occur by virtue of being very familiar with the songs.
So what do I do? First…
Just listening to the songs is key. Put away your instrument and simply play the tunes on your stereo or iPod over and over. And over. And then over again. If you exercise, that’s a good time to play the songs. Or when you’re waiting for the bus, or making dinner or whatever. Listen to the songs so much that you get sick of them. This to me is vital to understanding the song intuitively.
At first I just try to just casually listen to the songs the way I might songs on the radio. However, I pretty quickly find my mind starting to analyze songs. I start to identify common chord patterns, or think, “this chorus sounds a bit like ‘All Along the Watchtower,'” or “this verse is all power chords.” Of course in some cases you may have to learn the songs entirely from charts with no recordings to work from. So you would skip this first step.
Having gotten acclimated to the tunes I will continue listening to the recordings but I will now play along on my guitar. Generally I start just noodling over the tune to get a sense of the tonality (what key each part is in) and figure out some of the chords. If it’s a tune where I have to learn very specific parts (like an “official” riff that plays over the chorus) I’ll start to suss that stuff out. But I try to keep it fun and don’t get too focused on any one part. I might do this a few times for a song and then I…
Figure it out
This is where the heavy lifting comes in. Having gotten a good general sense of the songs I will try to really work them out. First I figure out all the chord progressions and the form of the songs (like verse, chorus, verse, chorus, solo, chorus or what not.) Then I try to work out the specific guitar parts being used and really nail down key riffs and melodies. For chords I try to figure at least the triad form of a chord—if it’s something like a G maj7 flat 5 sharp nine I make no guarantees I’ll get it exactly right (though I’m getting better.)
Throughout this process I take good notes. It’s nice to have a little paragraph synopsis that tells me what I need to know about each song; these note cans help jibe my memory when reviewed before a gig or practice session. My notes might look something like:
Key of E maj, verse similar to verse of “Like a Rolling Stone”
Chorus modulates to F#, I, IV, V kind of thing
Solo uses lots of doublestops
(The gig that inspired this post was the first time I compiled my notes into a PDF and placed it on a iPad I had with me onstage. It worked well enough—no papers flying around.)
Work in groups of 3-4
To avoid being overwhelmed, I try to focus on only 3-4 songs at a time. Trying to plow through any more at the same time will just melt your brain. And how are you going to do the gig when your brain is melted?
Get what you can upfront
When you take on the task of learning songs you want to get as much material as possible upfront. At a minimum you should be able to get recordings and/or charts of the songs. Having said that, some people’s charts are so bad you’re better off trying to just learn the song by ear (depending on your level of ear training of course.)
Use the web
The internet can be a great boon to learning cover songs quickly. You can find the chords to many songs online as well as ASCII guitar tabs (of varying accuracy.) Youtube has a lot of good song tutorials too. I remember struggling to figure out the main riff to Shooting Star by Earth Wind and Fire; I simply couldn’t understand how to play what I was hearing. So I jumped on Youtube and found a tutorial video by the guy who actually played the part on the album and he revealed that it was two disparate parts overdubbed together. Part of me feels looking online is “cheating” but when you’re in a jam it’s a lifesaver.
Work from big to small
When I’m learning songs I first focus on getting the essentials down. Usually this is the chord progressions, key riffs, and any important rhythmic hits that occur. (For example, if I was learning “Sweet Child of Mine” I would learn that famous opening riff and the chords and rhythmic feel of the song. I wouldn’t worry about getting the solo note for note.) Once I have that stuff down I learn the more granular details, as much as time allows. (What I’m being paid factors into how much effort I’ll apply here as well.) Of course, what’s expected of you varies from gig to gig. Some people want you to be able to play the broad strokes of a song and improvise the details. Others want very a very specific, even exact, performance. For the most part, I find that being able to capture the general flavor of songs, not the exact notes or chord shapes, is good enough to keep people happy.
Chart it out I like to get off chart (e.g. have songs memorized) as often as possible. Having said that, charts can be a lifesaver in situation where you have to learn a ton of songs in a couple days. And the process of charting a song out goes a long way to getting the songs committed to memory.
Apply good practice habits
I have about 3-4 hours a day when my brain is functioning well. (Yep, that’s it. It’s sad.) Usually this is a couple hours after I wake up. That’s when I target any focused activities such as learning songs. I suspect that trying to learn songs when I’m tired or distracted does more harm than good.
Of course, to stay sharp it helps to get a good night’s sleep, eat well, not be hungover, etc. All the stuff musicians are famous for not doing.
Even with the best of intentions it’s easy to get distracted while learning tunes. You can get overwhelmed with everything you need to learn and accomplish nothing. Because of this, I think it’s good to have a notebook on hand. If any concern that must be dealt with pops into your head (like “get amp out of repair shop before gig”) you can jot it down and then return to the task at hand knowing you’re not forgetting something. After you’re done rehearsing you can deal with these notes.
When learning the songs, don’t get hung up on mistakes. This is the time to be making mistakes. As cliche as it sounds, every mistake is a learning opportunity.
I think you can over practice. If I play a song too many times in a row it starts to blend into one big blob. Once I get the tunes roughly down I just run through the set about once a day and that keeps it fresh in my head. Your mileage with this advice may vary.