Guitar/Learning Songs

Now that you've got a few chords under your belt, you're ready to start learning some songs. Great! There are several ways to learn songs, and some are more accessible than others.

General Tips


There are two basic forms that appear in thousands of songs. They are the twelve bar blues and the thirty-two bar ballad. Both forms are used extensively in all genres. The blues and rock 'n 'roll genres both use the twelve-bar blues form and many songs by Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly are twelve bar blues and therefore very easy to learn. If you are trying to learn a jazz standard then you will find that many of them are of the thirty-two bar form. Practicing and understanding these two basic forms is essential for the guitarist who wishes to learn songs.

Practice the song slowly (especially if it's a fast song) until you can play it flawlessly. Then, when you are confident with the notes you are supposed to play, increase the speed until you can play along with the song.

Using a drum-machine or metronome when practicing is essential. An alternative method for improving timing is to play along with your favorite artists.

Methods of Learning


Sheet Music


The best way is to find sheet music for the song you are trying to learn, like a tab book, available from any guitar shop. Tab books are good, because they are almost always accurate, and they not only show the notes you're supposed to play, but they give good sense of how to play the notes. Generally they include both the rhythm and lead part, even written on the same page if they are played at the same time.

Tab books are expensive and there's a learning curve associated with fluent tab reading, especially if you have no prior knowledge of music notation. Understanding music theory, even just enough to properly (and easily) read a tab book is a challenge but not insurmountable. Being able to read music, whether it's tab or notation, will improve your playing.

Online Tab


A much quicker, cheaper and often faster way to learn is to search for an online tab of the song you're looking for. Simply type "Artist Name Song Name tab" into your favorite search engine, and "voila!", you have dozens to choose from. The online tab community is thriving, and there are many popular sites where you can find tabs for most popular songs. Some sites even feature a MIDI of the song, to make learning even easier.

There are several downsides to online tab, some of which are outlined in the Tablature section. The biggest problem is lack of accuracy. Always remember that online tabs are not made by professionals like tab books, and that somewhere down the line someone was sitting at home with a CD and figured it out by trial and error. Thus, the more complicated the song, the less likely the tab you are reading is 100% accurate. But since most people don't play a song exactly as it sounds on the album (even the recording artists!), this isn't such a big deal.

Another down side is that there is a huge amount of stealing in the community, and if you are looking for an obscure tab, you might only find one actual tab, with copies of it on every site you visit. Some sites allow for multiple versions, and some use voting or comments to give you a sense of how accurate the tab is. However, don't let voting alone determine which tab you read, because if the people who vote don't know how to play the song either, then they might vote a terrible tab really high. In general, you should read two or three tabs for a song, and then from that determine how you intend to play the song. Comments on a song can contain slight revisions or alternate fingerings for chords, so it is good to check those out.

By Ear


Songs can also be learned "by ear", with no sheet music. Essentially you just listen to the song and try to figure it out, with nothing for reference. Knowledge of music theory is particularly helpful for this method. It probably sounds a lot harder to learn this way than it is, but it is a really good way to practice whatever music knowledge you have. And it is especially rewarding being able to figure out a famous musicians piece and saying "I could have made that up!"

First, you should always try and figure out the key (or scale) the song is in. Knowing the key essentially tells you two important things; what the root notes are of the chords they are playing, and the scale that is used for soloing. When you know the scale, you can also probably figure out which scale degree is supposed to be major or minor.

To figure out the key, try playing random notes on the fretboard, and when one "works", play a major or minor pentatonic scale beginning with that note. Once you have figure out a few more notes, you will probably have a good idea of what scale is being used. If that doesn't work, try humming the chords being used, and then match those tones on the guitar. Be careful you don't accidentally start humming the lead vocals, because although that will help determine the key, the chords are likely different.

Once you know what key the song is in, the rest generally follows pretty quickly. Some of the tricky bits can be one-note riffs, arpeggios, of specific voicing of the chords they are using.

If have no experience of keys and their relationship to writing songs, then figuring out songs by ear is more difficult. Essentially you need to just find the same notes or chords and write them down or remember them. Generally this involves a lot of trial and error, but working this way provides excellent ear training.

Other Guitarists


This is perhaps the best way to learn. Playing with another guitarist gives you the opportunity to ask questions about chords and rhythms, and it gives you a chance to see and hear what the song is supposed to be like when it's performed live. However, the down side is that often a guitarist learns to play a song "their way", and they don't care about how it's "really" supposed to be played. Thus, you might not be learning the song exactly, but rather a slightly different version.

Concert Videos


Another place to learn is by watching concert videos, especially on DVDs where they allow you to pick camera angles. Often they will have a camera never breaks away from lead guitarist. By following along, you can learn exactly how a particular guitarist plays a particular song live.

The downside of this is that not every artist (especially new ones) has a concert DVD. Also, the guitarist may be playing the song differently live than on the album, so depending on how accurate you intend to be with your learning and playing, watching a video may not be the best way.

Chord Progressions


Songs are created using chords. Chords are derived from scales. The chords that are derived from one diatonic scale never change. If you learn the seven chords in the key of C major, then when you find a song in that key, you can quickly work out the chord progressions that make up the song.

Chords in C major

Note that the chords in the key of C major consists of 3 major chords, 3 minor chords and 1 diminished chord. This holds true for all major keys.

Chord Theory


Songs in the key of C major will start with a C major chord and end with a C major chord. The tonic chord of C major is the chord that defines the key ( the name tonic is derived from the word tonal). If you think of music as a journey then the tonic chord is the starting point and the return point. The notes in the scale of C major are named:

I is the Tonic

II is the Supertonic

III is the Mediant

IV is the Subdominant

V is the Dominant

VI is the Relative Minor

VII is the Leading Note

VIII is the Octave

Tonic - is the first note of the scale and it is this note that determines the tonality or key, hence the name Tonic.

Supertonic – the word “super” comes from the Latin verb “superare” which means “to be above”. The second note of any scale is always above the tonic.

Mediant – the mediant refers to the fact that this note lies halfway between the tonic and the dominant.

Subdominant – the word “sub” means "to be below". This note is below the dominant.

Dominant – this note has this name because with the tonic it sets the tonality or key. The tonic and dominant notes, more than any of the others, determines the tonality of a piece of music. The fifth note of the scale is therefore a dominant factor.

Relative Minor – so called because this is the tonic note of the corresponding natural minor scale. Every major scale has a corresponding natural minor scale that contains exactly the same notes. So the relative minor of the C major scale is A natural minor. It is also called the submediant because is lies three notes below the octave as the mediant lies three notes above the tonic.

Leading-note – whenever you play a scale and arrive at this note, you will find that it naturally wants to move up to the octave note. People have a psychological expectation of music. The most important need is for the “musical journey” to have a start and end. If you were to play the C major scale and stopped at the leading-note, you would always have the sense that the scale is incomplete.

Octave – the same note as the tonic but an octave higher in sound and the end of the musical journey that a scale takes us on.

All the chords in C major take the same names given to the degrees of the scale. You can refer to the dominant note or the dominant chord.

Common Progressions


The tonic, subdominant and dominant are called the tonal chords. The supertonic, mediant and relative minor are called the modal chords. The tonal chords define tonality (key) and the modal chords suggest modality. If you play only the modal chords Am and Em from the key of C major the listener will eventually interpret the music to be in the key of A minor (aeolian mode). It must be noted that Am and Em has to be stated over a lengthy period of time. Analyzing chord progressions starts with the tonal chords:

Step One: Try the progression I-V (Tonic to Dominant)

Step Two: Try the progression I-IV (Tonic to Subdominant)

Step Three: Try the progression I-VI or I-III (Tonic to Relative Minor) or (Tonic to Mediant)

Step Four: Try the progression I-II (Tonic to Supertonic)

If you know the song starts with a C major chord and none of the above works then the song may contain chromatic chords. It is common practice to change the modal chords which are minor into their major counterparts. So D minor becomes D major and E minor becomes E major. The chromatic supertonic and the chromatic mediant are a common compositional device. Even though you have added chromatic chords the listener will still interpret the key as C major.

Try playing this progression: C - E major - Am - G

In the above chord progression you have played a chord that doesn't belong to the key of C major. The tonality of the piece is preserved by the following chords which are diatonic to the key.

How To Continue Learning

  • Take formal lessons from a qualified teacher. Be sure to seek testimonials and references.
  • Watch others play. Notice what they have to pay attention to and what seems like magic.
  • Practice arbitrary scale runs. Go up and or down 3 or 4 notes and then move up the scale with the same interval.
  • Jam up with friends who are better than you as frequently as possible
  • Get some friends along who are at the same skill level and form a band of your own
  • Listen to your favorite music and try to envision what the guitarist is doing to make the notes come out as they do.
  • Listen to different music. It may open your mind to techniques and phrasing you never imagined using before. It may also expand your musical library. Pick any genre you're not familiar with. Get a feel for the timing and note choice. Into classical? Try bluegrass. Headbanger? Pick up some jazz or blues. Then move on to your hero's heroes. Find out what musical influences got Jimi Hendrix, B.B King or Eric Clapton primed for stardom.

A great way to continue learning if you can already play is to teach guitar to other people.

Getting Started: Different Types of Guitars | Anatomy of a Guitar | Buying a Guitar | Buying an Amplifier | Tuning the Guitar | Tablature | Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar
For Beginners: The Basics | Intervals and Power Chords | Open Chords | Muting and Raking | Learning Songs | Song Library
Lead Guitar: Picking and Plucking | Scales | Arpeggios and Sweep Picking | Slides | Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and Trills | Bending and Vibrato | Harmonics | Vibrato Bar Techniques | Tapping
Rhythm Guitar: Chords | Barre Chords | Chord Progressions | Alternate Picking | Tremolo Picking | Rhythm
Playing Styles: Folk Guitar | Blues | Slide Guitar | Rock Guitar | Country and Western | Metal | Jazz | Classical Guitar | Flamenco
General Guitar Theory: Tone and Volume | Singing and Playing | Writing Songs | Playing With Others | Recording Music |Tuning Your Ear | How to Continue Learning
Equipment: Guitar Accessories | Effects Pedals | E-Bow | Cables | Bass Guitar | Harmonica and Guitar Combo
Maintenance: Guitar Maintenance and Storage | Adjusting the Guitar | Stringing the Guitar
Appendices: Dictionary | Alternate Tunings | Chord Reference | Blanks