There’s something exciting about learning new songs to play on the guitar. You take a song you’ve heard a hundred times before, start to strum, and then suddenly, you’re not just strumming. You’re playing a song! You’re making music!
It’s a feeling that never gets old.
However, figuring out where to start can be intimidating for a beginner guitar player.
But don’t worry! I’m here to show you exactly what you must do to make learning a song on the guitar easier than ever before.
Ready? Let’s go!
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The Five Essential Skills for Learning a Song
While songs might look intimidating from the outset, I’m here to tell you that with five essential skills, you can learn pretty much any song.
You heard me – any song!
Let’s take a look at exactly what those skills are.
Guitar technique is like the toolbox you bring to the musical construction site. Each technique is a different tool that helps you build a song.
This is the first step when you try to break down a song. I want you to ask yourself two questions:
- What makes the song unique?
- What’s the guitarist doing that you can do?
The more comfortable you get with various techniques, the more expressive you can be in playing. This isn’t just about playing the right notes; it’s about playing them in a way that feels and sounds good!
A guitar lick is a repeating series of notes used in a song or guitar solo. Often, guitar licks are a calling card for a song or guitar player.
Think about the licks in songs like “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix or even B.B. King’s blues bends. They’re easy to identify.
Two things happen when you learn guitar licks – you learn identifiable parts of the song, and you pick up something that you can incorporate into other guitar riffs.
Guitar licks are also incredibly versatile. Once you have a couple down, you can experiment with putting guitar licks you’ve learned into other songs and make them your own!
Learning how to improvise on the guitar isn’t just about grabbing a guitar and shredding a sick solo. You have to identify the key to the song, then identify the basic chord progression, and then learn to improvise over it.
This also requires knowledge of guitar scales – another essential skill I’ve covered in a separate article.
But back to improvising! Improvisation is like learning a language. When you have the basics down, you can string together words (in this case, notes) on the fly.
It makes it much easier to jump in on a jam session or feel confident playing over a backing track. More importantly, it lets you connect with the music in an entirely different way.
Rhythm serves as the backbone of a song, providing the harmonic and rhythmic foundation that other instruments, such as lead guitar, vocals, bass, and drums, build on.
Rhythm is built up of chords and timing, strumming patterns, timing, and dynamics. A rhythm guitarist can really give a song its flavor and groove by altering the adjusting their timing, playing style, or even the intensity of the way they strum.
5. Chord Transitions
Chord transitions are all about moving from one chord to the next. When done skillfully, smooth chord transitions make a song sound effortless and natural.
If you’re finding that you have hiccups when transitioning between chords, try slowing down your playing until you can go from chord to chord without stopping.
When you nail that, speed up the song a little. Repeat this process until you can play through the chords at the song’s original tempo.
Why These Skills Help You Learn Songs
By focusing on the skills above, you focus on more than just learning the song itself.
Yes, you’ll learn how to play the song, but you’ll also gain a better understanding of the components of a song and develop a really useful toolbox that you can apply to all other pieces of music you encounter.
Ultimately, this method helps you become a well-rounded musician, here’s why:
1. You Create a Version That Matches Your Skill
One of the biggest mental blocks I see with new students is the idea of should.
You should be able to improvise on your first try.
You should nail this guitar lick on the first try.
You should be able to play the notoriously impossible fingerpicking song “Never Going Back Again” by Fleetwood Mac.
All these statements don’t matter. Do you know why? Because you’re where you’re at, and that’s okay.
Not only does this method help build confidence, but it also helps to get around that mental block. Instead of falling into the should trap, you just get around it by using these fundamental skills and making the song your own.
2. You Progress Through the Song Gradually
Sometimes, seeing the trees through the forest can be challenging when you look at a song. The different parts of a song are great to listen to but make it hard to understand the basic song structure.
By focusing on each of the five essential skills, you focus on mastering each and the part of the song that it corresponds to.
Breaking down the song lets you take it at your own speed and figure out how each part works together. You have time to figure out how the guitar licks play off the rhythm or how the technique helps with chord transitions.
3. You Learn New Skills You Can Reuse
We can talk about these different skills all day, but only once you start to use them will you see major improvement not in just learning songs but your understanding of the guitar as a whole.
Once you’ve nailed them, you’ll carry them with you throughout your entire guitar-playing journey.
4. You Build a Repertoire
This one seems obvious, but it’s still true. This method helps you learn songs faster.
Each new song you learn introduces new chords, techniques, and strumming patterns. As you build your repertoire, you can start to recognize common structures and patterns of songs. Soon enough, you’ll have the right picking technique or chord for any musical situation.
Additionally, your musical understanding broadens the more you play different genres and styles of songs. It helps you develop a versatile playing style. I’m not talking about just memorizing songs; it’s about building a foundation of skills you can carry with you!
A Few More Tips for Learning Songs
If you’re looking to broaden your song-learning abilities, try the following tips. While they’re not necessary to learn a song, they can help elevate your playing and understanding of music.
1. Understand the Context of the Song
A vocalist’s job isn’t to sing the notes – it’s to tell a story.
When we play guitar, we do the same thing.
Different guitar techniques convey different kinds of emotion. You probably wouldn’t use tremolo picking (a technique where you rapidly repeat a single note or a series of notes in quick succession) to make the audience feel calm or relaxed.
Deciding what technique to use becomes easier when you understand the song.
Think about what the artist tried to convey when writing the song, but also think about what you want to say.
2. Make It Personal
This goes back to the idea that you should make the song your own.
I’m not just talking about breaking the song into its basic parts. I’m talking about adding your personal touches to the song.
Think about how to make the song sound like you. Switch up the strumming pattern. Write a guitar solo to play over the bridge. Let yourself improvise longer than what’s on the recording.
Music is about personal experience – let your personality shine when you play!
3. Play Your Favorite Songs for Your Friends
You get a couple of great perks when you play your favorite songs to your friends. Not only do you stay motivated, but you build up your confidence and get rid of some of the nerves that pop up when you play in front of people.
You also get the chance to get some feedback. If they’re guitar-savvy friends, they can offer you tips or different ways to approach the song.
Breaking down a song using the five essential skills makes learning how to play a song on the guitar easy. Even better, you improve those five skills every time you learn a new song!
If you’re looking for other ways to improve your guitar playing, I’ve got you covered.
My course, Tony’s Acoustic Challenge, makes it easy to build a consistent, life-long guitar habit with only ten minutes of guitar playing daily.
Are you ready to learn the three secrets to faster guitar learning? Then check out this FREE guitar class to get started.