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How to Get More Out of Learning Songs on Guitar

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Learning songs on guitar provides a great opportunity to expand your knowledge and skills beyond what’s required to just “play” the song. However, it’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of learning songs chord for chord and note for note without putting much thought into what you’re actually playing.  If we never venture outside of this context, we’re leaving a lot on the table.  

So with this lesson I provide a few ideas for getting more out of the experience, which can be quite liberating and allow you to achieve a higher level of comfort and confidence in playing songs.

Learn the Chord Progression

The first thing to do when learning a new song is to learn the chord progression. No, I mean, actually learn it…not just know what it is and be able to play it.

Start by writing it down.  This process alone will draw more attention to the progression and keep you from going through the motions without giving thought to what’s being played. From here you can figure out the key of the song and determine what the chord progression is (I IV V, ii V I, etc).  You can use the guitar chord key chart to help you find the key.

If you’re not familiar with naming chords by number, check out the Guitar Number System lesson.

In time, you will develop an ear for how common chord progressions sound and will begin to recognize a progression by ear alone. Additionally, knowing the progression by number will allow you to easily transpose a song to a different key, which is common in a band setting to better suit a singer’s vocal range.

Expand the Chord Progression Across the Fretboard

Once you know the chord progression, mix it up and play different voicings of the chords in different areas of the fretboard. This is a great way to learn the guitar fretboard and be able to play up and down the neck.  Triads are particularly useful in this context.  Additionally, this is great practice for playing with other guitar players. Playing the same chords as another guitar is a wasted opportunity to add more layers and life to the music.

Note, not all voicings are going to sound good, and that’s ok. Over time this process will help you develop a sense for the voicings that do sound good for a particular progression and compliment a second guitar well.

Learn the Melody

The melody provides a wealth of opportunity to play off of. It can be included directly into your solos and lines (ie. the solo to Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana is just the vocal melody). You can also harmonizes against the melody or create little motifs around it. In any case, if you learn the melody you’ll likely start utilizing it into your playing with even thinking about it because it’ll be a familiar sound to you that you’ll instinctually pick up on.

Experiment with Fills/Embellishments

Expanding on the chord voicings bleeds nicely into developing fills and embellishments to the progression. Fills are phrases played to “fill in” the space between vocal lines. Arpeggios, double stops, and 6th harmonies are a popular choices for creating more movement and texture around chord progressions.  Take a listen to “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits, “Little Wing” by Jimmy Hendrix, and “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison for an example of each respectively.

Guitar Solo

When I learn solos, I like to try to learn them note for note (or at least close to it) at first.  This isn’t because I’m hell bent on playing it exactly as it’s played by the artist, but because I want to pick up on the nuances of what’s being played.  But before you get started with the solo, you need to know what you’ll be playing over.  So before you dive in and starting picking apart the solo note for note, make sure you understand the chord progression backing the solo. It may or may not be the same progression as the verse, bridge etc., so just make sure you listen to what’s being played behind the solo specifically.

Determine the Scales, Arpeggios, etc Used for the Solo

Once you learn the solo note for note, or close to it, determine the scales, arpeggios, chords, etc. from which the solo is derived.  In some cases, it’ll be straightforward as expected.  However, in others you may pick up on some interesting approaches to playing over a particular progression.

If you’re not sure where to start with figuring out what’s being played, a good place to start is the pentatonic scale of the key in which the song is written. I would say it is by far the most popular scale used for soloing.

One thing to keep in mind is it’s common for songs to change keys during the guitar solo, so you may need to take a more thorough look at the backing music to confirm the key.

However, in many cases of a key change, you may find the key has simply changed to the relative key of the song, in which case the scales would remain the same, just the tonal center would change.

Change it Up

Once you’ve learned the solo and understand what’s being played and the backing music, change it up.  You don’t have to write a completely different solo, just change up some parts of it to inject your own style and preferences into it. Let the original work provide the framework for you to take it to a different place and explore your own nuances and improvisation.

Learn All Parts of the Song

Whether you’re into lead or rhythm guitar, don’t just learn the parts that interest you most. Learn all parts of the song and even pay attention to the bass lines. Knowing what the other guitars are playing can help you to better understand the parts you’re most interested in and how the different parts work to compliment each other and overall depth to the music.

Wrap up

Learning songs on guitar provides a wealth of opportunity to explore the guitar beyond what the song itself provides. Taking a more thorough approach to learning and understanding what’s being played can reap huge benefits to your playing. Obviously, there’s so much more you can get out of learning songs, such as composition, arrangement, etc., but as a guitar player, keeping these tips in mind will greatly improve your understanding of the guitar and ability to play freely all over the fretboard.

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