How To Quickly Learn A Full Song On Guitar

Ayla Tesler-Mabe  /  Lessons / May 28

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You have a gig in less than ten minutes. And your bandmates decided to tell you at the last minute they added a new song to the setlist. A song you’ve never heard before let alone played on guitar. Great, what do you do now? There’s no point in yelling at your bandmates, at least not until after the show. So I guess your only option is to learn that song with the short time frame you have left. Because you can’t let your fans down!

You’d be surprised how often this happens. And as a guitar player, learning a song on the spot is an incredible skill to have. In this lesson, Ayla is challenged to play a song she’s never played on the guitar before (Rockband doesn’t count). She explains her personal process she goes through whenever she finds herself in this situation. 

Listening to the song

The first thing you’ll want to do is obvious but super important — And that is listening to the song you need to learn. Ideally, you’ll want to listen to the song as many times as possible so you can familiarize yourself with the structure and dynamics of the song. However, you won’t always have the time to listen to the song multiple times, like right now when you’re probably down to eight minutes left before the show. In this lesson, the song Ayla is challenged with is “Learn To Fly” by The Foo Fighters. And she too, for the sake of time, is unable to listen to it several times. So to expedite the process, Ayla suggests looking up the song’s tabs online. 

However, when you have more time available, try and learn the song by ear! This is great training and development for your ears. 

Structuring the Song

Ayla figures out each section of the song one by one, starting with the intro, the verse next, and then the chorus. If you’re listening to the song on YouTube, you’re able to change the speed of the song which is a great tool to hear what’s happening in the song and figure out the guitar parts easier.

Like this song, you’re bound to find a tune that has more than one guitar playing or maybe a more complicated guitar motif that will take some time to hone in on what’s being played. But, since the gig is in five minutes now, simplifying the part will suffice. Again, you can always cross-reference with the tabs too! And you can always experiment and embellish what you’re playing. As Ayla says, “Live shows are for trying stuff out.”

In the chorus of this song, and typically most songs, different guitar parts create a nice flow and wall of sound that can be discerned with headphones. But the most noticeable part will be the main chord progression.

Now there’s most likely a bridge and maybe even a solo in the song you’re trying to learn, but the show is in two minutes. And you do already have the intro, verse, and chorus down – that will get the job done!

Extra Tips

The more you learn a song without looking up the chords and tabs, the more you train and develop your ear. Then you can play any song you want, even if there are no tabs or resources online!

In a jam situation, when you’re not sure what the bridge or solo chords are, ask your other guitarist or bass player to face you while you’re playing and mirror their movements as best you can. 

The more you put yourself in this type of situation, the more comfortable you’re going to get learning a song on the fly. And hey, you may feel like you’re faking your way through at first, but your fans will be none the wiser.

The show is starting now, time to play the song like you’ve been playing it for years!

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