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The Best and Worst Ways to Learn a Song on Guitar

Updated on March 6, 2011
Guitar Heroes: if your current mission is to learn a song then this should be your Side Kick.
Guitar Heroes: if your current mission is to learn a song then this should be your Side Kick.

I'm seeing a lot of street-corner wisdom on the Web these days regarding the best ways to learn a song on the guitar. Rather than 'talk' this article through I'll present it in list-fashion since this is a hefty topic.

The Best Ways to Learn a Song

  • First, be honest. Sure, you love the song. But is it the best song for you to learn right now? Trying to learn Little Wing, for example, when you're at a level where you should be learning Purple Haze instead would be a mistake. Little Wing is much more difficult; give yourself time to build up to it.

  • Listen to the song many, many times. That may sound obvious, but you have to give your ear a chance to impart accurate information to you. The only way to do this is to give it many opportunities to get the song right. For fast songs, by the way, I suggest listening at normal tempo before using any gadgetry to slow the song down.

  • Get an electronic metronome, now (a metronome provides a constant pulse or click). If you're itching to practice right now, go to

  • Know the difference between Performance Tempo and Practice Tempo. Usually, performance tempo (the song's tempo) is your goal while practice tempo is how you get there. To know your target song's tempo find out its BPM (beats per minute), then practice the song at HALF THE SPEED of the original. As you get better at playing a song your practice tempo will increase.

  • Have patience. Learn to ENJOY slow practice and it's benefits. There is a saying, "practice makes perfect". Well, the practice that counts is s l o w practice. And you will only practice slow if you have patience.

  • Take the song a section at a time. Practice playing through the whole song only after you can play through each section perfectly.

  • Write out the difficult parts in notation or TAB, and practice them (this works for long parts especially). Playing along with the song over and over again might be fun but is bound to give you some bad habits you'll need to break later (bad fingerings, for example).

Yeah, but you still have to practice your guitar if you want that song.
Yeah, but you still have to practice your guitar if you want that song.

The Worst Ways to Learn a Song

  • Don't follow any of the above advice.

  • Never mind a metromome, or whatever. That's for Classical guitarists, or other stiff musicians. People with real feel or soul don't need stuff like that.

  • Believe that practicing along with any song, regardless of that song's difficulty, is the sure way to be able to play it as well (or better!) than the recording. After all, having blind faith in yourself is the only way to see the light. Or something like that.

  • Go to as many open mics as you can and perform the song with various house bands. It's really all a matter of confidence and the more people you play in front of the quicker you'll master the song.

  • Never mind any of the above suggestions. Just record your best live take of the song and post it on YouTube.

Obviously, I hope you go with the first group of suggestions...



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