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The Working Guitarist: You've Got the Gig, Now Learn Those Songs!

How to cram an entire library of tunes into a short window of learning.

One of the hats I wear as a working guitarist is that of the touring sideman. It all started in 1997 when I auditioned for Adam Cohen’s touring band and got the gig. Since then, I’ve toured with Chris Cornell, Don Henley, Melissa Etheridge, Jewel, and many others. For all of these gigs, there was an audition process where I’d play anywhere from three to ten songs. Generally this would be followed by a “callback” audition a few days later, and I’d be asked to learn a few more songs for this. Once the gig was mine, the real work would start—learning all the songs for the tour! Sometimes (usually in the case of a new artist with only one or two albums) I’d only be expected to learn ten to fifteen songs total. But with someone like Chris Cornell, his intention was to perform material spanning his entire 20-year recording career. We were asked to learn a large list of songs from his solo albums, as well as Soundgarden songs and Audioslave songs. All told, we ended up learning about 80 songs that we managed to get mostly down over a pretty intense 3-week rehearsal period. I’ve recently learned a similar amount of material for my current gig with Melissa Etheridge. In this month’s installment of “The Working Guitarist” I will explain my approach to learning material thoroughly and efficiently.

Tools of the Trade
Back when I was just getting started on guitar, it was still the era of the turntable and cassette deck. There was also the 4-track cassette Portastudio. These were great for learning songs, because they usually had two tape speeds: 1 7/8 ips, and 3 3/4 ips. You could record a song onto the Portastudio off of your turntable or cassette deck, and if you set the tape speed at 3 3/4 ips, you could then play it back at 1 7/8 ips and it would be at half speed (and exactly one octave down). This was great for transcribing tough solos!

These days, it’s so much easier. While you can certainly use iTunes or a similar program to learn songs, I also recommend using a program designed for transcribing music, such as Transcribe! from Seventh String, The Amazing Slow Downer from Roni Music, or Capo from SuperMegaUltraGroovy Software. These programs allow you to load an audio file for playback, and will let you loop sections, slow down the tempo in various amounts without changing the pitch, and pan between the left and right channels. Transcribe also gives you the ability to change the key up or down (great if a song was recorded with guitars tuned down a half-step and you don’t want to do this), and to fine-tune the pitch of a song. It also has a graphic EQ, which can be helpful to accentuate the guitar frequencies and remove bass to make the guitar stand out. These are incredible tools, helping you really hone in on individual guitar parts.

I will usually make an iTunes playlist of all the songs I need to learn for a gig, and then use Transcribe to actually dig into each tune and learn it, slowing down solos or tough licks, looping sections, and panning L/R to hear different parts if necessary. Once I have all the material down, I close the software and simply play along to the songs in the iTunes playlist.

So Many Songs, So Little Time
If I have some time before rehearsals start, I look at the calendar and budget my practice time wisely. I find that I can comfortably learn three or four new songs a day. I’ll work five days a week, then take off a day or two to let it all soak in. I usually start a new day by going over the songs I learned the day before, and then I’ll start in on new material. I find that I learn best in the morning. If I don’t start working until late afternoon or early evening, my retention and focus is not as good. Make sure to assess when your focus and learning is the best.

If I have less time (I once learned 22 songs in 48 hours for Leann Rimes!) then I just brew up the coffee and dive in. This means turn off the cell phone, lock the door, and focus. Close your internet browser and email program on your computer as well—get rid of all distractions if possible.

Making cheat sheets can be very helpful. I almost never use charts on a gig or at rehearsal, but I’ll sometimes make cheat sheets with notes about each song—maybe the first few chords of each section of the tune, or reminders such as “slow 6/8” or “1 bar break after chorus 1.” I put the songs on my iPhone so I can take them everywhere and listen to them as much as possible. I’ll also look at the list of songs and try and hear each song in my head as I look at the titles. It’s a bad feeling seeing a song on a setlist at rehearsal or the gig and drawing a mental blank!

I approach each song by starting at the beginning and working my way through slowly. Using Transcribe, I loop the intro and make sure I have that nailed, then move on to verse one. I loop verse one, until I’ve got that as well. Then, I loop the intro and verse one together. When I feel I’ve got the changes and all the licks and intricacies down, I move on to the chorus, etc. Once you have the song under your belt, it is important to note that you can save lots of time by focusing on the tough spots in the music, and not needlessly going over the easy spots. I find it can be kind of easy to zone out when playing along to recordings and just jam along, and while it’s important to play the songs all the way through, if you have the song nailed but keep stumbling on the bridge, just focus on that part that’s tripping you up. You’ll save time and energy.

More and more these days, I’m finding that YouTube is my friend when it comes to learning songs. Of cours you can find lessons of varying quality, where guitarists teach how to play certain songs. But what’s even more valuable, is live videos from past gigs of the artists I’m playing with. These can make life so much easier by giving you a feel for how they approach their songs live. Maybe the ending is different from the album for example. Or they may have changed the key from the original album version. Also, if you are replacing a guitarist in a two-guitar band situation, you will instantly see which parts you are supposed to learn, saving time and brainpower. If it’s a one-guitar situation but there are multiple guitar parts on the record, you’ll be able to see how other guitarists approached playing the material live, giving you invaluable insight.

The Right Parts + The Right Tones = Success
When preparing for a tour, I will generally choose what guitars I will use and what my amp and effects setup will be well in advance. I’ll incorporate these into the material-learning process. I use a MIDI switching system for my amp and effects (both my rack and pedal effects are switched via an RJM RG-16 switcher) and I use a Ground Control MIDI foot controller for patch changes. I’ll program my effects and amp settings as I’m learning each song, and I’ll name my presets as I go. Then when going over the material at home, I’ll switch sounds just like I would if I was at rehearsal or a gig. I like to come in to the first rehearsal very prepared, and that means the music and the tones and switching as well.

Pete Thorn is a Los Angeles-based guitarist, currently touring with Melissa Etheridge. His solo album Guitar Nerd will be out in early 2011.You can read more about his career and music at