Tone Tips: How to Learn Songs Smart and Fast
If you’re heading into some intense woodshedding, why not make it easier?
Greetings, guitar nerds! I recently got together with legendary studio ace (and old buddy) Tim Pierce to make a video for his YouTube channel. He wanted to ask me about exactly how I approach learning a full set of music for upcoming tours or one-off gigs. We discussed the anxiety that we all feel when we are faced with learning 10, 20, or maybe even 50 songs for a gig. First of all: That anxiety is universal. We all feel it.
Coincidentally, I also recently received an email from a guitarist considering joining a Queen tribute band, and he was aware that I’d recently had to learn an entire set of Queen music in order to sub with Marc Martel’s Ultimate Queen Celebration band.
I wonder if you have any advice/experience on this kinda feeling? Should I bow out gracefully, feeling it’s beyond me? Or is it just natural nerves of a gig that’s a big step up for me, and I should approach it with an “I can do this” attitude? Any advice is much appreciated!
First things first. Number one: Yes, you can do it. You just have to pace yourself. Know and honor the speed at which you can learn and absorb music—taking into account the difficulty and complexity of the material—and make yourself a loose schedule. This will be different for every player, and it depends on how much time you can devote to practicing. I know I can only comfortably learn three or four songs a day. And when I say “learn,” I mean top to bottom, memorizing the rhythm and lead parts, the form, and the feel—everything. Since we’re talking Queen music, I’d limit myself to three songs a day. This means it would take me approximately nine days to learn 26 Queen songs. If I had four weeks, maybe I’d just learn two a day to give myself some slack. (It would then take me 13 days to learn 26 songs.) The point is, by laying out a roadmap, I’ve relieved some of the anxiety of the impending journey. I know I can do it. I have time. I just have to apply myself.
I like to learn in the morning. I’ll make a pot of coffee, get my mind in the zone, and go to work. From day one, I also like to get my guitars, effects, and amp dialed in for each song. I’ll go over the songs and try to absorb them by using all available tools, including my ears, transcriptions, YouTube videos, and whatever else is available.
So, let’s say I’m learning the Queen material. I’ll do the first two songs and get them down at 85 percent or so that first day—parts and arrangement. I might pick a hard one and an easier one: say, “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Will Rock You.”
On the second day, I’ll start off by reviewing those tracks. I usually find I will have forgotten much of what I learned the day before, but it comes back very quickly. I’ll then nail down the final details of each song—the final 15 percent—after which I’d move on to leaning two more tracks.
I’ll use this process of learning and review for a few days until I have six or seven tracks learned. I will then spend one day just reviewing the songs (with no new material that day), and then I’ll take a day off! I find that following the review day with a day off solidifies the tracks in my mind. Also, it can’t be overstated how important proper sleep is during this time. You need it to fully absorb the material and it’s essential for your memory to function properly.
Use a good phrase trainer. I use Transcribe! from Seventh String Software. It’s a terrific program that allows you to load WAV or MP3 files, and slow them down, loop them, change keys, and more. It’s so much better than using something like iTunes for learning the nitty gritty musical details. Once I’ve learned the material, I will load the songs into an iTunes playlist, which I’ll use when reviewing the entire set.
Just know that the anxiety you feel when faced with learning a large volume of material is something we all deal with. It’s a challenge, but it’s supposed to feel challenging! It’s the moments in which we are challenged, and then rise to the occasion, that we make the most progress in our lives. And there’s still no substitute for good old-fashioned hard work. Just be good to yourself along the way. Until next month, I wish you great tone!