One of my favorite ways to get better at guitar is to learn new songs.
This is how I recommend every beginner learn the guitar: by learning songs first, music theory later.
So what’s the fastest (and best) way to learn songs on guitar?
The fastest and best way to learn songs on guitar is to:
- Choose the right song.
- Understand the law of diminishing returns.
- Find accurate tabs (or better yet, a video tutorial).
- Reduce the song to repeatable riffs or licks and work on the guitar part before you practice vocals.
- Learn to play each riff accurately, then quickly.
- Work on the transitions between licks, then the entirety of the song.
- As you find parts of the song where you are less confident, focus on practicing that riff or riff transition instead of running through the whole song.
- When you feel confident with the guitar part of the song, first hum along with the song and then sing along as you feel more confident.
- Use the first letter trick to memorize lyrics and become performance ready in your song of choice in no time.
I’ll discuss what each of these mean in the sections below.
1. Choose the right song.
An important part of learning guitar is choosing songs that are a little bit (but not too much) of a stretch of your guitar skills.
If you choose a song that’s too difficult or too far above your skill level, you’ll probably get discouraged before you actually learn the song.
If you instead choose songs that are just a little bit above your skill level, you will:
- expand your song vocabulary,
- enjoy the learning process more,
- and more likely stick with and achieve your song-learning goals.
Finding the perfect song you want to learn that is just a little bit above your skill level isn’t an exact science or necessarily an easy task.
So don’t sweat it if you’re continuing to learn songs that are at or below your skill level.
I often learn something about the guitar (or myself) when learning a new song no matter how easy it is.
Lastly, know that learning new songs on the guitar is not a linear process.
In other words:
You will probably have days where you feel like you aren’t getting any better at the song you’re learning.
You may even have times when you feel like you’re getting worse at the song you’re learning.
Again, don’t sweat it, stick with it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when something clicks and you make a significant improvement.
Success with guitar (and in life) usually consists of plateaus of no improvement punctuated by brief moments of significant improvement.
2. Understand the Law of Diminishing Returns.
The law of diminishing returns is often described in the context of economics but has broad applicability.
It’s easiest to explain the law of diminishing returns as it relates to learning songs on the guitar with an example.
Imagine you were to score your knowledge of a song on the guitar on a 100 point scale where 0 means you don’t know the song at all and 100 means you can perform the song perfectly.
The law of diminishing returns states that the effort required to take you from 0 to 10 is less than the effort to take you from 10 to 20 which is less than the effort to take you from 20 to 30 and so on.
In other words:
It’s not that hard to learn to play a song decently well.
But it’s much harder to learn to play a song perfectly where you feel comfortable performing it in front of an audience.
However, I encourage you to learn songs to a “performance ready” level because learning songs in this way will bring you the most satisfaction and the best learning experience.
I define learning a song to a performance ready level as knowing how to play the song:
- accurately (largely without error)
- at the actual tempo (or close to it) of the song
- without requiring tabs or a lyrics sheet (you’ve memorized music and lyrics)
- with confidence (enough to play in front of someone)
If you can learn a song to the standard of the above, I would consider your learning of the song complete.
3. Find accurate tabs.
Once you’ve found the song you want to learn and you understand the law of diminishing returns and what it takes to actually know the song, it’s time to find accurate tabs to be your learning resource.
My preferred method of learning a new song on the guitar is through an instructional video.
Naturally, YouTube is one of the places I look for an instructional video about how to play a particular song.
For instance, as I write this article I’m currently learning Love is All by The Tallest Man on Earth.
I found this excellent instructional video on how play the song:
I prefer instructional videos because you can get a great sense for rhythm of the song that’s more difficult to determine through guitar tabs.
Also, instructional videos include more detail and in my opinion are a much superior way to learn a song than only with a tab.
There aren’t always instructional videos on the songs you want to learn.
In this case, guitar tabs are the next best option.
I typically just search the web for “whatever song I want to learn + guitar tab.”
You may get multiple results for tabs created by several different people.
I’ve found that the one that has received the highest ratings is usually (but not always) the most accurate tab.
4. Reduce your song to repeatable riffs.
Most songs on the guitar are simply a series of riffs strung together.
The trick is knowing how and when to play those riffs.
Your guitar tab or instructional video should indicate the riffs you need to learn to know the song.
This immediately reduces the complexity of knowing the song.
In the instructional video above about how to play Love Is All, the instructor boils the song down to ~10-20 riffs.
Once you know all the riffs, you’re well on your way to knowing the full song.
Also, I recommend isolating your learning of the guitar and vocals (if your song has vocals) so you aren’t overwhelmed with what to learn.
Once you are proficient with the guitar part of your song, then consider practicing the vocals along with the guitar part.
In the next section, I’ll discuss how I learn each riff.
5. Learn to play each riff accurately, then quickly.
Most guitar songs sound totally different when you slow down the tempo significantly.
When you play a song very slowly, it can lose its beauty and sound unpleasant.
Unfortunately, this is the nature of learning music.
The practicing doesn’t always sound good.
But the end result is worth it.
Learning songs on the guitar is no exception.
When you play riffs very slowly, they usually don’t sound very good, especially when you play them over and over again.
Just stay the course and do your best to remain patient focusing first on the accuracy of your guitar riffs and then on the speed.
If you focus on speed first, you almost never learn the guitar riffs accurately which ultimately slows down progress on learning the song.
If you can play the correct notes but you’re struggling playing them at the right tempo, consider using a metronome.
Set the metronome to a beat slightly faster than the beat at which you feel comfortable, and force yourself to play along with it.
You’ll find that you can gradually increase the metronome speed until you are playing at the proper tempo for the song.
6. Work on transitions between riffs, then the entirety of the song.
For years I didn’t focus on the transitions between riffs in songs I was learning.
I discovered this short-coming when I found myself inevitably slowing down and breaking the tempo of a song when I transitioned between riffs.
Once I pinpointed this problem, I began practicing transitions between riffs and I significantly improved my song playing.
It’s easy to play riffs in isolation and then think that you know the song because you know each riff component of the song.
However, as I explain above, this can lead to issues when playing the song in its entirety.
The simple solution to this problem is to practice the last few notes of the one riff and first few notes of the next riff.
7. Practice areas of weakness instead of playing through the entire song.
Once you know all the riffs and feel confident about the transitions between riffs, you should be close to feeling confident with the guitar part of your song.
However, you probably still have a few riffs or transitions in which you aren’t quite as confident.
Instead of playing through the entire song to practice those parts where you are less confident, try to just practice the riff that’s giving you trouble.
This sounds straight-forward.
But it can actually be tempting to practice the whole song once you know it, glossing over the parts you don’t know as well.
8. Hum along then sing along to your song.
If you’re song has lyrics and you’re trying to learn them too, try humming along with the song before you sing.
I’ve found this strategy particularly helpful when singing along with finger-picking tunes because it’s harder for me to sing and finger-pick than sing and strum.
In Josh Kaufman’s book, The First 20 Hours, he describes learning the ukulele in this way saying:
I began learning songs by humming along as I played, learning where the words and chord changes overlapped, then adding lyrics until I could sing and play at the same time.Josh Kaufman
Conversely, you can try singing while muting the strings with your hand to practice the movement of strumming while singing.
9. Use the first letter method to memorize song lyrics.
The best way to feel performance ready with a song is to have the song entirely memorized.
In my experience, memorizing the lyrics is more difficult than memorizing the instrumental part of most songs.
The good news is there’s a memorization method that makes learning lyrics easier.
I don’t know if it has a formal name but I call it the first letter method and it works like this:
Say you want to memorize the first few lines of the Gettysburg Address:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Abraham Lincoln
Using the first letter method, you could create a cheat sheet that takes the first letter of each word and looks like this:
F s a s y a o f b f o t c, a n n, c i L, a d t t p t a m a c e.
If you read the original lines of the Gettysburg Address a few times and then try to close your eyes and recite it from memory, you probably won’t remember it or you will get stuck.
However, if you read the original lines a few times and then only use your first letter method cheat sheet to help you when you’re stuck, you should be able to remember most or all of it.
The first letter method enables you to gradually increase the difficulty of memorizing verbatim text which ultimately helps you memorize more quickly.
If you want to use this method to memorize lyrics, find the lyrics online and past them into this tool I made:
How long should it take to learn a song on the guitar? Of course this depends on your skill level, the complexity of the song, the amount of time you dedicate to practice, the frequency with which you practice, etc. A beginner could probably learn a simpler song (consisting of chords only) in an hour or two of practice. Expect more complex songs with picking, vocals, etc. to take more like 2 to 3+ weeks practicing a half hour to an hour a day.
Which guitar is best for beginners? I cover the answer to this question extensively in my post Acoustic Guitar for Any Age or Skill Level: A Buyer’s Guide. If you’re looking for a great full-size instrument that’s inexpensive, check out the Jasmine S35 acoustic guitar.