What is the best way to learn songs on guitar?
If you’ve read any other posts from my blog, you’ll know that I frequently preach about the importance of learning whole songs. The reason for this? Put simply, it makes you a much more complete guitarist in the long run. Plus, most people take up the guitar because they want to learn their favourite songs, right?
There’s a myriad of ways you can go about learning a song — some of which will suit you better than others, but it can be good to know the pros and cons of each method so you can make the right choice for you. Some learning styles might lend themselves better to certain songs, plus, it can be wise to mix up your methods as you might get more out of one than another.
With that in mind, this post is going to break down a number of methods for learning songs, which I’ve rated based on a number of factors, and given an overall score (1 being low, 10 being the best). There’s no need for you to agree with me, it’s about what works for you individually, but this might help open up some new challenges to progress your guitar playing or show you a technique you’d not thought of before.
Free Online TABs
There’s probably not many guitarists who can say that they’ve never used a tab before. Many believe it to be a fairly modern mode of notation, but its origins actually date back hundreds of years to the 15th century.
Obviously, the best thing about tabs is that they don’t require you to be able to read traditional notated music, which a lot of modern guitarists don’t know anyway, so it’s a really accessible way of learning for all levels of guitarist. Not only that, but since they’re usually submitted to tablature websites by users, most are free, so it’s top marks for cost effectiveness.
However, accuracy and reliability is the main drawback here. Whilst user submissions are great for your pocket, they aren’t always the most reliable sources. Authors will often state something like ‘This is my own interpretation of the song…’ just to let you know it probably isn’t 100% accurate.
However, whilst the accuracy of the notation itself can be questionable, so can the rhythmic accuracy. This is where tabs fall down somewhat as they don’t often offer much in the way of demonstrating the rhythm. Saying this, most people probably play the song alongside the tab to get an idea of this.
Interactive tabs take a step up from the traditional form since you can hear the music being played whilst a cursor moves through the TAB. This way, you get a much better idea of the rhythm of the piece, plus you can pause and go over sections you’re having difficulty with.
Being able to adjust the tempo is a particularly handy feature when learning songs and allows you to, literally, get up to speed gradually.
If you’ve never used one of these before, check out Go Playalong. I use this to make interactive tabs for my own students. Alternatively, Songsterr has over 500,000 interactive tabs for you to browse, so it might not have the more niche songs you want to play, but most popular guitar tracks are on there. The basic version is free, but the paid subscription allows you access to more features and controls.
Video Demonstration with TABs
This method is arguably one of the best, especially for visual learners who like to see someone else do it first. Plus, the creator will often overlay the tabs on the video, so you can pause and make sure you’ve nailed each section before moving on.
However, sometimes with this form of learning, the creators like to post the full tabs on an external site like a Patreon page, where you often have to pay a small amount to gain access. Also, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to find every song you want to play through this method, hence the low score of 4 for availability.
YouTube has become a godsend in many ways for guitarists when it comes to learning songs in this manner, but it does have its limitations in the long run. I cover this topic in more depth in my blog: The Eternal Rut of the Self-Taught Learner.
Lyrics and Chords (Online)
These basic lyric and chord sheets, which you often find on tab websites as well, will suffice for songs that have a fairly simple strumming chord pattern and structure, but anything more than that and they begin to fall short when it comes to understanding the rhythm.
They probably work best when you are fairly familiar with the song already, as you’ll have an idea of the rhythm beforehand which will help with nailing the chord changes. Alternatively, they can be handy if you’re trying to write a rearrangement of a song, as learning the basic chord structure can be a great place to start.
Nonetheless, they provide a fantastic jumping in point for beginner guitarists looking to play their first full songs.
Lyrics and Chords (Physical Book)
Much the same as the above, but arguably easier to focus on without the distractions of the internet at your fingertips. But on the other hand, it’s not as free as its online counterpart.
Chords & Tab/ Sheet Music/ Physical Book
Since many of these will be licensed products, affiliated with the artist who the songs belong to, you can guarantee a higher level of accuracy, particularly when it comes to rhythm. They often combine a bit of everything too: tabs, classic notation and chord charts to help you fully understand the piece. Saying all this, they can be fairly pricey as a result.
Verbal Instruction (Learning by rote e.g. YouTube tutorial)
This is certainly a useful method for absolute beginners who require a little more supervision in their learning, but it’s definitely not a long term solution as it would inevitably be a fairly slow way of learning songs.
Standard Music Notation
Not many new guitarists these days tend to learn standard music notation, unless they play classical guitar. Probably because it’s a very slow way to make progress during the early phases in comparison to tabs, which are much more accessible in that respect.
The upside, however, is the accuracy of the notation, but in reality, there are still things that can’t be translated to notation, and it certainly isn’t the quickest way of learning a song.
We’ve left this one until last — why? Because it’s the best for making you a great guitarist. Is it easy? Absolutely not. At least, not at first, but that’s why it’s imperative that you start as early as possible.
A lot of people get put off ear training early on in their guitar journeys because they think that it’s too hard and they can’t see the immediate gains, like you can when you learn a 4 chord song from a lyric and chord sheet. However, with enough practice, you can learn to play most songs within just a few listens.
The key here is to start off simple. Pick out a riff from a song you like or a basic chord structure and go note by note. If the song is on YouTube, use the playback tool to slow it down if you like. When you think you’ve got it, you can always check it with a tab or tutorial video, just try to resist the urge to do this first!
My free beginner ear training course for guitarists should be a good starting point. Check it out here:
Like I mentioned earlier, the best methods of learning guitar are the ones that work for you. Everyone learns in different ways; so whereas some may find it easy to be directed aurally note by note, others will want to physically see how a piece is played.
However, there is no harm in mixing up your methods — you might learn something new and you might even find it easier. Essentially, a combination of methods is a sound approach to take. Some songs can easily be learnt with a simple chord sheet, but other, more technical songs might require a more detailed, high-accuracy method such as an interactive tab.
If there’s one thing I’d want you to take away from this article though, it’s the importance of training your ear. Start now and you’ll thank yourself later, as learning songs will only get easier and easier the more you practise. It’s a skill every guitarist should have in their arsenal. Get going!