How I Approach Learning a New Song on Guitar

Happy New Year! I hope this is a happy, healthy and musical New Year for you! With so many awesome guitar songs out there, I've been thinking about my learning process and how I've refined it over the years.  When I hear a new song that I want to play, here are the steps I take to break it down:

Step 1: Find an acoustic version of the song I want to play. For me, it's best to listen to a "stripped-down" version of a song, and often the first place I turn to is YouTube to see if the artist has an acoustic version, so I can concentrate only on the guitar and their voice. When many different instruments are used in a song, it can be confusing, especially when I'm trying to focus on playing only the guitar portion.

Step 2:  Find the chords used in this song. There are many different ways to figure out the chords to a song.  Some people look it up on websites like or where users can submit their take on the chords. Others buy official music books from the artist at a music store, bookshop or online at places like  In the past couple of years, I have been turning to YouTube and just typing in the name of the song plus the word "lesson" or "guitar lesson". There are so many high quality, free tutorials that you can find online. And with video, I can pause, rewind and play it over and over until I know the material. It's awesome and highly recommended!

Step 3: Play along with a section of the song. Assuming that I have the right chords, I then begin playing along with the acoustic version from Step 1. Sometimes I've noticed that a song may be in a different key, which means that the pitch of the song is shifted up or down. This can be tricky for a beginner, so my advice is to skip over this type of song completely or head back to Step 2 and find the correct chords for the version you'd like to play. Don't worry about strumming patterns, just play along slowly with all down-strums.

Songs usually have three parts to them: The Verse, Chorus and Bridge. Sometimes each of these parts have different chords, although you may get lucky and have the same chords for the entire song.  Nevertheless, it's best to start with easy guitar songs first. If you pick hard songs, you probably will get discouraged and not want to play guitar.  Don't let that happen to you! Take it slow and start with easy guitar songs!

Step 4: I learn the other sections from Step 3 until I can play the song from start to finish. Once I have the first section (typically the verse) under my belt, I then move to the next section and play along with this portion of the song. The great thing about songs is that they often repeat verses and choruses, so I really only need to learn a few pieces in order to play the whole thing.

Step 5: Learn the correct strumming pattern for this song. Once I have the different sections memorized and can play the complete song, it's time to add some flavor to my strumming.  If I only use down-strums, it's OK, but it may be too "plain". There are a ton of different strumming patterns you can use, and I like to think of them as filters (kind of like using Photoshop) that can added to a song in order to give it a different feel. I strum my guitar up or down, go fast or slow, and accent different notes in addition to strumming. As I've learned more songs, my repertoire for strumming has improved, and yours will too. Note: I plan on adding easy guitar videos for strumming patterns in the future.

Step 6: Memorize the song lyrics. OK, so once I feel good that I can play through the entire song, have an interesting strumming pattern, then it's time for the lyrics. Don't forget the lyrics! I think it's very important to memorize the lyrics! For me, it helps with really "owning" the song and gives me confidence when I play in front of others. I usually turn to Google for song lyrics and usually type in the name of the song plus the word "lyrics" into the search box. I then listen along with the acoustic version and make sure the words match up, in order to memorize the correct lyrics.

Step 7: Play and sing along with the complete song. Finally, I practice playing guitar and singing along with my favorite song. This is definitely not a one-time event. Often, I play it LOTS of times, over and over again until I know it completely. I am not doing this process over a day or week, but usually over months and years. However, I enjoy the process and in doing so, I often pick up on subtle things that an artist does for each song. For example, some musicians may play a barre chord instead of an open chord. Or they may use a combination of finger picking and strumming in how they play a particular version. I've picked up on these small variations over time. I'm not a singer, but realize that my voice is also an instrument. Over time, I plan on learning more about my voice and better ways to improve my singing.

So that is my process in a nutshell. I've also been experimenting with creating playlists on YouTube in order to save my favorite song versions and to allow me to quickly access them whenever I want. I've started recording my cover (and original) songs into GarageBand to measure my progress over time. I can't emphasize how much I love YouTube for practicing and learning guitar. I am thankful it's there, and wish I had it when I started playing guitar in the late 90's. This is what has been working for me.  I would love to hear from you!

Do you have a different approach to learning new songs? What steps do you take when learning a song?

1 comment:

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