How do you learn songs?

Let me start by saying I searched previous topics to see if I could bump an already similar thread, and couldn’t find one I thought would fit. But if the mods see this as fitting in one of the others, I’m happy to see it moved.

I’ve been holding myself back from starting a topic on this because I figure there might not be any real answer, or the answer might be different for everyone, or the dreaded answer might be that I already know the answer, and if I do know it, I guess my problem then becomes either accepting the answer, or I don’t know what to do with the answer. But I’m just going to get it out so I can say I’m not bottling it up.

I’ve just grown unsatisfied with my playing (like many of us, I’m sure), my current state of progress, and my inability to figure out which way to step. I’m (technically) stalled at Gr 2, Module…14 for sure, maybe even a little of 13. From my previous discussions over the summer I determined I needed to stop moving ahead in the lessons, learn some songs, and let a lot of the course material consolidate. I’ve been doing that at least a couple of months (a few weeks sprinkled in where I was pulled away for personal reasons and didn’t get to focus on the guitar in any way), so maybe there’s been a total of 8 weeks where I just focused on memorizing some songs. Some things have consolidated, I think. Some haven’t.

I forced myself to start looking away from the app while I tested my memory on songs as they played. I find that somewhat effective for memorizing. But what I find very un-fun is playing without a backing track. It really shows how bad my playing is (obvious as to why). I can play perfectly in time with a drum beat. Without one, my timing isn’t terrible but also not great (remember I’ve played piano a long time, I don’t struggle too bad with timing). But it’s the sounds coming out of the amp. Urgh! I don’t like them!

Here are some particulars when trying to learn songs and practice in general:

  1. Chords not sounding good (muted strings or fret buzz). I’m aware that this is supposed to improve with time…I guess? But I just don’t see how it’s going to get better with just practicing songs, I just feel like I’m going to play badly forever. How long before these fingers start making better sounds?

  2. The lyrics. Sheesh I can’t remember lyrics very well at all. That’s another of the hardest things about not playing with the app and the songs that have an actual singer- I am struggling with how to start a song and end a song, and remembering or knowing all the lyrics.

  3. Retention. Yeah I will learn a song pretty good for a week or two. Then I’ll get a difficult task at work that over the course of several days pushes out the song I just learned and then I have to pretty much start over. Or I’ll move on to a new song and by the time I learn it, the other one’s disappeared from my brain. So its a cycle of drilling the same 3 or 4 songs for weeks on end.

  4. Pick clicking noise. Sometimes it really just drives me nuts. No matter what material I play with its so very clicky.

  5. Rhythm playing versus lead playing - I’m getting very anxious about not ever learning lead playing or single note melodies. Surely there are lessons on this? I just need to be told to relax about it, I think, that it will come. And the fact that one guitar can’t do both…or can it? Is that taught or discouraged? But a song never sounds right without both lead and rythym, in my opinion.

Which leads to my topic title - how do you learn songs? I read so many forums where new players are asking for songs that are easy to learn and people just bombard them with songs and bands and say ‘this is easy, that is easy’, ‘try this, try that’… and I’m just bewildered. Try…HOW??? Like by ear?? That makes me think I’d learn a song with the complete wrong fingerings (as seen in any of my question posts I tend to make things very hard) seeing as I don’t know where in the hell to put my fingers.

Do you (yes, you the reader) learn by ear by figuring out a song regardless of whether you’re making the correct chord, whether its an efficient way or not, or if the chord progressions are correct? Do you learn the lead, or melody, or simply the chords? Do you just play the recorded version over and over and over and over and over and over? Do you look up tab instead? A chord book? Do you only learn what Justin has a lesson plan on? Do you have some other plan of attack? Do you learn one easy version and then learn a hard/accurate version later? Before the internet and Youtube, was it easier or harder to learn songs? I just find it overwhelming I guess with how to learn a song, and why it will sound like crap for so long, and how long it will sound like crap for.

Maybe I should just start moving on in lessons to break the frustration cycle, not sure.

Sorry this is so long, and probably full of questions that have no real specific answers since we’re all different.


Hi Stacy,

Firstly from experience it is a good thing stepping away from the song app for learning songs but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn them and use the app as a backing track. It just means that you will be more likely to be able to play a song without relying on a backing track.

To start off learning songs away from the song app I would highly recommend using Justin’s song lessons. Follow the song lesson process Justin outlines in the song lesson videos which gradually build up in difficulty from getting the chord progression ingrained to sounding like the actual track.

  1. As to getting the chords sounding crisp and clears keep working on the chord perfect exercise.
  2. For learning the lyrics to me it’s about repetition. Listening to the song over and over again singing along with the lyrics in front of me learning on line at a time and adding the next line after I’ve memorised the previous line. A bit like cramming for educational exams but more fun.
  3. Repetition and repetition. You need to keep practicing it. Once you’ve got it down you still need to practice it now and again to keep it in the memory. Justin covers this in a lesson,
  4. What size of pick are you using?
  5. Yes there are lessons in lead but first you need to develop good rhythm chops. As for solo guitar you can do arrangements with lead fills to make it sound more interesting. Again this is covered later on in the course.

I would suggest park lead guitar to the side. Focus on learning songs using Justin’s song lessons at appropriate grade and once you’ve got it under your fingers practice against the backing track in the song app or actual track.


I can give you a straight and honest answer but I’m afraid you won’t like it and I don’t want to hurt your feelings. My wife tells me I have no filter, so if you’d like a straight honest reply or if you’d like to send me a DM I will try and help you. Let me know.


Hurt my feelings?! Hahah oh man. It might be along the lines of ‘quit yer bitching’? Haha. I can handle it. If it would be hurtful to other players’ feelings you can DM it to me, but if it would be otherwise helpful to others, you can put it here.

1 Like

I must say I let this slide by the wayside in order to fit in other practice items in the limited span of time I usually have. Not making an excuse- I really do need to make sure I do this, so I’ll try to remember that it is still very useful and just do it.

I admit, I don’t sing along with playing along with the app. I’ll add this in, it could make a big difference. Thanks for the suggestion.


I’ve been experimenting. Started on thin Fender ones. Then moved to medium Fenders, just recently. But I’ve tried plasticy ones that come with guitar gear ordered online (they usually feel like a generic plastic material). I’ve tried nylon. I’ve tried super hard (thick) pics. I’m starting to feel like the thin is too thin, and kind of liking medium but they’re all clicky. Maybe my volume is too low, haha.

I hear you. I haven’t skipped ahead in any lessons, I’m just growing antsy. But I totally understand not going anywhere near lead yet. I’m well aware I’m not ready in the slightest. I’m glad to hear there are dedicated lessons on it, I think that’s all I needed to know to feel better about it.

Ditch the app. It’s good for beginners but you’re beyond that. It’s so hard to learn a song by heart with it.

Electric can sound poor solo strumming acoustic songs - try acoustic for solo play.

What I do:

  • listen to the song, check out a lesson (sometimes)
  • save/print out lyric and chord sheet for song structure
  • play it solo
  • play it along with the track
  • add singing etc later

Some songs take ages. Others are super quick, if I know the song well already. Lyrics are the hardest.

Forget lead - rhythm is the essence of guitar IMHO. Rhythm by itself works but lead by itself is dry except for those at really high competence levels.


Buy orange tortex. Tried that yet?

1 Like

I did recently break down and just print out lyrics, and then went over the sheet and wrote in the chords and made my own chord sheet. And then played along with that. Was a bit time consuming, to be honest. But if that’s the way some people do it, I won’t scoff at it. I only tend to scoff at a method if I feel like I’m the only one doing it, because then it feels like it’s got to be the wrong way. But if it’s legit, I’m happy to adopt it. It was also challenging because, playing by it, i didn’t have the drum beat. Sooooo…I guess maybe building the learning of the song up over time is what you’re suggesting. Interesting. Thank you!

ETA- It’s always interesting (and refreshing) to hear a player say they prefer rhythym over lead. To a novice, ya know, lead is usually the most exciting part, but I guess it takes experience to determine whether that’s true for oneself. Thanks for making that point!

Orange tortex, I have not. But I have a green tortex. It’s clicky.

For starters ditch the lyrics. Focus on playing the song. Only when you can play a song comfortably and from memory you should start to think about singing. Playing and singing is not easy, for now focus on the fundamentals of playing. The singing can come later. This is why its JustinGuitar not JustinGuitarAndSing. Simples.



Stacey @artax_2

Plenty advice from people for more experienced than me, if I can address remembering the lyrics and I presume you are singing as well.

General I start to learn a song by learning to sing, first of all by singing along with the original often in the car so I can’t see the words and then the karaoke version. In terms of the original I get to the point where I can’t recite the words from memory but I sing a line I just know what the next line is. I am talking about singing along with it well past double figures possibly nearer three figures if the song is new to me. I have probably made a decision early on about whether I am wanting to play the song completely from memory, in which case I learn the words line by line to the point where I can recite them in my sleep. If not I am quite happy to have the chord sheet in front of me to guide me through chords and lyrics. I am learning the chords at the same time and then put them together using the lyrics to know how the chord changes go. Initially the combination sounds terrible but you just have to keep practicing and it will get better, but it can sometimes take quite a while.

I have tried occasionally to play along and sing with the original a bit like the App but it does not work for me.

As been said above I think it comes down to repetition and some songs are easier to learn than others.

That’s just the way I do it, but of course it may not work for you.


Toby @TheMadman_tobyjenner
I tend to learn the lyrics basically in parallel with possibly the lyrics ahead of the chords. But we are all different and you have to go with what works for you.

First off I have to thank James for answering some of your questions and doing it nicely? :grinning:

This is your number 1 problem right here. Your going to have to go back and learn the chords that are giving you trouble and sounding bad. Even it that mean going back to Grade 1. Moving ahead before you’re ready is only going to come back and bit you in the ass.

Rule number 1 when learning any instrument. “You Play like you Practice.” And it sounds like you’ve rushed ahead without learning the basics. They will never get better unless you make them better and that means practicing them correctly.

I wouldn’t worry about lyrics until you can play the song.

You can’t learn a song in a couple of week and then expect to play it a month later without practicing it in between. Have a list of song you have learnt or are learning and play them at least once a week for 2 or three months then again a few months after that.

Can’t help you there I hardly ever use a pick But James and JT covered that

You need to be a good rhythm player to play lead so like singing you should put that aside until you solve the chord and song problem.

This is what got you here in the first place. The reason you’re having trouble is you never learnt the previous lesson properly. I think it would do you a lot of good to go back and work on the problems your having now. They won’t fix themselves they will only get worse.

I don’t see it as bitching I see it more that you’re frustrated and need some guidance.


I see what you’re saying. The point I am struggling with is this- lack of knowing the lyrics is resulting in me not being super familiar with the structure of the song overall. Its like the structure is tied to the lyrics. Interestingly, my piano pieces are all classical, so there are no lyrics whatsoever there, and I don’t have a memorization struggle of this kind at all. I’ve even thought briefly about going the classical route with guitar but that would certainly be a decision for later on.

Oh interesting! I hadn’t thought about basically just learning the lyrics first. Duh! Hahaha. I may try that, I bet it would work for me. Thanks!

1 Like

Hi Stacy,

You’ve gotten a lot of good advice so far. I agree with others that you may need to incorporate some time into your practice routine to focus on the chord perfect exercise. Getting chords to ring out cleanly will likely make a huge difference in how you feel about playing the songs you are learning.

When I start working on a new song, I will pick a song that that I really, genuinely love and am excited to play. Motivation is a big part of making sure you pick up the guitar/practice. It’s a lot easier to stay motivated when I am happy with my song choice. This usually also means that I am pretty familiar with the lyrics already. I may not know all of them, but I can fill in what I don’t know later. I have a binder in my music area that I put all the lyrics to the songs I’m working on in. It’s there if I need it, but eventually I find that I am not really referencing it anymore and can do it from memory.

I prefer to learn by watching someone play and/or teach the song and then seeing if a tab exists to fill in any gaps. I am pretty early in my journey of learning theory and I have not really done much transcribing, so this is just what works for me. Others may prefer to do it by ear. There is no one way, it’s just about your preference.

I then typically just practice the song I am working on in small bits every time I pick up the guitar until I get it down enough to play all the way through. Usually, by then, I’ve played it enough that even if I don’t play it for a while, I can pretty easily figure it back out again later since I’ve built up that muscle memory.

Also, I agree with others that mentioned that rhythm guitar is an essential skill. It is the bones of a song and will sound great on its own. While lead guitar is fun too, it typically doesn’t make as much sense to play by itself without another guitar player. Although, there are definitely ways to incorporate lead lines/fills into a song where you are mostly playing rhythm. Lead is a skill that can be built up any time, so don’t feel pressured that you have to learn it right away.


Yeah, I don’t do that, it’s too much work. I usually get chords & lyrics from ultimate guitar. Occasionally I have to tweak it a bit.

Haha, I still do love lead. Rhythm without lead can sound awesome (especially with embellishments), lead without rhythm is bleh. Even if the chords are provided by bass, piano, or even if it’s just over drums to provide some rhythm feel… lead has to have something behind it.

1 Like

I wouldn’t quite say this. When I do the chord exercises, be it one minute changes or chord perfect, I generally find I can perform changes with ease and mistakes are almost zero. Going by Justin’s instruction, I move on once I’ve met the minimum guideline for the module. It’s during song play that chords can get a little wonky which is frustrating because going back to the exercises, which I understand is the right thing to do, only reminds me that I can do those chords relatively flawlessly. I don’t know if it happens because I’m not warmed up, or if my fingers get wore out, or if its that I’m trying to strum too so brainpower is split, or what the issue is. When it happens I slow the song down and that helps some but I still feel frustration and never know if its that my instruments action is too low or what, even though I’ve had it set up by a professional, but maybe its humidity etc. There’s usually a lot of things going through my mind during practice.

I think i could do this if I were learning from a chord sheet, but playing along with the recording would make it very difficult for me. I’ll make a mental note to try doing just one bit at a time. I mean I’ve seen Justin say to do small bits in some of the lessons, so I’ll try to make myself do it that way and see if I have better luck.

1 Like

Try doing this instead of OMC Take a G D Em C or any 1 5 6 4 chord progression. Play each chord 1 bar all down strums start slow and do every chord correctly. When something goes wrong try and replicate it and figure out why it happened.

If your guitar was set up for lead playing you very well may get some string buzz when you strum the guitar this is normal. Try lightening up on your strumming and turn the amp up to compensate for the lighter strumming if you need more volume.