How do you learn songs?

This explains my experience well. I’m always on the lookout for new songs to learn. Especially when jamming with others.

Next I’ll get on youtube and listen to how others do the song, how the original went, that sort of thing.

If I decided I want to try to learn it, I’ll google the chords and also whether there is a lesson available.

From that point it varies from song to song. I have what I call low hanging fruit. One example is the song I can see clearly now by Johhny Nash. I saw the chords for it, grabbed my guitar, tried a couple of different strumming patterns on it, decided on the one I like and off I went, within a handful of attempts I could make it through the song in what I considered an acceptable manner and now it’s a regular part of my repertoire. (I’ve been playing and singing for well over a decade now).

Songs that are a bit harder will take me more effort, in that case I usually try to find a youtube lesson on the song and it takes more determination but not huge amounts that put me off learning it.

Lastly are the challenge songs, I think that’s the term Justin uses. An example of that would be Jim Croce’s song Operator played fingerstyle in a manner similar to how he played it. That’s a particular challenge as there were two acoustic guitarists on that song. Thankfully I found a song lesson with an arrangement suited to a solo guitar player. That song took me months of work, probably 15 minutes a day, to learn it to where I was comfortable playing it in front of others.

Learning to sing and play your songs from memory is a game changer. It wasn’t anywhere near as hard as I thought it would be.


I can do that, thank you. A multiple chord exercise is going to up the challenge and be beneficial. I didn’t even think of that.

Ok so some string buzz can be considered normal. I do sometimes fret (no pun intended) about whether my guitar is in an optimum state or not.

That actually reminds me that I read somewhere, maybe here, maybe reddit, that a guitar is not a precision instrument and the traditional fretboard design isn’t even optimal for perfect tuning, it can have buzzes and such as well. I definitely forget that.

I would have never believed that anyone would ask me that. My best answer, since my goal is to find my own voice on the instrument, is that I learn songs that I can tweak to my liking. It starts by being inspired by the musical movement (chord progression, melody, tempo, or lyrics) and then sussing out the best key for my playing, voice and/or harmonica. It is art (for better or worse) more than science or formula. I’m not even sure if that helps you or any one else. Finding your own voice means finding your own way.

The better question is how do YOU learn other things? One universal truth is that most of us slow things down and simplify the process. Start with two chord songs, there are a ton of them out there, do a Googlesphere search. Nail down a few of these with four slow down strums per bar. Grab a sandwich and a frosty drink, give it a try and report back.

Pretty much the ultimate achievement to a non-creative like me. Very interesting. Yeah, seeing it broken down into a process would make it seem feasible.

Like on piano, I certainly do break the song down into pieces and learn chunks at a time, both hands at once if possible. It’s odd that my instinct for learning songs on guitar is different than that.

Memorizing songs is difficult, so start as simple as you can stand and try to stay within your actual playing ability. Don’t be like me and try to go straight for Master of Puppets by Metallica - that will come later.

Like others have said already, it helps if it is a song you truly enjoy. If it’s a song that is new to you, definitely listen to it until you are familiar with its basic flow, e.g. intro verse chorus verse verse chorus outro.

Then, focus on learning to play one part of the song, perhaps the verse or chorus first, and be sure you can play it from memory. Then work on another part, and another, until you know all the parts. Now you just have to play them the right number of times in the right order. :wink:

Now, if lead guitar is something you really want to have a go at (and who doesn’t, right?), keep an ear out for songs with relatively simple solos, such as Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana, or just any riff, really, and practice those whenever Justin suggests having some Riff practice. Don’t worry about learning the whole song for these at this point - just have fun with them for now.


Hi Stacy,

I too am horrible about learning songs. It takes a lot of time to get it to sink in and stick well enough I can put the paper it is written on aside. A lot of this I know is due to my work requiring me to remember a lot of little details. I do much better learning a song once I am rested up and don’t have any work burdens.

So, from one novice at this to another, here is my experience so far, maybe you can use something from it.

The songs in the app didn’t satisfy because they didn’t sound like the original I wanted to emulate. I used the app for ‘just playing a song’ but didn’t memorize any of those long term.

I started listening through my inventory of music and would list some that I liked and thought to be easy enough to learn. I quickly found out only about 10% of those were actually easy enough to learn, and most of those were still over my head. So, I chose a few that had short repeating rhythm guitar.

One of those songs, it is the same 2 bars for the whole thing. It has a groove I enjoy and it required some talent I did not yet have with finger picking, sliding, and bending. It took me about 4 weeks of 2xday practice sessions to get where I could play it about 60% speed of the original. I discovered some covers by folks that played it very slowly and I was able to play along with one of them. It didn’t take long after that to get up to speed to play with the original.
What I learned is that if the automatic playing is not very engrained in my head, then a small slip will create enough of a mental mess I cannot find my place again. I can now, about 8 months later, plat that riff fairly reliably while talking to my wife. I still need to see the fretboard a bit too often, but i don’t totally have a train wreck. This simply took time on something short enough to learn quickly (for me). I can also kind of play it about 40% too fast for a few bars at this point. it is sloppy, but I can at least not get lost.

On another song, I just used tenacity. It is 15 bars before it repeats. It is fairly slow, so playing it was not much trouble, it was remembering it. I had to take each note one by one and stack it on top of the last one I finally remembered. This, embarrassingly, took me 5-6 months. I kept reaching for notes out of order or completely forgetting what came next. I basically did this one brute-force play over and over until I remembered the next note. Breaking into bars only helped later once I needed to fix timing. I play it now almost daily, trying to clean up small string buzzes and deadened strings. This one is also finger-style, and I wanted to use a technique that took me several weeks to get kind-of right before I could really take on the whole song.

My third case s one that I could not stretch far enough to play the chord it needed on the opening bars. I would practice the stretch daily until I could finally reach it, then started to learn the song. It very repetitive, more than the first song, and I found this one pretty easy to remember and slow enough to play with the recording. Those things helped me remember it.

For your numbered questions:

  1. if OMC sounds good, but playing doesn’t, maybe you need to get the notes in memory well enough before you expect it to sound good. I really need to do that.
  2. No help here. I remember lyrics like breathing. no idea why. I sound like strangled cat when I sing, so there is some cosmic joke played on me there.
  3. Justin has a retention lesson but I cannot find it. the method is basically play it at decreasing time intervals like 4/week, then 1/week, then 1/month. you will remember it that way. Maybe that can be useful for the longer term memory once you have the short term in place.
  4. get yourself a variety pack of picks. My preference is Dunlop, I got the ‘Electric’ and ‘LT/MED’ sets. You may hear clicking - see if you hear it on a recording, with the mic near the speaker, not the guitar. If that really is bothering you, try turning up the volume on the amp or using headphones.
  5. I saw it said before, get the rhythm up to speed. A lead without a feel for the rhythm won’t sound good. I have learned that the rhythm parts are actually fun to play once you dive into the details!

Adding on to these excellent points - 1 and 5 absolutely need to happen together.

If your (OP’s) OMC are as good as you say for the chords in the songs you’re trying to play, but it still sounds terrible when you play the song, then it’s probably the combination of trying to play the rhythm over the top of your chord changes that is introducing those imperfections.

First up, make sure your OMCs can hit 60 or more per minute.

Then, add your Chord Perfect Practice while doing OMC and try to get 60 or more absolutely perfect chord changes in one minute.

While you’re working on those, be sure to spend at least several minutes each practice session working on your strumming rhythms.

Finally, once you’re comfortable with all of the above, set up a metronome at 80 or even 60 BPM, get into a strumming pattern and add your chord changes into the mix, just one chord change per 4 beats to start.

Your goal is to be able to keep the rhythm going and getting a perfect chord on at least the first beat of each measure, and eventually for all of the strums in your pattern.

Work on that until it sounds pretty good. Now do it using a chord progression from a song you’re working on, preferably something simple with only 3 or 4 chords.

Now increase the tempo, and keep at it. Listen to your sound - do you hear any muted strings that shouldn’t be? Are your chord changes getting sloppy or missing strums? If so, slow it back down, get it as close to perfect as you can, and work your way up gradually.

It can be very frustrating initially, but if you stick with it, you’ll hit a point where you can play a song you like, and you can play it pretty well, and it will feel really, really good.

Hi Stacy,
Sorry you’re having trouble learning songs.
Others have offered plenty of positive suggestions which you have engaged with. I’m not sure I have much further to offer in that regard.
I was just wondering if you might be setting your expectations too high?
You’ve been playing piano since childhood, but guitar only since May last year. I had a quick scan through your previous posts and have difficulty identifying what it is about learning the guitar that brings you the most pleasure/satisfaction?
Have you remained in the same rut since your 1-year anniversary?
Everybody struggles with the things we are not (yet!) able to do, but that should not take away from the joy of the things skills we have acquired. Also bear in mind that we all learn at our own pace and there is no destination.
Would this be a good time to throw caution to the wind and record yourself playing something on guitar and sharing just for the fun of it? (No matter how ‘unsatisfied’ you are with it)
You never know. It might even bring new insights :grinning:


Hi Stacy,

I feel that when you practice changes between two chords it becomes automatic during the exercise as it is repetition but when you throw in several chords and some rhythm suddenly there are more variables in the equation. I can relate to this as I experience the exact same thing with the Bm chord.

I would focus on the Perfect Chord exercise in addition to the exercise suggested by Rick. I got this same advice from @sairfingers and it worked a treat for me. Take both exercises slowly focusing on accuracy and quality of the chords and gradually build up speed. A good rule of thumb is if you can play the progression 5 times in a row without a mistake increase the speed slightly. Work on various chord progressions. The good thing about this as @CT would say once you have chord progressions under your fingers you can play lots of songs.

With regards to pick noise it can’t be avoided completely but it can be reduced. Maybe explore whether you’re holding the pick with too much tension, the angles your plucking the strings, picking with too much force etc. Try out different pick materials and sizes.


Dear @artax_2,

Lots of good advice already, let me add just one thing: when you are choosing songs to learn, choose ones that you absolutely love. Hopefully, there are some that you love among Justin’s song tutorials (the best way to learn songs that I have found).

Many years ago, the first song I ever learned was Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man. It was (and is) my all-time favorite song. Learning my favorite song had some advantages:

  1. I already new all the lyrics (and there are a lot in that song!)
  2. I was so familiar with the music, that the chord progression (simple, only 3 chords) seemed familiar. I could almost sense where and what the chord changes should be (despite having no musical ear to speak of).
  3. My motivation was very high, since it was my favorite song, and all.

What are some of your favorite songs that you’d like to learn?

I feel that is very short, are you doing your daily repetoir as part of your course. I have almost 30 mins of music/songs every day that I play. This has been the regime since I had the ability to play through a piece. So most of the time I dont need to look at the music, I know the chords but I play each piece month on month.


How long have you been playing? I found it really hard to remember the most basic songs for a long time and it’s only at the two year mark that I can manage any with lyrics too and even now I can often forget bits. The way I do it is to pick a couple of songs I already know well that have easy short lyrics (ones that tell a story ballad style are easier to remember, e.g Stand by Me, House of the Rising Sun, Jolene and I have been using Justin’s beginner’s song books rather than the app as it’s all written out in front of me. Then practice these songs every single day.
What I have realised is that it takes very little to overload your brain when learning. If you break it down, you are strumming (keep that hand moving), remembering the strumming pattern, remembering the chord shapes, the chord sequence, being able to change between chords, tapping your foot and then trying to sing whilst remembering the words. Until several of these things are automatic you have no chance of doing it all at the same time.

I think you’re correct on this: Trying to strum in time and cleanly takes brain power away from other tasks like chord quality and transitions. As a Lefty learning right handed, strumming is my bigger challenge, and when I focus on clean strumming I tend to bungle chord changes some. When I strum with my thumb or fingers, that takes less concentration and I find it easier to keep time and have cleaner fret work. No matter your immediate problem, as everyone says, practice…practice…practice.

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You’ve described many things I also experience, so I appreciate that you’ve shared your observations and what worked for you. It appears to be a factor of time and persistence, which I already know, but darn it, what I regularly fail to grasp is that these baby beginner skills are taking SO long to develop , and that its normal for it to take so long. Its unreal!

OK so this brings up another thing that bothers me while I’m practicing songs. I have been meaning to ask my husband to listen to me play and determine which sounds better - strumming the chord on each beat, or only strumming the chord on the 1 beat. Or maybe just the 1 and 3, or 2 or 4 or whatever. I tend to want to strum on each downbeat (I’m trying to keep my hand moving constantly so strumming every beat makes it easier). BUT by doing this, am I trying to combine two different kinds of rhythym playing? It doesn’t sound bad in my ears as I’m playing but I do sometimes think it might be a little too much to a listener…so yeah I’m a little unsure as to what’s the better method. Maybe it is too much for my brain even though it doesn’t really feel like it is, maybe it is and just not super apparent .

OK I need to do this. I haven’t been combining the two exercises. As I stated earlier I skip past the exercises to fit in repertoire practice. (Not an excuse, its just that I don’t have all day to get everything in to practice). Seems like the chord perfect exercise came after I’d already started the course (bless Justin for adding it in when he did) but I didn’t back up and start over on the OMC to combine it with the PCP.

The rest of your guidelines are exactly what I need to do. Hmm. Maybe I need to set specific practice exercises on certain days. Mondays I do this, Tuesdays I do that.

Undoubtedly. I just know I can make this instrument sound good, mentally the minimum pieces are there, I just can’t physically (of course, its the universal struggle). It is frustrating.

This is an odd take, but knowing how to play the instrument, as in figuring out the mystery. Playing songs is fun, but I find that to be the tedious part. Weird, huh. I’m not even super motivated to be able to play songs I love. And I have no creative thread in my body, so I don’t aspire to make songs my own. I just really want to know how to play and be able to play the guitar.

Pretty much yes, but I think some things have successfully consolidated since then, some things have not. And I do feel like I’ve made some progress memorizing a couple of easy songs.

Also undoubtedly. Maybe I will one day soon, just haven’t had the time to set it up so that I look presentable.

So its interesting. I try to make myself use Justin’s tutorials. I don’t know why on earth I’m not motivated to use them. Maybe its the media method itself (as wonderful as it is) lacks something for me. Sheet reading, maybe. I like to use sheet music so maybe that’s why it’s not super satisfying. And not finding the right song in the grade level I’m at. I just don’t love a good portion of the songs that have lessons. Or they’re too cliche as beginner songs to interest me. I know, I know, I’m making up excuses.

I see your points. It will prob help remove some complexity if I already know the song by heart, lyrics-wise and melody-wise.

Well, herein lies a struggle. Songs I’d like to learn are probably in an alternate tuning. Probably have much too difficult riffs or techniques. I guess part of the frustration is that I’m spending so much time on learning chords and perfecting chords that I feel like I’m not learning a single thing to get me to where I can play what I want. But I understand I have to crawl before I can walk.

Me too! I end up spending over an hour nightly on repertoir at the expense of other exercises. Its so surprising how long it takes to learn anything on guitar. I can memorize a classical piece of piano in a short couple of weeks (perfecting it takes a long time, but not the memorization part).

Interesting! I am at one year and four months. Its just hard to grasp how long its taking to do something seemingly so simple as repeating four chords over and over for three minutes. But yes, there are so many things happening at once, so when I think of it like that, it does make sense that its going to take a long time. Like years.

@artax_2 Stacy I see one recurring response in your replies. Shortage of time. Playing the guitar well is a lot harder than the piano and it takes a great length of time.
One thing you can do to use your time more wisely is to break up you practice time into days.
Practice you exercises and new lessons one one day and practice song the next day.

This is a very complex statement:
Do you want to just strum along with open chords to sing along type song or do you want to shred up a storm like Steve Via or something in between?

Every Song can be played 3 ways.
1 The easy Camp fire version with open chords and simple strumming pattern.
2 The Close to there original with fills and embellishments.
3 The very complex finger style arrangement than contains Bass lines Chord melody and lead licks.
You need to know how to play number 1 before you can even think of playing 2 or 3 and a single guitar will never sound like a band.

The funny thing about playing the guitar is the slower you go the faster you learn and you’ve already identified 4 or 5 things you need to work on before you move on. So take your time and learn these things before moving on.