How do I learn to play a song on guitar?
September 18, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

How do I learn to play a song on guitar?

I've been playing guitar for several years, but by playing I mean, you know, dicking around. I'm nowhere near as good as I want to be, and I don't even want to be all that good.

So let's say I have the guitar, have the song, and have the music (for me, tab). What advice can you give me for being able to play that song at a reasonable level of proficiency?

And I bet picking a song that is of a reasonable level of difficulty is important, but I do sometimes have difficulty judging that.

posted by iftheaccidentwill to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
cute! um....
Strumming patterns are key.
If you can get what key it's in from the chords, you can probably fill in the extra riffs n stuff that the tab might have left out.
Learn the different positions for chords and always know where 1-3-5 is.
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 7:40 PM on September 18, 2012

Persistence. You're right about choosing a song that's reasonably difficult, that's important. What I did was just listen to the song repeatedly and try to play along. You listen to the song to get the feel of how it's getting played (strumming, tempo). You'll probably have a lot of trouble at first, especially with tempo, but the key is to keep practicing. I like to occasionally play the song myself, without playing along, and find out what parts I need to work on.

Eventually you'll get the hang of it, but only if you're persistent..

Also, it helps to practice the chord positions beforehand
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune at 7:44 PM on September 18, 2012

There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer for this. One approach is to break it into its constituent parts: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, outro/jam, etc., and practice the parts separately until you have a good feel for them, then put the parts together and practice the song from front to end. That approach is sometimes better than trying to simply learn it from end to end in one fell swoop, as you it makes it easier to get back on track if you screw up a part. But really, I find it always comes down to practice, practice, practice until you like what you're hearing.

Playing songs (as opposed to just dicking around) is work, and you have to put in the time to get the results. Or at least, I find I do...
posted by mosk at 7:49 PM on September 18, 2012

Get this program.

Get the song you want to learn.

Highlight the first few bars, put it on constant repeat, set the tempo on 20%, and press play. Play along until you can play it five times in a row without messing up. Set the tempo to 30%. Play along until you can play it five times in a row without messing up. On up to 100%.

Go to the next few bars and do the same. Then put those two sections together and do the same. And so on, until you can play the whole song at 100% speed without looking at your fingers or the tab.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:06 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Acoustic or electric?

What do you use as your source for listening to the music — mp3s, video, memory, or a combination? I like to use a combination. First, I listen to the song a few times. I start to play along — without worrying about playing it well — just to get a rough feel for the song. Then, I'll try to find a video of a live performance to check out what the guitarist actually did. That's not absolutely necessary, and you might think it's redundant with tab. However, (a) tab is often wrong, and (b) it can be hard to conceptualize how all those numbers translate into real-world physical movements. If you can find a song with an MTV Unplugged performance, that would be ideal, since the guitars are very exposed and the camera work is relatively stable. (And the songs that are chosen for Unplugged tend to be on the slow, easy side.) Don't worry about playing along.

Then, you have to start practicing the song on your own. Go through each different chord in the song, to make sure you're physically comfortable with playing them. Then try playing the chords in order; you don't have to play the whole strumming pattern at first. Just get used to switching from one chord to the next. Then, try adding the actual strumming pattern. Play it as slowly as necessary to play the parts correctly, and only bring it up closer to the actual speed as you feel able to do so with a minimum of errors.

After practicing for a while, try going back and listening to the actual recording again. You're likely to notice details that you've been glossing over in your playing, and maybe you've added some of your own touches. It's up to you to decide how faithfully you want to reproduce the original. As a beginner, your goal will probably be to directly copy what the guitarist is playing, but it's also perfectly valid to play it your own way.

I agree with mosk that there's no definitive answer. Everything I've said above is an example of how you could approach it. For instance, I'm sure there are guitarists who start by mastering the strumming pattern and then adding the chord changes. I doubt that's very common, but I don't see anything wrong with it.

If you've been playing guitar for several years and aren't yet at the point of playing one song, that suggests you haven't been practicing very consistently. Practicing at least half an hour a day is recommended as a minimum. If you do much less than that, it's not that you won't get to the point of playing a song competently — I'm sure you will — but you're not likely to become a fluent, creative guitarist if you're practicing only occasionally.
posted by John Cohen at 8:15 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to get the program, the process is the same. Figure out what hand movements you need to make to play it slow perfectly. Then play it like that while moving up the tempo until you can play it fast perfectly.

Use a metronome.

Be honest with yourself - if you messed up, do it again until you've got it. Try to figure out why you didn't get it that time - did you not remember the chord? Play that transition over and over until you could never forget that chord. Does your finger always slip on a certain note? Slow it down until you figure out how to make your finger not slip. Then speed it up.
posted by 3FLryan at 8:16 PM on September 18, 2012

If you can read the tabs easily, then you are far ahead of the game. I'm guessing the tune you have in mind seems to be possible. Here's what I do with new stuff.

Close the door. Tell everyone to leave you alone.

Go slow until your fingers get the pattern.

Repeat until you fall asleep.

Do this every day for a week, or until you are so sick of this song that you hate even the thought of it, but you are sure your fingers know how to do it all the way from start to stop without making a mistake.

Don't try to play anything else for the whole week. Gradually increase your tempo until you are at the speed the tune requires. Don't jump ahead. If a passage is hard, then slow down and finesse your way through it until you can do it smoothly.

Okay, you don't have to practice until you actually fall asleep. A couple hours per session will do fine. Or even half an hour, so long as you stay focused. The idea is to build muscle memory.
posted by mule98J at 10:06 PM on September 18, 2012

Mostly, it requires a lot of practice. Acquire the tab for it, if you want, or listen to the song and figure it out yourself, then break it down into its component riffs, chord changes, etc. Once I could play these, I would put it together and, sometimes, play along with the CD.

Naturally this requires a lot of practice. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to be decent at what you're playing, you should plan on practicing daily, for at least half an hour. This should be dedicated time, without interruption.
posted by Hylas at 11:39 PM on September 18, 2012

Here is the JustinGuitar Transcribing course.
posted by Silvertree at 6:46 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

As general advice, you probably aren't improving much because you aren't doing *deliberate* practice when you "screw around". Deliberate practice includes things like chord runs to stretch your fingers/improve muscle memory, practicing "hard" on songs you aren't good at, and the like.

3FLryan's advice is great for this sort of thing, it will force you to get better and better at a song until you get the whole thing. Then move on to the next one. The more time you can squeeze in for deliberate practicing, the faster you will improve, but I guarantee that any amount of deliberate practice will help you improve much more rapidly than you are now.
posted by zug at 7:15 AM on September 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is probably a guitar tutorial for any song you may want on youtube.
Quality varies ,Tonedr has some of the best I've seen.
posted by canoehead at 7:42 AM on September 19, 2012

Perfect practice makes practice perfect.

Also some great advice from a GREAT guitar player regarding stuff people play wrong.

I've heard this from other musicians as well, LISTEN to the song several times before trying to play it. Don't just dig in and start playing. If you don't pay attention and put in a little focused listening, you may not ever get it right. As in the video you might keep on going ahead playing Chuck Berry wrong. Don't do that.
posted by Che boludo! at 12:14 PM on September 19, 2012

Thanks for all the advice.

So: practice. That makes sense.

Thanks too for all of the specific advice. I do have GuitarPro, which I like - I'll try slowing it way down and working up. Cheers all.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 5:31 PM on September 19, 2012

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