The Process of Learning a New Song

by Ty Morgan

In the course of any musician’s career, it’s not uncommon to learn hundreds of songs, if not more. Many of these songs will need to be learned by ear which is another topic for another article. But many songs will be learned by using chord charts and lead sheets which is what we will be discussing here.

It can be overwhelming trying to navigate the tremendous amount of information available to today’s musician. In this article, a proven process of learning new songs will be defined adding one more option to your toolset. Let’s get started.

Needed Materials:

  • Chord chart or lead sheet
  • Track of song being learned
  • Pencil
  • Guitar

Phase 1: (Spend Time with the Chord Chart)

  • Look through the chart or lead sheet and note any new or unfamiliar chords
  • Look up and add diagrams of the chords you found in step 1 above to the chart. This will come in very handy at rehearsals.
  • Memorize and practice these unfamiliar chords until they become second nature.
  • Practice any unfamiliar chord changes or progressions to get them under your fingers

Phase 2: (Spend Time with the Track)

  • Listen to the track and follow along on the chord chart (no playing)
  • Listen for and mark the following on the chart in pencil:
    • Parts specific to you: riffs, solos, places to add parts, etc.
    • Guitar sounds: clean, distorted, acoustic, spanky telecaster, etc.
    • Kind of rhythms used: driving eighths, held chords, hits, etc.
    • Any special dynamics: soft, builds, raging, etc.

Phase 3: (Song Specifics)

  • Listen again and determine the roadmap of song sections: Intro, Verses, Chorus, Bridge, solos, etc.
  • Does the chart have any oddities like missing sections when compared to the track? If so, bring them to whoever provided the chart for clarification.

Phase 4: (Start Playing)

  • Strum along w/ track while following along on the chart.
    • Just general strumming to get a feel for the overall song groove and chord progression flow
  • Try to keep your eyes off your hands and on the chart.

Phase 5: (Learn Specific Parts)

  • Try and learn as much as possible by ear. This really helps you memorize the song as well as develops your ear to a high level
  • Locate tabs, youtube links, etc. for parts that weren’t able to be learned by ear
  • Work on each part; solo, rhythm, etc., until it is mastered
  • Learn each section of the song individually to stay flexible in band situations. For instance, learn just the verse section. Then learn just the chorus section. Continue on to any additional sections such as bridges, pre-choruses etc. Again this really helps you to internalize the song and remain flexible during a performance in case things get switched up on the fly!

Phase 6: (Putting It Together)

  • Play along w/ track utilizing the specific parts you’ve learned until they feel good.
  • Play along w/ track without using the chart.
  • Play without the track using a drum machine or metronome using the chart.
  • Play without the track using a drum machine or metronome without using the chart

While all this may sound like common sense and very simple, don’t let the simplicity fool you. I floundered for many, many years being underprepared and having to rely on aids such as charts during gigs. This not only affected my confidence as a musician, which in turn affected my playing and ability to effectively interpret the music. It also greatly affected the audience as I couldn’t connect with them musically or personally with my head buried in a music stand!

By following these easy steps and truly owning the songs you play, you’ll not only blossom as a musician you’ll create music that truly moves and inspires people.

Ty Morgan is a musician, songwriter, and guitar mentor and coach located just outside of Phoenix in Mesa, AZ. His passion is to pass the torch of creating music on to future generations, as well as enhance the lives of others through music. Visit his guitar school’s site at for more information.

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