By Janez Janezic
Want to learn to play a song on your guitar by heart?
Wait… let’s stop here for a moment.
Have you ever asked yourself why you want to learn a song by heart?
Do you want to learn a song in order to perform it? Do you want to learn the parts to see what’s going on inside your favorite songs? Or do you want to memorize it just for the sake of it?
Unless you play in a band or perform a solo act, you probably don’t really need to learn the song in its entirety, and your practice time might be better spent doing other things.
If you want to see what’s going on in the song, and use some ideas in your own songwriting and composing, you can simply learn a few parts, or even just listen to the song and take notes. No need to memorize each and every note.
Now that we got this out of the way, and you still want to memorize the song, let’s talk about a few strategies and tactics you can use.
This one is the most obvious. But let’s take this one a little deeper.
First off, you will probably want to play it along to the original song. If the parts are more complex, and they are giving you a hard time to keep up, you can always slow down the recording. YouTube provides this feature already. If you own the recording, you can slow it down in a DAW software.
The key here is to play it in its entirety, even if you make mistakes. This will help you memorize the whole song much faster. You can practice the parts that are giving you a hard time in isolation during your regular practice routine.
Once you have the song somehow under your fingers, you can start to practice it without using the backing track and play along to the metronome. This will then reinforce your memorization with a concrete wall and protect you against any casual brain-freeze moment. Using a metronome, you can also control how fast you play. When you are still struggling, you can play slower than the original speed. But when it’s the time to hit the stage, you can aim to play at 110% of the original speed of the song. This will help you feel a lot more confident in live situations.
Actively listen to the song. That doesn’t mean putting it in your favorite playlists and multitask, while not paying attention to the song at all. While this will still help, you want to think about the song.
You can think about the chords that are being played, rhythm, words, the melody, etc. But the main thing you want to master while listening is the song structure. This is usually the hardest thing for many people. It’s not hard to play a part you have practiced so many times on autopilot, once you start, but it takes time to instantly recall which part you should really be playing.
This happened (and still happens) to me a lot of times, and I can tell you these mistakes can make you feel very dumb. You know you are capable of playing the song, but that little brainfreeze moment interrupted you.
Listen to your song actively as much as you can: while driving, taking a bus, walking, running, cycling … and maximize your daily guitar practice time as much as you can.
Visualization is a technique used by a lot of successful athletes in preparation for competitions. What that does is strengthen your neural pathways you use while playing your song to the point it becomes a habit for you.
Especially if you want to play live, you can visualize playing in front of huge crowds, to lower your stage-fright. You can also visualize different scenarios and mistakes that might happen, and also see yourself correcting them.
This can be very powerful, and if you do it long enough, you’ll find yourself on the stage thinking: “I have done this a million times already, it’s no big deal.”
It can be tremendously useful if you are on tour driving most of your time, and you can’t have your instrument in your hands.
Using that technique, you can literally practice while falling asleep, once again maximazing your practice time.
If you are tight on your practice time, and have a massive repertoire to practice, you can practice by shortening each part and only practice the transitions between parts.
Like we mentioned before, it’s usually not the parts themselves that are giving us a hard time, it’s the transitions. And that’s because, we have to think a lot more when we shift from part to part, than while playing the parts on autopilot.
Professional musicians and bands do that all the time. I use this technique on a daily basis, in order to be as productive as I can be with my time.
If you want to progress faster, you want to think more.
What that means is: countless repetitions of the same songs over and over again, result in our hands playing on autopilot. And autopilots don’t think. And non-thinkers, don’t progress.
Ever practiced a song countless times, and you still couldn’t remember every single detail? That’s exactly why.
Shifting the items you practice more often, or simply spreading out the practice throughout the day, can help you overcome this problem.
And yes, it will feel like you suck, because your hands probably won’t remember the song as good as if you would repeat it right away. It feels awful. But after a while you will start to see much bigger improvement for the time you’ve invested. And your knowledge of the song will be much stronger.
In conclusion, you want to think as much as you can while practicing, so you can think as little as possible while performing. Using your brain is the only thing that will make your practice time productive, and help you reach your musical goals. Good luck performing your favorite songs!