One of the greatest challenges I’ve had as a live musician is learning new songs to play live with my band. I don’t know why I’ve struggled with it because I’ve been playing other people’s songs for as long as I’ve been playing music. Think about it, when you began learning your instrument you most likely learned how to play music that other people have written. If you took piano, I’m sure you learned out of basic piano books that had some classic folk songs or some great classical music. You probably learned how to play some pop music on the piano to keep things interesting as well. Well it’s a whole lot different when you’re learning music to play in a live band. To do it right, you need to learn to pick out and play parts by ear. That’s a real challenge for those of us that learned how to play instruments by reading music. It took me a long time to develop my ear to the point where I could play my parts exactly like the record. Here are some suggestions on how to learn a cover song to play in your live band.
As I said, to do it right you need to be able pick out and play the parts by ear. The best way to do that is to start with an easy song. If you pick a song that’s not too complicated it will be a lot easier for you to learn the entire song because the basic parts will repeat a lot. You’ll want to pick a song that’s not overproduced with lots of overdubbed parts that are difficult to reproduce live with a basic band lineup. All those overdubs on a lot of recordings make it hard to hear the individual parts as well. So my first suggestion is to pick some easy songs. Here’s a short list of very easy songs to learn:
- Seven Nation Army – White Stripes
- Should I Stay Or Should I Go – The Clash
- Highway To Hell – AC/DC
- Wonderful Tonight – Eric Clapton
- Folsom Prison – Johnny Cash
- You Really Got Me – The Kinks
- Wish You Were Here – Pink Floyd
- Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty
- Good Riddance – Green Day
Once you’ve decided what to learn then you’re going to want to get it playing on your computer so you can quickly find the parts of the song you want to work on. I use a program called Goldwave that allows me to zoom in and loop individual sections of the song. Another excellent tool for learning songs on guitar is the Tascam MP-GT1 which will let you loop parts, slow them down and even eliminate other parts so you can hear yours better. The main thing you want is a way to rewind and loop parts so you can practice them over and over. Once you have the song on your playback device grab your instrument and get ready to pick that part out by ear!
It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you hit play and you try to play along with the entire song right off the bat. The thing you want to do is break the song down into pieces. Break it down into the following pieces:
Once you have the song broken down into these parts, it’s a lot easier to learn the song piece by piece. You also don’t have to learn the song linearly. If the chorus is the easiest part of the song, then learn that first. It’s a good idea to try and play along with each section early on so you can find and learn the easiest parts first.
I personally really struggle picking out guitar solos. There are a couple ways to approach learning a solo. The first way is to try and learn the solo exactly like the record, note for note. This can be agonizing and slow even with a good tool like the Tascam trainer. Again, you can try breaking down the solo into small pieces and learn it bit by bit. Sometimes a solo is just to far beyond your playing ability. That’s okay because another way to approach a solo is to try and catch the “spirit” of the solo. Which means you play close to what you’re hearing but play within your personal ability. That’s the beauty of a solo, you can express yourself as long is it still fits within the framework of the song. The only time you’ll want to learn a solo exactly is when the solo has a very recognizable melody. Sweet Child Of Mine by Guns-N-Roses has a solo that people recognize so that’s one you’ll want to spend time on learning note for note. Here’s a good rule of thumb for learning solos, if you can sing it then you should learn it note for note. If you can’t sing it, then go ahead and make it your own!
Once you have all the parts down, it’s time to start playing along with the entire recording. This is where you’ll polish up your transitions from intro to verse to chorus etc. When I learn a new song, I play along with it 3 times a day for about a week before I play it with the live band. This saves a lot of time at practice and lets the band focus on the fun of playing the song instead of the pain of learning individual parts at practice. I’ve already told you that you need to have fun at band practice and learning your part while everyone else stands around is not fun. So make sure you can play along with the recording. It’s honestly very satisfying to play along at full speed from beginning to end with the original recording.
Once you’ve learned a new song and you can play right along with the original recording then give yourself a pat on the back. It’s not always easy during the learning process but when you get in front of that audience and you play the song perfectly the crowd’s going to let you know they appreciate the effort. That’s what makes it all worth it.