14 May, 2010

How do I learn / figure out a song on the guitar?

I was asked this question a while ago. Actually, I think the person wanted to know how to figure out to play a song. But I'll be writing about how I figure out a song. So here goes, this is how I do it.

Listen to the song and take note of a few things:
  1. The beat of the song (is it played in 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 etc.)

  2. The strumming pattern of the song (for some songs, the guitar is really clear. Listen to the rhythm guitar and see if you can get the strumming pattern. If the strumming pattern is not clear, or if the song uses a piano, you can choose your own strumming pattern, as long as it fits the beat of the song)

  3. The bass guitar (most of the time, the bass guitar will play the root notes of the song. If you know what notes the bass guitar is playing, you can know the basic chords for the song)
That is basically it. Particularly, I find listening to the bass notes that the bass guitar plays effective in figuring out the chords for a song. To illustrate to you what I mean, I will use a song as an example.

The song I will use is "With Or Without You" by U2. If you are my age or older, you should definitely know this song. If you are younger, I guess this song is worth listening to. Here's the video. Take a listen to it.



  1. The beat of the song - After listening to the song, you should be able to find out that it is a 4/4 song.

  2. The strumming pattern for the song - You will realise that this song is basically bass guitar driven, so you can come up with a strumming pattern that suits a 4/4 beat. In this case, I would just choose 8 downstrokes per 4 beats, and even mute the strings for a more driving/rock effect.

  3. The bass guitar - Take note of the bass guitar (it's really obvious in this song). Listen to these bass notes and find them out on the guitar. You will eventually figure out that these 4 notes are D A B G.
Ok, before I go any further, I should also mention that you need to find out the key the song is played in. Why is the key important? Well, because depending on the key, certain chords will be a minor instead of major. The good thing is that most songs like to start off with the key of the song. This means, the first note you hear is probably the key of the song. But if you come across one that doesn't start with the key of the song, then try the first note of the chorus as the key.

I don't really know how to explain about figuring out the key of the song. But if you follow the rule of thumb I mentioned above, you should be right most of the time. Anyway, for this song, it is played in the key of D (what do you know, it's the first note of the song).

So now that you know the song is played in the key of D, you can look at the family of chords that belong to the the D family, and you will find out that you need to play D, A, Bm, G. Take note that the B is now a Bm.

So you have the beat of the song, you've chosen the strumming pattern for the song, and you know the chords for the song. There you go, you have just figured out a song.

I hope I've managed to explain it quite simply, but if you have any further questions or need to clarify something, please feel free to let me know.

6 comments:

Lauren said...

Just want to say thank you sooo much for posting these. I have gone to guitar teacher for a few weeks yet he has not taught me as much I have just learned in the past half hour looking at your blogs.

Just wanted to clarify a few things though. with figuring out the chords is the a certain exercise i can follow to help me there.

with regarding the strumming pattern, as long as it matches the beat you can pretty much make it up if you can not clearly hear it? also with regarding strumming patterns and the melody. when you put both together (say in 4/4) should the strumming pattern fit in with the first bar of the lyrics. if so is it always the case if not what would be an example.

Another thing when you apply singing to the guitar how do you know where to sing and continue in staying in beat. Is there a post of yours that could help teach me to sing and play. could you please do a few different examples. thank you

May you and your family be blessed forever more.

blessed be.
Lauren

daniel said...

Hi Lauren,

for strumming patterns, you are right to say that as long as it matches the beat, you can use it to play the song.

As for strumming and melody, I am not sure what you are referring to when you say "put both together". How do you put the strumming and melody together?

If by melody, you are referring to the singing, then, the strumming does not necessarily have to begin with the singing. You can strum first, and start singing the melody in between the strumming pattern. One such example would be the song on this post, "With Or Without You" by U2. You will strum for about 3 beats, and start singing somewhere on the 4th beat.

As for singing and playing, I do not really know how to teach it because it sort of came naturally for me. However, you can check out this post to see the steps involved in attempting to sing and play at the same time: http://basicsofguitar.blogspot.com/2009/09/how-to-play-guitar-and-sing-at-same.html

Lauren said...

hey thanks for replying.

What I mean by the melody and the strumming (not really sure the actual name) when your playing the guitar and you add the melody as in the singing to it while you play. I was wondering if a song is in 4/4 timing does that the melody should have four beats that fit with the guitar strumming pattern. same goes for other time signatures?

Thank you again for your help :) Lauren

daniel said...

Hi Lauren,

to answer your question, the melody does not have to fit the strumming pattern. This means, if your strumming pattern is D,D,UDUDD,DU (that's 9 strum actions), your melody/singing does not have 9 words/9 syllables.

So, you can have few words within the strumming pattern, or you could have many words withtin the strumming pattern.

sapi babun said...

HI.. sorry to ask.. what is 4/4, 3/8 songs beat all about??

daniel said...

Hi Sapi Babun,

I am not sure how to explain 4/4 or 6/8 because I have not had any formal music lessons on theory. Sorry about that. Perhaps you can google for an explanation on it.