3 Easy Steps To Learning Basic Songs Quickly

When guitar players learn their basic open chords for the first time, they're often told of how many popular songs that they know use the same chords that they're learning. While this is indeed true, many beginner guitar players often struggle when trying to use this newly acquired knowledge to actually learn these songs by themselves. The reality is that many of these easy songs can be learned very quickly by breaking down the learning process into 3 easy steps.


Step 1: Memorise The Order Of The Chords


Most popular songs can be broken down into 3 distinct section that repeat until the song is over: the verse, the chorus, and the bridge. Each section will (usually) have its own chord progression (an order of chords being played), and your first step is to memorize each one individually, so that you can play the chords in order without having to look at a sheet of paper. 


There are 3 bits of good news for you here:


  1. Each section will usually have 3-5 chord changes every time the progression repeats, which isn't much to memorise

  2. There will often be at least 1 chord that is played more than once in each progression

  3. The verse and chorus are often very similar, making them both easy to memorise quickly


For example, the chords in the verse of "Hurt" by Johnny Cash are Am-C-D on a repetitive cycle. The chorus has 2 almost identical progressions – G-Am-F-C, and G-Am-F-G. How many chords do both chorus progressions share with the verse? How many do they share with each other? How many times are the verse and chorus played in the song?


When trying to decipher a chord progression, start, stop, and replay the song as needed so that you can go through your open chords and see which chords sound right. Look for a recurring pattern of chords. As you keep doing this with more songs, this process will get easier because you'll get better at remembering what each chord sounds like – eventually you won't need to write anything down.

Step 2: Work Out The Strumming Rhythm


Once you’ve memorised the order of the chords for each section of the song, your next step is to work out the strumming rhythm. The reason you want to memorise the chords first, is because you will have a much easier time keeping the strumming rhythm constant when you don’t have to stop and think about what chord is coming next.


A lot of basic songs you are trying to learn will have only 1-2 different strumming rhythms, with an occasional but momentary variation in the recurring pattern. A good way to decipher the strumming rhythm is to clap along to the strumming as you listen to the song (each clap being in sync with every attack on the guitar strings), looking for a recurring pattern and then trying to find where the beginning and end of the pattern is.


While this isn’t the case with every song, a general rule of thumb is that a change in chords will happen at the beginning of the strumming rhythm. A great example of this is Dead Flowers by The Rolling Stones – there is only one strumming rhythm throughout the entire song, and there is a change of chords at the beginning of almost every repetition of the strumming rhythm.


Once you have figured out the strumming rhythm(s), work out the best way to strum it where your strumming arm will be moving up and down at a constant rate, without any jerky changes in motion – it will be very difficult for you to keep the strumming constant if your arm isn’t constantly moving up and down at an even speed.


Step 3: Put The Structure Of The Song Together


Once you can comfortably smoothly play the individual sections of the song on their own (chords + strumming rhythm), your final step is to work out the structure of the song. Where does each section happen? How many times do you play each chord progression? Write this down as you listen to the song; repeat the song as many times as you need to, and go back to the previous 2 steps if you find you are unclear on something.


The vast bulk of basic songs you will be learning will have a structure reminiscent of this:








Once you’ve figured out the structure of the song, try playing along to the song, and then on your own! Have fun!


About The Author: Ryan Mueller is a guitarist playing in Toronto-based metal band Sovereign and also teaches guitar lessons in Etobicoke