That Fearful Request: “Play something…”

It’s a beautiful fall night. You are with a group of friends and/or family sitting around the bonfire. Life is good. Then someone grabs some guitar from somewhere and puts it in your hand and says “play a song!”. I must know a thousand songs, maybe more. But for some reason, when someone just hands me a guitar and says “play something”, I sometimes go blank. And then in the span of a few seconds, my mind has this kind of “conversation”:


“Play something? What do I play? What do they like? Let’s see, blues, yeah, blues that’s it. Play anything in 1-4-5 and you are good. But wait, that’s boring, right? They want something they know. But what? Beatles, yeah, Beatles is always a crowd pleaser. But what Beatles song? Wait, they have songs? What song do I play? The mind goes blank. For crying out loud, this is ridiculous.” And the beat goes on… 


I know there are many of you musicians reading this asking me what the big deal is. You could call out something instantly by just accessing that card catalog in the library of your brain, withdrawing that information, and then BAM, it’s instant entertainment! I would like to tell you that I so admire what you can do. Don’t ever take it for granted. However, there are those like me that really do know countless songs but for some reason can easily draw a blank for a moment and not know ONE song to play. Can anyone relate? So I have learned and developed some habits to help with that.


Practice and Repetition


“Wherever you hope to travel on your musical journey, practice is the only route to getting there.”
The Musician’s Way, p. 3


This one should be the most obvious to any musician out there. If you don’t practice, you can’t be good. If you don’t practice, learning songs can be quite difficult. If this is something that you don’t regularly do, especially as a beginner, work on it now! 

After you have gone through the basics (stuff like learning scales, chords, strumming patterns, etc.), one of the most fun ways of practicing is by learning and playing songs you like. And then play them over and over. Repetition is the best thing for memorizing anything, and that goes for songs too.


Gig Frequently


“Each gig should be unique.
You’re always treading that line between keeping yourself
fresh and giving people something they want to hear.”
– Brian May


Playing in bar bands, most of the time it is really a necessity to have songs memorized. At least in most of those bands. I play in a local Rush tribute band Animation and memorization is, for all practical purposes, required. Watch any Rush concert (most any rock/blues/country band), and you will see most musicians are playing and performing – not staring down some chart or sheet music (although Geddy now has a teleprompter). And Rush music gets complicated! Getting the songs memorized is where the practice and repetition comes into play. So, depending on the band you are in, you will have added those songs to your repertoire. For me, I can play most any Rush song on call. But if I’m at some random get-together, I’ll go with something most everyone would probably know (Tom Sawyer, Spirit of Radio, Closer to the Heart). If you are playing some kind of greatest hits band (classic rock, current top 40, etc.), that’s even better! It stands to reason that as you play those songs more and more, a few of them will be retained in the old noggin’. And as the years go by, and you expand your palette, hopefully you are adding to your personal library a wider variety of different songs and genres. So get out of your room and jam!


Pick at least 10 “Go To” songs

If the band isn’t your thing, or if you want to “streamline” your recall a little more, pick some “go to” songs that you can pull out of the hat right away. If you practice enough, and learn enough songs, over time you will find a few that you seem to always gravitate to. For many of us, they are probably simple: you know the song already, they have a good melody, and are instantly recognizable. For me, one of my favorites that I like to go to is The Eagles “Take It Easy“. Simple chord structure, easy strums, with catchy melodies that anyone would know. Pretty much any Beatles tune is a win. For some reason I like to go to Day Tripper. I just love the intro guitar riff. And along those lines, another favorite of mine is Over the Hills and Far Away by Led Zeppelin. I probably have another 20-30 more. I think you get the idea: find some songs that you relate to (and maybe a couple you don’t) that are relatively simple, are recognizable, and people can sing along to. Also, make sure it is something that you can play on your own, preferably on an acoustic guitar. Why acoustic? Because 8 times out of ten, that is what will be put in your hand to “play something”. Of course, if you also are an electric player, have a few of those on hand too! Honestly, you really don’t need to have a lot in your memory banks. Impressing your friends and relatives with just 4 or 5 songs can really make for a fun time!


Handy Smart Charts

Having charts and/or sheet music handy is also another possibility. It can be a bit cumbersome and silly carrying sheets of paper around with you all the time. But, there’s good news! We have our trusty smartphones and tablets to save the day! I have actually done this a few times where I have a number of chord charts stored as .pdfs on my iBooks or Kindle apps. There are a number of other great apps out there you can use. Just shop around iTunes or Google Play and try them out. You can use whatever resource works for you regarding getting the charts, sheet music, or tabs then convert or download into the app of your choice. Then, if you are called upon to play something, voila! you open the app and play your song! I actually have used some of these for last minute gigs or jams with musicians (as well as a few of those “campfire” scenarios).




“It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth 
The minor fall and the major lift.”

— Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”


The Axis of Awesome came out with this awesome video a number of years back called simply 4 Chords. So funny, yet so true! It is amazing how many popular songs follow the same tried and true formula of playing the same four chords, or at least the same order. If you already have acquainted yourself with the basics of music theory, you would know that there are 7 primary triad chords in each major scale (a triad is a three note chord, you would know most of them as major and minor chords). Many pop songs use the first, fourth, fifth, and sixth chords in whatever major key you are in. The sixth chord is always a minor (it often uses the small Numeral vi). The other three chords are major and are written in the larger Roman numerals. If you can get familiar with the chords, it can be easy to recall many pop songs in all sorts of genres (rock, pop, country to name a few). Heck, just play four chords like Axis of Awesome does (in the order that they play them in, the video uses D-A-Bm-G, live they use E, B, C#m, A) and see what songs people sing them to! That is entertainment in itself!


Teach Guitar


If you teach guitar, or any instrument, you will find that you will ultimately need to work on a song with a particular student. Often, it is something that will go on for some time depending on the student’s skill level and the nature of the song. That in itself is the repetition you need to learn a song. I can’t tell you how many songs I have added to my list over the years of teaching. I also end up learning about new artists and many of the songs they do. So while this shouldn’t be a reason you teach, it is definitely an awesome side benefit!


How to Learn Songs Online

“Everything is true on the internet…”

Do you believe that statement?

Please say “no

Then why is it that so many people go online (places like You Tube or Ultimate Guitar for TABS) to learn a song from one source?

Then they wonder why the song doesn’t sound right.

Or worse, someone told them it doesn’t sound right.

The bottom line is you can’t do that!

Look, there really is a lot of good information out there in the world of the interwebs. The trick is, you need to know where and how to find it.

And this is especially true when learning how to play songs online.


Back when I just joined my current band, Animation a Tribute to Rush, there were a number of songs I had to add to my arsenal of Rush songs. There were many. And Rush music isn’t easy. And learning them took time, especially from scratch.

So, since it is the 21st Century, I decided to use the vast array of tools available to me to streamline the learning process. The first place was You Tube.

Wow, there is a lot of information out there on You Tube with how to play this and that. What do you choose? Start by searching: ‘<your song> guitar lesson’. Depending on the song you pick, there will be a number of videos showing how to play the song in question.

I will choose according to the following criteria in order of importance:

Original Artist

Is there one from the original artist? It could be something that they are instructing you on or it might be a recording of them playing live. This would seem the most obvious and, 8 times out of ten, it would be the best option.

You are pretty much done with your search, right?


Use your ear! How does it really sound to you?

Incredibly, learning from the original artist isn’t always the case:

  1. One scenario would be if you wanted to learn from a live version. Artists don’t always play the song the same way live as they did with the original recording. This has happened many times to me.
  2. Another, is that many of these artists are not the best teachers. I found that especially true with Rush’s guitar player, Alex Lifeson. As great as he is, he isn’t the best to teach you a song. I actually found a part he describes in Spirit of Radio that is incorrect. I mean, he doesn’t even do it that way live!

# of Views

This can sometimes be a bit deceiving but if the person has a lot of views, it might mean they were on to something. But sometimes, it isn’t. Using my Rush example I have seen many of their songs shown by guitarists that had thousands upon thousands of views, and still they weren’t right.

How could I tell?

I used my ear!

Popular You Tube Instructors

This is almost the same as those with # of views but not always.

Popular instructors are just that: they are popular usually because they show lots of songs in a wide range of styles. Here you would have to use some discernment: how precisely do you want to learn a song? If you don’t care, then maybe this is your route.

However, and going back to my Rush example, that simply isn’t good enough for me. I needed to find a better way.

TABS and Charts

Whew boy, this one is tricky. Everyone likes to think they can write a TAB chart. Problem is, most have no idea. I can’t tell you how many I have read that were flat out wrong. I often wonder if those that are writing them even know how to play.

Yes, it can be that bad out there.

If you want to try this route, you have to first play the song from the TAB. How does it sound? If you aren’t sure, play it for someone. What do they think?

Or, better yet, record yourself playing it. The recording never lies!

Try several if you can find them. How do they compare? What parts sound good and what parts do not?

Charts and Sheet Music are the same: you can’t always trust them, although I have found that you can have better luck here. Follow the same procedure as for TABS to determine how good the information is.

Answer: Take the Best of All Worlds

Pick maybe 3-5 different people showing you the same song on You Tube.

Try the same with a few charts and TABS.

It should hopefully become obvious what is right and what isn’t. When they all agree on a part (or the whole song), the odds are good that it is the right way to play the song.

If they don’t all agree, take in parts that most agree on or simply sound right to you. Discard the rest.

Then compile all that you liked and play the song.

How does it sound?

Use your ear! (Are we catching a theme here?)

If you were diligent, you should eventually arrive at something that sounds good to you.

One optional step would be to find out if the same part can be played better somewhere else on the fretboard? This has happened many times for me learning Rush songs. One example:  Alex rarely uses his little finger on many solos. I happen to use it. Therefore, since I have that extra finger available, there might be a better place to play the song than if I didn’t use it.

Of course you could learn the song from offline methods (like learning from an instructor or a book). But regardless of how you learn, you really need to use your ear and be honest with yourself if it sounds right or not. And if it is good, then jam away!

If you have any thoughts on this topic please leave a comment below. I’m not always the expert on every subject. I would love to hear from you!



1 On 1 Guitar Lesson Is the Best Learning Experience

One on one lessons are FAR, FAR better than going through life ONLY self-taught.

I know, I have been there and let me tell you, my progress as a guitar player would have progressed much better having some kind of consistent instruction from someone who knows better.

Too many of us “self taughters” think we can do it ourselves and figure it out ourselves.

And then we get frustrated.


It starts with why we can’t play certain things: like playing different chord transitions, or playing a certain riff, or, even more scary, why parts of our hand (elbow, fingers, etc. – pick one) hurt.

I have seen some posts out there that incredibly profess many positives of being self taught.

Are they wrong? Well, my stance is why is that discussion even a thing?

Think about it: you are one on one with a teacher (in person or online) for maybe an hour a week. The rest of your practice/learning time is by yourSELF!

You took guidance and instruction, went home and worked on it yourself.

I as a teacher can’t MAKE you learn anything. At the end of the day you have to decide how YOU want to learn.

See where I am going here?

In a multiple choice test the choice would be: “All of The Above

But there is a caveat:

You can be self taught as long as you ALSO have one on one instruction. You should NOT be ONLY self taught.

I have many students where I encourage them to figure songs on their own. I can’t do it all myself for them. They often come in for checks and correction and to find ways of doing it better. Many also discover that they had improper technique while playing that particular song.

Contrast that with learning on your own and not knowing if you are playing it correctly. (See my post about online learning concerns here).

What are your thoughts and experiences? Leave a comment here and let me know. I would love to hear from you.