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.
“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.”
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!
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!