How to Learn Songs on the Guitar Fast

This is my process for tackling songs, and it allows me to pull it off within 7 days (or 7 hours) or less, depending on the complexity of the song….

A few years ago, I wanted to do something special for my dad for Christmas.

I decided I would learn one of his all-time favorite songs and perform it for him.

The problem was, the song I decided to learn was out of my reach at the time – “Cliffs of Dover” by Eric Johnson.

(Here’s the result! Not great, but not bad):

Because I only had a few weeks to get it down, it was critical I applied a practice method I call Nanosynthesis to the project.

So I broke the song down into its micro and nano-chunks.

Instead of learning the song from start-to-finish, I began with the easiest sections to play. I zoomed in on the smallest achievable perfection I could attain.  

This made learning quick and easy, and it kick-started my momentum.

Within the song, there are riffs that more or less repeat, with slight variations, so I started there.

I call these sections “Recurrences,” because they occur in some form or another more than once.

I figured out the first chorus, which made the other two choruses easier to learn. This took me about two hours, but right away I had learned about 30% of the song. Boom! A nice nano-boost of momentum.

Then I learned the next Recurrent part of the song – the verses. Two in total.

Same approach – focusing solely on verse 1 until it was perfect, which made verse 2 a piece of cake.

Now 50% of the song was under my belt.  

As you can imagine, I was already having fun and being rewarded for my efforts with consistent progress. At this point, the momentum and motivation were unstoppable.

I then used that motivation to target the most challenging sections of the song. I knew they’d take me longer to learn and even longer to play up to speed, so I gave myself plenty of time.

Now was the perfect moment to draw from my arsenal of Skill Hacks.

A Skill Hack is a way to gain momentous results with minimal effort… by laser-focusing on the highest-leverage aspect of a targeted goal.

This is when I used a Skill Hack called “Building the Sequence” (which we talk about in Nanosynthesis; it’s Step 4 of the 5-Step Process).

It works with anything that you’re learning… but it particularly comes in handy for sequences involving tons of notes, played at out-of-reach speeds.

As a recap, here’s how it works… 

Step 1: Learn the entire sequence first (even if you are doing it one bar at a time). Remember, go nano. Start small and take your time. Greatness isn’t rushed.

Step 2: Then, play as much of it up to speed as you can… and stop the moment you make a mistake.

Step 3: Then, rather than continuing to struggle to play the whole thing (i.e. swallow the whole elephant), you add one note at a time, starting with the first note you slipped up on.

Play what you currently can plus one more note. Do this over and over until the added note is now part of what you can play perfectly. 

Step 4: Then, with your comfort zone expanded, repeat the process and add the next note. Play what you is currently comfortable plus the next note, and so on. I incrementally add one note add a time this until I can nail a full bar.

Working one bar at a time gives you a manageable section to myelinate. Again, go nano. I do perfect, Deep Repetition of that bar before adding the notes of the next bar.

Step 5: Repeat this process until you’ve built the entire sequence and can play it perfectly at your targeted Tempo.

This is yet another approach to taking things one nano-piece at a time. It’s simple, but before you know it, you have a seriously difficult passage down in its entirety.

That’s what I did with the doozy sections of Cliffs of Dover.

I learned the intro solo first, Building the Sequence along the way, and drilled it until it was myelinated. Another nano-sized chunk, bringing the song to 70%-learned. 

Then I learned the main solo of the song. This took the longest to iron out all the nuances. 

And lo and behold, within the solo, I encountered a Technique I had never used before:

Hybrid Picking.

So I used my nano-lens to take a look at the nano-components of hybrid picking. I quickly discovered two things:

  1. For some reason, it was easier for me to use my ring finger as the dominant “plucker,” even though my middle finger is longer
  2. The further the pick was from the string I was plucking, the more difficult it was to play cleanly

So I came up with a few mini scenarios that leveraged the strength of my ring finger, and confronted my weakness with pick distance.

Then, I went back to the section of the song itself and gradually increased the Tempo. 

Because I had zoomed in and worked on the nano-components of the Technique, I was able to quickly reach the target Tempo.

And once I did, I was 80% done with the song.

Finally, I mastered the outro solo. 90%, ready to rock. 

Because I took it one nano-piece at a time, “Built the Sequence,” and went Nano to install the hybrid picking Technique I encountered; I had the whole song memorized in just a few days.

Now I needed to make sure I could play it all in succession… 

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This required another Skill Hack I call, “Fusing the Transitions.” (Discussed in Nanosynthesis, Step 5 of the 5-Step Process).

Fusing the Transitions enables me to move from one section of the song to the next with complete confidence, consistency, and ease. 

This fusing process deserves its own dedicated chunk of focus. Because sometimes, I learn all the individual sections of a song but struggle to play them together.

Fusing the Transitions is very similar to Building the Sequence. The difference is, you are specifically targeting the transition and using a loop.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Zoom in to identify the transitions that are the most challenging to play consistently well.

Often, this will be the transition to and from a solo because of the distance on the fretboard. But it can happen anywhere, even within the same bar.

Step 2: Now, instead of practicing the full section that precedes the section you’re transitioning to, just play one bar.

Or, play the last half of a bar. Or even the last few notes of a bar.

Play that selection, plus the first few notes of the section you are transitioning to.

Or the first half of the next bar. Or the full bar. 

The more nano the target section is, the faster and more productive this process will be. But don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to narrow it down – just do whatever works for you.

The point is to isolate the tail-end of the prior section and the top-end of the next section.

Step 3: Now loop the target section and drill it until it’s myelinated.

Repeat this process until you can absolutely nail the transition. Do Deep Repetition until it’s comfortable.

This forces you to focus fully on the transition, instead of the entire passage.

Of course, if needed, you can use the “Building the Sequence” Skill Hack to nail these transitions, too.

In this case, before creating the loop, do this:

Play the part of the preceding section you are already comfortable with, then one note of the section you are transitioning to.

Then add the second note.

Then the third, and so on, until you have the entire next section integrated with the previous.  

At that point, loop it and myelinate.

This approach to targeting the struggle is intensely productive. It gives you time-leverage. You get maximum effect for minimum effort.

Because you’re only working on trouble spots outside of your comfort zone – you’re myelinating every step of the way.

So let’s review… 

The Nanosynthesis approach to learning a full song breaks down like this:

Smallest Achievable Sections > Recurrences > Trouble Spots > Transitions

That formula works best for intimidating projects, like learning an entire song. Because you’re learning one chunk at a time, from easiest to hardest, it helps build motivation and momentum right away. 

Ask, “What’s the optimal minimal dose that will give me leverage?” 

The Recurrences of a song are often perfect for this, but even if they’re not, any section of the song that’s easiest for you to play will do.

Shoot for the small achievable sections because once you start, you won’t want to stop.

Now, when I’m learning something smaller, I vary this process slightly.

First, I learn the entire target (be it a section of a song, exercise, or any other goal). Then I zoom in on the trouble spots and work on them one chunk at a time. 

I do this most often with solos because I’m not yet sure which parts will be the most difficult for me. Learning the entire target makes the trouble spots obvious.

That process looks like this:

Entire Target > Trouble Spots > Transitions

But with either approach, learning the song, solo, riff, passage, or exercise requires focusing on one chunk at a time.

One bar at a time.

One note at a time.

Go Nano. Build the Sequence. Fuse the Transitions. It makes the entire process manageable and conducive to myelination.

Building the Sequence and Fusing the Transitions are Skill Hacks you can apply to anything and everything you’re learning, not just songs. These are both tools that help you apply Nanosynthesis.

And that’s the best part… 

Armed with Nanosynthesis, everything is playable. No matter how foreign, no matter how difficult, no matter how fast – you can play it. All it takes is a bit of patience, persistence, and determination.

As Calvin Coolidge famously said,

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” 

Calvin Coolidge, 30th U.S. President

Here’s a useful Mind-Shift Mantra to remind you of this during times of doubt:

“Persistence is omnipotent.”

That’s just how mastery tends to work. You can’t rush this process. You just have to commit to it and do it. But that commitment speeds things up.

Speaking from personal experience…

Even when my tendinitis reduced me to only being able to play for minutes at a time… When pushing myself too far would lead me to weeks of not being able to play…

Nanosynthesis empowered me with the consistent progress I needed to persevere.

For quite some time now, nothing––and I mean absolutely nothing––feels out of reach. 

I may not be able to play anything I want with confidence and ease right this second. But I know––with complete certainty––by using these methods – anything is possible.

TL;DR

  • I learn it as fast as I can and memorize the whole thing. Memorization frees up a huge amount of mental space for proper practice.
  • I don’t worry about my speed, clarity, or accuracy at this point. I’m just learning it to figure out which parts repeat or recur, and which parts are going to be the most challenging (i.e. take the most time to practice).
  • And then I get everything but the hardest parts nailed, since this creates unstoppable momentum. Quick wins so I won’t quit.
  • I tackle the easiest parts first, the hardest parts last, but I don’t repeat the easy parts any more than is necessary (waste of time)
  • I bring everything up to speed and dial in my Control, Clarity, Consistency, and Musicality (usually one at a time)

I hope this process serves you well.

Be share to share with me what you do with it! (tag @joshuavoiles on Instagram).

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