Most people start playing guitar by learning songs first. This can be a great way to start because it gives you a glimpse of how music works, it sounds good, and it gives you a great kick-start in your motivation to practice guitar. 

This can, however, backfire, if the songs you try to learn are too difficult for your level of playing. It can be very frustrating when you try to press down the strings with every bit of strength you have in your fingers, and then the strings still buzz or remain muted. It hurts and it sounds terrible. 

That’s why learning songs on your own, when you are just starting out, can be a bad idea. You don’t know what’s the right level for you, and usually, there are a lot of steps involved before you can tackle your favorite songs in their entirety.

Learn songs on guitar

Do we have to play songs?

That’s a good question to ask. But a better question would be: “What’s your musical goal?” Do you want to be a great improviser, compose music for your band, and write amazing guitar solos, or do you want to play cover songs at local bars?

Except for the last option (playing cover songs), you really have to understand your instrument, learn a lot of music theory, and how to apply everything to what you want to do with your guitar. And this is something learning songs by itself does not provide.

Further down the road, it can still be very valuable to learn new songs on guitar, but you have to understand why you are doing it, and if it’s the best use of your practice time.

Don’t use your instrument to learn songs. Use songs to learn your instrument.

Where to start as a beginner?

Since this is not an article on how to start playing guitar, we are not going into great depth about the topic. But if you are looking for simple songs to learn when you are just starting out, a good idea might be to buy any beginner guitar book, where you can find some simple melodies and chords in tablature (my recommendation is Tom Hess’ “The Beginner Guitarist’s Book – Level One”). 

I wouldn’t bother with learning standard notation on guitar at this level (or any level) unless your goal is to become a classical guitar player.

If you want to learn how to strum chords to your favorite tunes, you should first learn 3-string chords and use those to strum along – you can find these in the book I recommended above. Don’t overcomplicate things by trying to play the original strumming patterns, and only focus on changing the chords and strumming them once. You can then build up to bigger chords, play more complicated rhythms, and sooner or later you will be able to play songs as they are. Just be patient and don’t take too many steps at once.

Once you master open chords and strumming patterns, the game changes, and learning songs might not be the best use of your time anymore. What do you do?

As an improviser

If you want to become great at improvising on your guitar, you can use songs to learn and generate new licks, which you can then use in your playing. 

But the main focus here should be to try to learn how to apply these ideas and transform them in a way that you can use them in any musical context. Make as many different variations of the licks as you can think of. As an improviser, you have to be inventive and practical. You don’t need a million different licks to sound good, but you have to be able to take any moment’s inspiration and turn it into great-sounding music. This is what this kind of training will do for you. So, you should learn songs accordingly.

As a composer

As a composer, you want to look for ideas in the songs you like, and different sounds you can then apply in your own composing. 

To do this, you really don’t have to learn every part of the entire song. But you want to look for patterns, chord changes, scale sequences, melodies, harmonies … any musical concept you can grasp. Just recognizing them and trying to understand them will make you a better composer. Music theory will be of great help here.

You should then try to apply these concepts in your own writing as soon as possible. Whether it’s just a simple chord progression or a really complex modulation, write at least a short piece of music using it.

The same goes for writing great guitar solos. Try to look for musical ideas and make sense of them first. Although, here learning the entire solo makes much more sense. If the idea you are looking at is more technical in nature, then, of course, you want to master it at least to some degree, if you want to be able to use it in your solos. But remember, the purpose here is to become a better composer, not learn the guitar solo just for the sake of it.

Cover/tribute artist

Playing cover songs is the only musical goal where learning and training entire songs is a productive use of your time. There is not much to talk about here, because that’s mostly all there is to it.

But if you play live, you don’t want to just “know” your songs. You have to put on an amazing show as well.

You can take this opportunity and use these songs as a platform to work on your performance and improvising skills if you want to improvise some solos live. You can also compose your own guitar solos for the song if you want. Give the song something of your own, and it will be much easier to emotionally connect with it while playing live. This will be much more fun for you and your audience.

You can also go way deeper with understanding the song if you want. Very similar to what we have already talked about in sections for improvisers and composers. Understanding the music you play will make learning new songs a lot easier in the future.

I hope this gave you a pretty good idea of whether you should learn and practice songs right now, and what you should do with them. Always remember your musical goals and don’t get stuck on the details, if they are not important to you.

Don’t use your instrument to learn songs. Use songs to learn your instrument.

©Janez Janežič, 2022

About the author

Janez Janežič is a professional guitar teacher, musician and composer from Slovenia. His lessons make you understand your instrument and learn why, when and how to play your favorite songs on guitar. If want to start playing like you have always wanted to, you are invited to check out his Guitar School in Dolenjska, Slovenia.