How To Learn Lots of Songs Quickly for a Gig

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by jive1, Nov 6, 2011.

  1. jive1

    jive1 Commercial User

    Jan 16, 2003
    Owner/Retailer: Jive Sound
    Starting this thread since the topic was a derail from one thread that got derailed in a different direction.

    The subject is learning lots of songs quickly for an upcoming gig. As a working musician, this is an important skill. This is a place to share your tips and methods for learning tunes.

    I'll start:

    I start out just listening to the song. Atively listening to a song without an instrument will let you hear the intervals. Lots of times, the pop covers will follow "the money chords". Once you can hear those, you will be able to pick out songs quickly, and once you learn one, you can learn dozens more instantly because now you have a structure you can hang onto. Look at these like a shelf. You put things like notes, grooves, feels, variations, and embellishments on these shelves. Without the shelves, you'll have to carry every single item, which is beyond lots of people's ability. It's much easier to remember a few chords, than a few hundred notes.

    Here are the money chords:
    Roman numerals indicate the chord. Capitals are for major chords, lowercase for minor.

    1. 12 bar blues. There are literally 1000s of songs in different genres that follow this progression. Too many to name.

    2. I - V - vi - IV. A common pop chord progression. Songs like Don't Stop Believing, With or Without You, Land Down Under, Good, Under the Bridge, When I Come Around, and dozens more follow this one. Lots of Pop-Punk tunes seem to use this to some variation. Check out this link: Axis of Awesome - 4 Chords *LIVE* Great Quality - YouTube

    3. I - vi - IV - V. A common one in oldies music, especially 50s . Stand by Me, Earth Angel, Duke of Earl, Dyer Maker, Every Breath You Take are some songs that use this. Some folks call these "Ice Cream Changes"

    4. I - IV - V. A common progression in Rock and Pop. You can vary it rhythmically to get lots of songs out of it like La Bamba, Good Lovin, Twist and Shout, Wild Thing, Stir It Up, and hundreds more.

    5. I - V - IV. Another common progression used in many different genres. Vary it rhythically, and get lots of songs out of it like Stone In Love, Chicken Fried, Helpless, and countless others. You can also substitute the IV with the relative minor and get songs like Knockin on Heaven's door.

    6. V - IV - I. A common Rock Progression. Sweet Home Alabama, I Know You Rider, Can't You See, Werewolves of London, All summer long are some examples.

    7. I - IV. Sort of a jam oriented progression, but catchy. ABC, Lovelight, Just My Imagination, Blister In The Sun are some examples. If you use the vi instead of the IV, you get a more fifties feel. Use a V instead of the IV, and you can use it for lots of Country and Gospel Tunes, as well as many New Orleans style grooves like Aiko Aiko. Use a flattened VII instead of the IV, and you can do long funky or groove oriented jams on it.

    8. ii - V - I. A common Jazz progression, so it's useful for the Jazz, Swing, Ragtime, and show tunes. There's many variations on this.

    Each genre has it's money chords, standard arrangements, and grooves. For example, in Reggae the ii-I is popular while I-bVII can be found in Funk. In Blues, you have the 8 bar, 12 bar, and 16 bar forms as well as a single chord boogie. And in those forms you can have an uptown shuffle, downtown shuffle, swing, or boogaloo with each having a generic pattern that's moveable and interchangeable. Learn the money chords and standard grooves for the stuff you're doing, and you're on your way to learning songs quick. It may even help with writing originals as well.

    I usually learn the chord progression for the parts of the songs like the verse, chorus, bridge, interlude, intro, end, etc. I'll learn the basic arrangement, and if there are any signature lines or tight arrangements, I'll learn those. And I'll usually quit from there depending on the band I'm playing with. If they are truly a "play it like the CD" band, I'll learn the song like the recording. But, I find that lots of "play it like the CD" folks will still do something different, intentional or not.

    The reasons why I do this is to save time, to be prepared for any curveballs the band might throw, and to put on a good show overall. By not marrying myself to a specific bassline, if the drummer isn't playing what is exactly on the recording, I can still come up with something that will fit. Also, if the singer does the song in a different key that totally screws up those great open note lines, you can still play something that fits as long as you know the chord structure for that section. Sometimes a band will do a song in a different style, tempo, or arrangement. For example, I work with a band that does a swing version of "Stand By Me". Learning the song note for note would not be as useful as knowing the changes so that you can walk over them. So, it's also important to be able to come up with and play something interesting over changes. Regardless of whether you're doing covers or originals, it's what they hired you for. Also, if you use a cheatsheet, by knowing the chords, you can just glance at your notes to get the progression as opposed to being glued to a chart to get the individual notes.

    Based on gig experience, I found that it's good to learn the sections of the song. A band might extend a song if the crowd is getting into it. For example, "Twist and Shout" is originally a 2 minute song, and I've never done it for less than 4. So, I learn the sections of the song so that I can extend it at the chorus/verse or bridge. Sometimes a band may omit a section of a song, or repeat it, so it's good to know where and how to make the transitions.

    Also, they may require me to sing lead or background on one or more of the songs. Depending on the bassline, I may need to adjust it so that I can sing it and still keep the groove of the song going. I did a gig where the singer's voice wore out towards the end of the night. We were scheduled for a second night, and decided during set break to give her voice a rest in order to get through tomorrow's gig. I had to sing a handful of songs I had never sung before while playing bass. As long as I maintained the chord progression, locked in with the drummer, and sang in tune and in time, I was good.

    And sometimes, someone in the band will mess up. The drummer might play the wrong beat, the singer may skip the bridge, the guitarist starts in the wrong key, etc. It's good to know the basics of the song, so you can adjust and avoid a trainwreck. Sometimes, you may also find a diamond in the rough.

    IMO, IME, if you learn the chord progressions of the sections of the song you're almost there. If you have a good ear and ability to communicate on stage, you're good to go for most situations. It's more important to fit with your band and how they are doing the song, moreso than to learn a song note for note like the recording. Because if they aren't, you're off, no matter how "right" you are.
  2. All very sound advice.
    Alik likes this.
  3. DanAleks

    DanAleks Cleverly disguised as a responsible adult

    Mar 5, 2009
    Thank you!

    This is golden advice.
  4. Ronnietex


    Aug 11, 2011
    Great thread. Thanks, bro.
  5. This is all good stuff.
  6. walterw

    walterw Supportive Fender Commercial User

    Feb 20, 2009

    it points out how the best way really to be the guy who can pull off these situations (without being a badass studio sight-reader) is to have "roots" in this kind of pop music; trying to learn 40 songs you've never heard before and don't understand the style of in a hurry would be nightmarish!

    the more you've paid attention to the overall history of pop and rock music, listening to a wide variety of stuff, the more "natural" these kinds of changes will seem, even if you haven't heard the specific song before.

    it'll also help you have the right feel for the song; playing the right notes "wrong" is no good either.
    lowplaces, DWBass and Fishyfishfish like this.
  7. This stuff is gold for beginners like me.

    Thank you for sharing Jive!!! :bassist:
  8. walterw

    walterw Supportive Fender Commercial User

    Feb 20, 2009
    now i'm curious as to what other way there is to learn a lot of pop songs besides understanding the more common changes.
  9. Depending what you meant by "grooves" I might just be repeating your advice, but within any style the same notes tend to get used a lot. So if you know the blues scale and a few standard riffs, a lot of blues becomes really predictable. In jazz, flattened passing notes and lots more "sweet" notes like seconds, ninths, etc. In country, the good ol' I V I V.....

    Same for rhythms, eg reggae, the offbeat.

    If you know the chords and the characteristic note selections of the style you are playing, it will be easier to fake the details and sound authentic.

    For me as an improviser this is a blessing and a curse. It gives me a tool for switching styles quickly, but I have to concentrate to be consistent on the details, particularly when called upon to solo.
  10. JohnMCA72


    Feb 4, 2009
    Jive, that's a pretty comprehensive & well-written description. I really can't add much to it, except that I regularly practice what's more-or-less the "by ear" equivalent of sight reading. That is, I'll queue up a list of semi-random songs that I've never played, but generally "know" from having heard them. I'll play along, picking up the chords, intervals, progressions, etc. in real time. I think it's good exercise, to help make me a better all-around player, as well as better able to adapt & learn quickly. I've built up a repertoire of several hundred tunes that I can play, but probably never will actually play with a band. You never know, though, & there have been a few cases where I've had a need to "learn" something I already know!

    Now, this is an additional technique, in addition to what Jive described, not a substitute.
  11. Vinceampeg98


    Aug 6, 2011
    My way is :

    1- Make sure i have the full set list with all the songs in the right key.

    2- Listening to each songs and write down a lead sheet for each one, it help a lot to memorise them.

    3- Practicing over and over again all songs so I can get them really well in my ears. I reproduce the key bass line as it is on the records, but for the other parts, I play my own bass line over the chords.

    4- Talk to the BL before the gig about the transition between each songs and for extended parts, write them down on my charts/set list.

    5- At the gig, key word is listening, all the time, groove with the drum, and listening, I play with my ears and drive carefully, especially if playing with people I never played with, it's not the time to make them uncomfortable.

    VoilĂ  !
  12. sleeplessknight

    sleeplessknight Supporting Member

    Mar 8, 2002
    Montana Mountainside
    Another trick I get a lot of mileage out of is to keep the changes in "Nashville" like Jive has 'em (i.e. instead of just writing out sections as 'Bb Gmin Eb7 F7', just have 'I vi IV V'), and commit them to memory by 'sequencing' the tune over and over. The general idea for sequencing is:
    1. Play the first measure, then stop
    2. Play the first measure, second measure, then stop
    3. Play first, second, third measure, then stop
    N. etc etc ad nauseam

    rinse and repeat until you've worked the whole tune. Your brain can't NOT memorize a tune when you run it like that, and while it *sounds* tedious, it really takes less than 15-20 minutes per tune. Also, a hidden benefit of learning tunes "Nashville" is that when the singer is all "Oh wait, lets do that tune a minor third lower..." at the last minute, transposing on the fly becomes a WHOLE lot easier!

    Also, for situations where there just isn't enough time to memorize tunes and cheat-sheets are "OK" for the gig, I can get just about every tune WITH changes on a single sheet of paper if I cram 'em into Excel and print it out in "Landscape" mode. If cheat-sheets *aren't* OK on a last-minute gig with no time to memorize, you can pull the same trick and then cut the tunes into strips (one or two per strip), and tape them in successive layers on the upper horn of your instrument ;-)

    There's a great book by a guy named Randy Halberstadt (sp?) called "Metaphors for the Musician". It's written from the perspective of a jazz cat (specifically, a jazz pianist), but 98% of the stuff in that book is completely applicable to EVERY instrument in EVERY style. That's where I lifted the 'sequencer' trick from.

    Another Ace in my sleeve is the software program "Transcribe" by Seventh String Software. That little widget is easily THE best $50 I ever spent. It's very similar to "The Amazing Slow-downer", but with boatloads more features and a significantly easier interface. With it, I can:
    * loop entire tunes and sections of tunes
    * slow tunes (and sections thereof) down by varying degrees without changing the pitch
    * pitch-shift entire tunes (singer wants you to play a tune in Bb when the original is in D and you prefer to have a proper 'backing track' to jam along to? No problem!)
    * fiddle with the EQ such that the bassline is isolated (combined with points 1 and 2, this is THE killer feature for this app)

    "And...", to pull a Billy Madison, "So Much More!"

    Seriously, I should start charging the developer a sales commission or something because I love that little program like a fat kid loves cake, and tell musicians about it every chance I get! ;-) There's a 30-day free demo on the site, and as far as I'm concerned it's as crucial a piece of kit for the 'road warrior' as a Leatherman or a spare set of strings/cables.
    farshore likes this.
  13. SBassman


    Jun 8, 2003
    Northeast, US
    Great thread. Thanks.
  14. jmattbassplaya

    jmattbassplaya Supporting Member

    Jan 13, 2008
    Great thread! The addition of common progressions in certain genres is absolutely top notch and something I plan on saving for my own use - although I'd like to think I wouldn't ever actually need it :p
  15. jive1

    jive1 Commercial User

    Jan 16, 2003
    Owner/Retailer: Jive Sound
    Here's a real life example. I recorded this song as a demo, and I had never played the song before. But, it was an easy song, so it didn't take long. Even though I played the guitar on this track, I'll show you how I would figure out the bass line for it.

    It's Semi-Charmed Life by 3rd Eye Blind. It's a simple song. By listening to it, I could tell it's a money chord progression (I - V - IV) . So, I grab a bass or guitar, and I find the key by playing various roots until I get there, but I usually guess on common keys like G, A or E first. So for this song, I find that it's in G major.

    For the guitar, it's a matter of figuring out the chord voicings for G, D, and C that work, and then I put in the embellishments like suspensions to fit the time of the chord progression. The strums are syncopated, but not too difficult as long as you follow the drums, especially the snare. The dynamics are altered for the chorus and verse, but they follow the same progression, so I just figure out something a little different for each section: I hit the main riff on the chorus, and pick individual chord tones and chord stabs in the verse. I then figure out the arrangement, and voila, I'm done!

    For the bass, it's just as simple. The song is in G major, and you know the chords are G, D, and C. The first chord tone has in the root, from there you pick notes on the major scale to figure out the riff. On this it's the G(I) - A(II)- B(III) for the G. On the D chord, you can do a root or fifth, and then drop down to the C where you play the syncopated 16th note or sycopated 8th note thing depending on the part of the song you are in. Since you already know the chords, it's easier to pick out the individual notes, and you can spend more time getting the timing and dynamics down.

    Here's another song I played bass on. First time ever played was in the studio. It's Alcohol by Brad Paisley.

    The song is in B major, and the guitarist was kind enough to give me the chords, so it was easier. Even without his help, you can hear that it's mainly a I - IV. But, the song isn't in 4/4. So, I had to give it a listen to put it at 6/4, which meant I had to be a little "lazier" in feel. I gave a good listen to the kick drum on this one. Since it's country, I could play root-five and it would have the right feel, and I could add some embellisments in between sections of songs. The song isn't completely I-IV, as there's a walkdown in the chorus and verse. Since I know the song is in a major key, the walkdown was a simple VII, VI, etc. walkdown on the verses and first part of the chorus. Since I know it's a Country tune, I guess that it resolves on the V chord, and it does. On the second section of the chorus, I hear something different on the walkdown, and guess that it's a walkdown from the IV, and it is, and stays in the major scale of B. And like good old country music, it resolves on the V.
    So this song is learned, with a simple I-IV and adding nuances based on the major scale.
    Chili_Time likes this.
  16. SBassman


    Jun 8, 2003
    Northeast, US
    Ever thought about collecting this into a book? Great stuff.
  17. Thor

    Thor Gold Supporting Member In Memoriam

    Nice work Jive!
  18. Floyd Eye

    Floyd Eye Inactive

    Feb 21, 2010
    St. Louis
    Another fast way is to go to YT and type in the name of the song, followed by "Bass cover". You will no doubt have to wade through scores of Shiite, but there is usually at least one guy doing it right. I have done this when I HAD to.
  19. Jarrett


    Jan 19, 2004
    So what you are saying is knowing basic music theory makes it easier to learn new music? HERESY! :D

    You know what I find helps in learning bass lines... that my speaker system has a good subwoofer so I can better discern the bass notes. I like to put my foot on the the subwoofer as well (small computer speaker type subwoofer) while I am learning the song. That tactile sensation helps reinforce what I am hearing.

    Isn't the Alcohol song in 6/8?

    Great stuff by the way, Jive. I like writing out charts in I IV V format when playing church gigs as the are notorious for last minute key changes and it makes it easier to transcribe on the fly.
  20. jive1

    jive1 Commercial User

    Jan 16, 2003
    Owner/Retailer: Jive Sound
    Nowadays with tabs, chord charts, instructional videos, etc on the internet, it's a whole lot easier. But, I find that you still need to listen and play through it, as there are lots of tabs out there with mistakes. And still, your band may do it differently.