How to learn new songs/bass lines

I thought perhaps we could share some tips&tricks about how to approach a new song, especially a new bass line and learn to play it, and what is important in the process.

This was partly inspired by @John_E ’s recent “learn a song in a day” demonstration of determination and will power (maybe he could share how he tackled that challenge here!?), but also of a recent insight for myself concerning what I need to work on much more.

Thinking about how one typically approaches a new song, for me (and probably others as well!?!), the process will likely be like this:

  1. learn the notes and make sure you can play the right notes (in the right sequence). This takes care of WHAT to play
  2. absorb the rhythmic information. This usually means learn WHEN to play the notes you learned in step 1 (or, put differently, WHERE to place these notes in the timing grid/beat ruler)

Quite often, that would be as far as I would go, and then declare this bass line as “learned” and basically wing it from here, meaning trust my ears for getting it right and just play along to the song.

However, while this indeed produces all the right notes in all the right places, it will most often create a fairly bland or even boring performance of that bass line. What is really crucial (and I kind of knew that, but didn’t put too much emphasis on it) and what makes a bass line come alive and potentially get funky, is

  1. pay attention to the note lengths and especially make sure to honor the rests!!
  2. pay attention to accentuations (staccato, legato, ghost notes(!), …)
  3. pay attention to phrasing and time feel (straight, shuffle, swing, triplets, ….)

If I am honest to myself, I have quite often been very lackadaisical about points 3 to 5, figuring I “had it down” after nailing points 1 and 2.

So, with the risk of preaching to the choir, a friendly reminder to all of us that good performances should focus on more than just playing the right notes at the right times :smile:

PS: just to give one example, these two figures are easily played almost identically, but of course one should really pay attention and “honor” that rest in the second example :grin:

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I still regard myself as a rookie with respect to learning and memorizing full songs but I take a different approach.

1] I identify the parts of the song and how the different parts are arranged to form the complete song. ie: the structure.

Then for each of the parts I…
2.1] Identify the rhythm and timing (including note lengths, syncopations etc…)
2.2] Identify any tricky parts (slide, hammer ons, pull offs, glissando etc…)
2.3] Learn the notes played at reduced speed
2.4] Learn at full speed

Finally
3] Combine all the parts into a full song

One thing I really struggle with is when I’ve learned a song to the point where I’m happy I can perform it and then move on to another song and then another…

I find I tend to loose the earlier songs and need to restudy them to be able to dredge them back up from memory. I asked Gary Willis about this once and he says he keeps kind of shorthand notes to quickly remind himself of how the song should be played.

I’ve yet to identify such a shorthand for myself and would love to hear if any of you have found a method of speeding up the ‘refreshing the memory’ phase.

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I usually start with the rhythm by just chugging one note to the beat until the groove is ingrained in my brain (and fingers). Then I work on memorizing the notes in chunks. This, of course after I’ve labored at transcribing the song, and it’s partially fused to my memory anyway.
And then practice, practice, practice.
That’s just me. I like to keep things simple.

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lol…same same…
I work rhythm first with a note. After that its recognizing patterns,etc etc

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Taking it one measure at a time, and as slow as needed to make sure the fingers are doing their jobs.

The recognising patterns that toughdoody mentions are like a lightbulb moment for me, like when I think something looks difficult and then realise oh that’s the fifth or octave and suddenly it’s easier.

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interesting! I have heard he has his own shorthand for memorizing chord changes (for jazz tunes), but maybe he also has shorthand notes for other aspects of a song…

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exactly…makes things so much simpler to understand

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Love how you’ve put that @HowlinDawg, definitely feels more relatable to me to attack a song that way!
It’s finding the next song to learn in full that I then get stuck at! (and end up just sticking to more riffs instead…) :joy:

And @StartedAt48 you’re right, although the light bulb moment for me tends to happen not just with note/fingering patterns like root/fifth but song structure… I’ll get down a couple sections or riffs, then all of a sudden this mess of detail I’m seeing on the tab/notation becomes clear and I’ll realise that it’s just repetitions of 2 or 3 riffs that I need to glue together! :sweat_smile:

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Well…

There are a lot of tricks in the bag that I am identifying and then actually remembering to use.

Here are some things I do
First and foremost…
Listen to the song! Your memory of the song is not what you think!
Try to listen to the bassline (even with this you will be suprised how much of it you get wrong (thus, bad tabs on the interweb).

Like cooking when they tell you to read the entire recipe before you start, read the entire sheet music/tab before you start. Make notes, find ‘mileposts’ (verse, chorus, bridge, outro, etc)

Buy the song and put it in a slow downer app, I use AnyTune Pro+, but AmazingSlowDowner works too, I am used to the AnyTune Pro+ interface so I tend to just use it.
Put those mileposts above in the tune in the app.

Also put the song in an AI splitter like Moisies, etc.
Listen to the song again, with the bass part turned up and the rest turned down a bit, you will be suprised how different the bass line really is from what you think it is sometimes.
Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag is a very good example of this. When I first started learning this, the bassline felt like the beat of the melody, but it isn’t even close. But once you hear and feel the real bassline, it can’t be unheard.

So the above tools help me learn the song quicker.
I start by playing through the tune and identifying what seems easy and what seems hard.
I highlight in the sheet music the tricky bits.
Also put marks around tricky bits in the slow down app, for ease of moving the repeat loop later.

Now I start from the beginning at a slow speed, all depends on the tune and how far away I am, maybe 80% or 75%. I had to start “About Damn Time” at about 65%.
FEEL the bass line at these speeds.
Embed the groove in you and your playing and don’t speed up when you know the section, speed up when you play it with the right feel only (like @joergkutter mentioned, this is really important).

When I hit the first tricky part, that is where I stop and embed the tune to that point only.
I put the repeat around the tricky part, and play it over and over slowly.
This is also important, once you get it, feel how it feels in your fingers, where they go, how they have to move. Close your eyes and play it, or, if you have to, stare at the fretboard to play it, BUT…know what comes next and before the tricky bit.
Once you have the tricky bit down, add a bar or two in front of it to ‘pick it up’ and the next bar or two to know where you are going.
Then speed this part up to full speed, but not the whole song, yet.

If you don’t plan on memorizing the entire song, then memorize enough after any time you have to stare at the fretboard for a tricky bit that you can play on autopilot as you go look up back at the sheetmusic and find your place. The highlights I make help me lock into where i was.

Here is a score that I highlighted the tricky bits on:

Why are they tricky?
They are slight changes to both notes and rests in repeated riffs.
Now, you could play them all the same, but that is not the ‘feel’ of the tune.
So when I go to record this, I have a visual cue of what the tricky bit is.
A rest instead of a note, change in notes, etc.
Also notice the big rests in the tune - these are important.
They give you a ‘ok, cool, made it here, take a breath, next bit’.

If you want to memorize the entire song, a trick I use is this …
Use the lyrics around tricky parts and changes in riffs as your audible guideposts. Or chord changes or drums, anything to signal you.

When Lizzo sings:
Feeling fussy, walkin’ in my Balenci-ussy’s (I made a note in my mind that a slide was coming up)
Tryna bring out the fabulous
'Cause I give a fuck way too much
I’ma need like two shots in my cup
One to get up, one to get down (the word up starts a slide from the E string fret 8 to 10 to 0.)

As you start learning the song, pick things that stand out to you audibly as ‘milestones’
The above is a good example. After the slide part, I knew the ‘second riff’ comes back, for example.

So once I learn a song chunck to a point, and have the feel and notes down, I keep going until I hit another ‘tricky bit’, and repeat the above.

Take breaks!
Lunch, a snack, a night’s sleep.
If you start going downhill, stop.
Sometimes even a bathroom break or sip or water will work.
Let your brain do its thang.

Other things I do:

  • Sit down sometimes and try to play the song or just parts with no music in front of you.
  • Play with the backing track on and off.
  • Play with the original bassline in and out.
  • Learn the end! - The end of the song is the part you practice the least, hangs me up the most, learn it first or early on.
  • Put your phone in Do Not Disturb Mode - I have one set up for practice that only allows certain things to interrupt
  • Don’t be beholden to the tab! - It is one person’s interpretation of the way to play it. On About Damn Time i used a 4 string instead of a 5er like Lizzo’s bassist does cause it didn’t make sense to my fingers, I detuned a half step instead. - I also did not like where most online were playing it, so dropped it a string and moved it up the fretboard. Find what works.

When you have the whole song slow and nailed, inch it up (in my app it is in 5% speed increments) and play it until you can nail the tricky bits, then advance. Maybe play a few more times once nailed before moving on.

I know this seems like a lot but it gets me there faster in the end, and the more I do it the faster it goes.

I memorized About Damn Time, mainly because I wanted to.
But more often than not, I play to a shorthand vs. the score.
I might write out the structure or signals to the tricky bit parts on a sheet of paper.
Not Verse / Chorus / Verse, but rather something like this (From On A Clear Day):

The thing about this song is it is very repetitive with chord changes occuring at different times. Instead of memorizing all that, this guide gives me the ‘what’s next and where to go’. Like a road map.

Take the first three lines:
The riff starts on 78 of the A string and ends on the 8th fret of (I think) the D string, does that twice, then replaces the last note with the 7th fret and repeats 10x.
Then the riff moves to starting on the 9/10 frets of the E twice.
Next section - riff drops down the E string and bounces around a bit.
Etc

Make sense? If not, its fine, it doesn’t have to. Write down what works for you.

Why memorize the entire thing in your head if you don’t need to go perform it over and over again?

I know this looks like a lot, but it honestly isn’t, and most importantly, takes the struggle out of learning a song.

Some other tips:

If a song is too hard, don’t fight it - learn a bit of it (poorly) and come back to it here and there until it ‘magically’ seems easier.
Feeling down, pick a simple song to boost your confidence.

RECORDING -
Sometimes I will use the waveform to follow along vs. sheet music, and add in cues for section changes like this (Abelton, but all can do this)…

VIDEO -
If you panic of freeze up when you record, record the song without video, make the video after (you will be suprised at how much more relaxed you are). You still have to play it right otherwise it is obvious, and there isn’t a pro in the world that hasn’t done this.
If you really want to memorize and do ‘one take’, then do your thing.
I do a mix of both, depending.

MISTAKES -
If I record a video and get a 98% fab-o take and there is one or two dopey mistakes, I will overdub that bit in the DAW with a puch in/out.
Cheating? Who cares?
People playing live make mistakes all day every day, no one notices.
People staring at you on youtube notice every mistake.
More than 1 or two, I do a retake until right.
Or, if the mistakes aren’t too bad (throw off the groove, etc) - I leave them in.
That said, most songs I try to get a clean take 100% right or darn close to it.

What is the use of toiling for an extra hour or two or day or two to get a single clean take that is 100% accurate?

If you are just starting out, go find SIMPLE songs to memorize, even if you don’t like them, and a good resource to learn them from. Don’t go big to start out. I can’t tell you how many times I played “Babe” by Styx in the very beginning, simply becuase I could pay the whole song.

Anyway, these tools work well for me and are working better all the time.
I use some or all when needed, no hard rules, whatever works.
Hope this helps someone.

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Holy cow - this is some seriously helpful and applicable advice from @John_E - we should all buy him a Coke (erm, or a Pepsi :grin:)!!

Seriously though, that’s a treasure trough of how-to’s and should hopefully help increase the influx into the “Post your covers!” thread :wink:

I realize that my own remarks were mostly focused on how to get a bass line right, but indeed having to memorize the structure and details of a whole song presents its own set of challenges (and really that is included in the thread title as well :rofl:)

I added a couple of thoughts…

and these…

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Pass - I drink water, espresso and bourbon. :grinning:

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Just a few tips. John probably gave steller advice, I’m dyslexic and it’s too many words to comprehend at once, so I will treat it like a song.

  • break it into sections
  • go slow and do one section at a time
  • don’t rush, absorb it bit by bit
  • play along with the song
  • learn the next section
  • repeat
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@John_E and anyone else with insight in the matter:

Can you compare/contrast Anytune versus Transcribe! relative to their respective capabilities, characteristics, ease of use?

I know Anytune is downloadable software versus Transcribe!'s web app, but other than that, what makes each good/better/best than the other for learning and/or transcribing tunes?

I know Moises and lalal.ai are very good at isolating stems. How do either Anytune or Transcribe! stack up against them?

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There’s Transcribe! and Transcribe+

I’ve used the one with the + which is like Anytune but I dislike the user interface.

I think the ! One is something every different but not sure. I know we’ve talked about it but can’t remember. Others use it though.

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Anytune looks interesting, and it seems to offer all the capabilities of Transcribe!. Is that correct?

Does anyone know about these tools?

Transcribe+ will split tracks and allow slow down etc. but I found it often added a click at the beginning of the track so that’s when I stopped using it.

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I usually take an outside-in approach. I’d learn the chord progressions the main bass lines, then transitions and fills.

This depends on the song and the moods most times I’d start with tougher fills usually in the middle of the song or towards the end, they require the most repetitions so tackling them early gives me a better chance of success.

I’d start playing through the song playing the main chords and ignore the fills just keep playing and make mental notes of the fills after a few runs I’ve got the rhythm down and now I just have to put all of the fills in, if they are unique and complicated I’d learn one at a time and keep playing the same fill’s thoughout the song, then learn the next one then alternate then rinse and repeat. The goal is to never stopped and fix the mistakes, the show must go on.

When I learn fills if I put it on the looping cycle I’d start 2-3 measures before and at least 2-3 measures after this is the key if you only learn the one measure of fills when you make a mistake often time you’d automatically stopped which can be a disaster in a live performance situation, don’t ask me how I know, lol. So my default mode when I practice the “song” is never stopped from start to finish.

On a difficult song I’d played it at as low as 50% speed but most times 75% speed for up few weeks, then back to normal speed. Once I got that down I raised it up to about 120% speed and play it for a few days. Then I go back to normal speed it would appear effortless. I do this to all of my songs I played on any live performance. It’s hard enough being on stage pushing a song would make life much harder, lol.

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I like this idea! :+1:

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I understand there is some confusion out there, which is partly (AFAIK) because Transcribe! and Transcribe+ are rather different apps, i.e., not from the same developer. Also, AFAIK, Transcribe+ is only for iOS devices…

Hm, I have a native Transcribe! app, but perhaps that is only for Macs!?!

I can’t make any statement on Anytune - I have never used it.

On Mac, there is also Capo, which can help in understanding/analyzing tunes.

In conclusion, there is much confusion, but as I understand it, Transcribe! is somewhat of a gold standard :smile: