Guitar Tips and Notes

Russell Bateman
October 2021

How to learn songs

This is a little dishonest of me. One of my teachers, Eddie Haddad, sent this methodology out to his students and I'm republishing it here. I have always struggled with this and usually begged someone else to do it for me.

🔥 Find the Key of the Song

  1. You have to know what key your new song is in. Is it G? D? C#? This is the foundation of the song and all information falls out of this one starting point.

  2. So, let's begin...

  3. Play the low E string on your guitar while the song is playing and slide your finger along the frets until you locate the (fret whose) note matches the note of the opening riff or chord of the song.

  4. Voila! You have the key of the song.

(In truth, I think step 3 above is not too helpful. You need to find the fundamental of the opening verse or chorus. I think I should be able to do better, but I'll have to think about it. While it's true that lots of songs are super simple in their structure, you'll be frustrated by others that change key, etc. And you can often just forget progressive rock songs.)


Let's use Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison.

Listen to this song from the start. Slide your finger along the low E string until you've got the opening chord. And yes, it's a G note. So that tells you that the song is in G Major.

From this crucial point everything gets easier.

🔥 Use the 1-4-5-6 Chords Immediately

  1. Here's the biggest secret in songwriting history: Hundreds of thousands of songs only use 3 or 4 chords! If you can figure out what these 3 or 4 chords are, you're at a huge advantage.

  2. If you're playing country, pop, rock or blues there's a good chance these will be the only chords you need.

  3. Brown Eyed Girl is in G major. So immediately think, "What are the 1, 4, 5 and 6 chords in G major?" Here they are:
    1. The 1 chord is G major.
    2. The 4 chord is C major, so-called because it's 4th inline: G - A - B - C
    3. The 5 chord is D major, so-called because it's 5th inline: G - A - B - C - D
    4. The 6 chord is E minor, the relative minor chord.

  4. You guessed it! These 4 chords (along with a D7 variation) are the only chords you need to play Brown Eyed Girl.

  5. If you train your brain to think, "What are the 1-4-5-6 chords?" immediately upon locating the starting key of a song, you'll be like a poker player, holding almost all the cards you need when the chord changes are coming up because chances are, it's one of those 4 chords.

🔥 Play the First Verse and Chorus Only

  1. Only listen to the first verse and chorus because if you work those out, you've nailed 80% of the song.

  2. Popular music—rock, country, blues, pop—relies on repetition to hook their earworms into our brains.

  3. So, if you learn the first verse and chorus, you've established the foundation of the song and will also have the confidence to proceed.

🔥 How to Pick Out the Key of a Song

On the guitar fret board, you only need the first 12 frets of the low E string for this.

  1. While the song is playing, pluck the E string repeatedly as you move up from the bottom fret toward the 12th.
  2. Stop when you think you are hearing a note on the guitar that you're hearing in the song.
  3. You'll know you've arrived at the note of the key when the note "sounds pretty good" over the whole progression.
  4. If the song suddenly stopped, would the note you're playing "resolve," that is, sound like a good note to have as the last note of the song?
  5. Or, would you need to move from that note to a different one in order to "resolve" the ending?
  6. Eliminate notes that just don't fit, sound dissonant, etc.