The thrill of finishing a song is made all the more exciting by what follows next - choosing a new one to learn!
Of course, in reality, I’m well aware that you, like ALL musicians, are probably more likely to start a song, get it sort-of going, then feel the need move onto something else once you’re bored. This is totally fine, and can be one of the most efficient ways to build your skills.
However, both of these situations often leave you with a difficult choice to make - what song is the best one for me to work on now?
Your options are typically:
Revisit an existing song
Learn to play a song you have heard before
Learn to play a completely new song you haven’t heard before
All are useful, but it’s made a lot easier if you can create a list or a database of songs to draw from.
So today, based on the method Dave, Mitch and I are developing at Pathfinder Guitar for our own song database, I want to share with you a way to build your song list so you can spend less time hunting for music and more time playing!
Step 1: Write Down All the Songs You Know (or Want to Learn One Day)
When you first start playing guitar, you’ll probably practice every song you know every time you practice, as you don’t know many songs. But over time, this becomes impractical, so you’ll typically move on from easier songs, maybe revisiting from time to time, but certainly shifting focus away from them.
Having played guitar for 25 years, I would easily know how to play thousands of songs. That’s not boasting, by the way - it would be true of any musician who has played for any length of time pretty much by default.
However, if you asked me to PLAY thousands of songs for you right now, I would probably remember fewer than 50 off the top of my head - at best.
The reason? When I’m in the song, muscle memory takes over. When I’m trying to think of a song to play, I’m remembering a list, and unless you’re some form of memory-genius, you’re just not going to remember a list of thousands of songs.
You can probably see where I’m going with this.
Write a list right now of every song you know how to play, or have partially played. Go through your tabs and charts and list them out. It doesn’t need to be complete today - we just want a baseline so you can keep adding other songs as you either learn them or remember having played them in the past.
Now, think of every song you would love to one day play. Do not worry about how difficult it sounds, as:
a) many songs aren’t as complicated as they first appear
b) challenging songs are good goals to work towards, and can help guide your practice focus
By this point, even if you’re a total beginner, you should have at least 10-20 songs on your list (if not, get onto a music streaming service and listen to stuff until you find something that interests you!)
Step 2: Gather Performance Links, Tabs and Charts
If your list is in a digital format, I’d now include the following information:
Recording Link for the song
Live video performance of the song
Tabs or Charts (UltimateGuitar, Songster, books or notes from your teacher)
Depending on your skill level and the amount of time you want to spend on this step, you can try out parts of the song to assess which tab or video is best and to help you judge the difficulty and the techniques involved, which will help in Step 3.
For our teaching database, we go one step further and actually write out our own version of the song, but that’s because we want it in a format that’s clear and easy to teach. For my personal database, I’d usually put my best guess at a decent version and worry about cleaning it up when I’m ready to learn the song, so it’s really up to you.
One note on paid tabs - if the artist offers their own tabs or sheet music for a song, you’ll usually have to pay for it.
If you want to save yourself a lot of time and effort, it’s usually worth it, and as a bonus, you’re directly supporting the artist in a manner in which, in most cases, actually pays them better than Spotify and YouTube plays do.
Step 3: Define the Challenges of the Song
Knowing what technical challenges you’ll face in a song make it a lot easier to decide when it comes time to choose something to work on.
For example, feeling a bit weak in barre chords? Well you’re in luck, as the Strat Cat Strut on your list of songs to learn has some barre chords in it, so maybe try that next!
Of course, you won’t always know all of the challenges in every song, but you only really need to list what you know initially and as your skills and knowledge increase, you can add more categories and better recognise challenges from listening to performances and reading charts.
For our song database, we separate the “style” of the song into either:
and then put a little mark next to songs that include techniques such as:
Standard Notation reading
7th and extension chords
Sweep or Economy Picking
Bends/slides/hammer ons and pull-offs
Your categories and techniques may be different to ours, and that’s totally fine. You might even have your own unique ways of describing songs, like “flow-y” or “punchy”, or even moods and emotions.
My only advice is to start small, with a few variables, then add more categories or information when you find you need to later on. The list should be easy to maintain, not a chore.
Step 4: Using the List to Choose Songs
Once you’ve got this database together, you can finally start using it to choose some songs to play.
I’d recommend putting together a guitar practice routine that has:
A song that is challenging
A song that you want to play (for yourself or others)
A song that’s easy (for you) that you just love playing
but the key thing I’d like to reiterate is - don’t feel you need to ‘complete’ every song before moving on to something else. Definitely try to get a few songs up to performance-standard, including nice dynamics, but the majority of songs will be more of a “get the basics down then move on” situation.
Remember, you’ve got the list now, so you can always revisit those songs later if you want to!
Maintaining Your Song List
The key with any practice aid is to keep improving and adapting it to suit your needs.
Are your definitions too broad, making it hard to decide between songs? Add more definitions or categories to better differentiate them.
Are you spending too much time adding to the list instead of playing? Simplify the information in the list, or spend less time looking up tabs until you’re ready to actually play it.
Remember, this is YOUR list. It’s not “top 100 guitar songs to learn” written by The Internet. It’s a reflection of your experiences and goals as a guitarist, and it should be personal and unique. There are no ‘right’ songs to include or exclude.
I’m just as proud of the Jewel ballads on my list from 20 years ago as I am of my own self-written songs added more recently, as they were all part of my ongoing journey as a guitarist.
That being said, certainly share your lists with your teachers, friends and other musicians as regularly as you can, because you’ll likely get:
a) some new song ideas to add to it
b) a chance to play some duets!