Although I have a repetoire of hundreds of songs I still have to learn tunes at short notice all the time. After all, nobody knows all the thousands of songs there are out there.
So here's how I approach learning sets quickly and efficiently.
I create A5 sheets for each song containing just the critical information required to get through the song. A5 is more manageable on a gig but big enough to get most songs onto.
Roughly these are the steps I go through to distill the song down.
- Identify the key center and the main chord progressions for each section of the song
- Label these sections - Verse, Chorus middle 8 etc. It's actually not that important that your labels coincide with anyone else's as long as you know what they mean.
- Work your way through the tune getting the structure clear in your mind and down on paper.
- From there it'll be a matter of notating the exceptions to the likely Verse-Chorus repeat format.
- I include rhythmic notation and simple melodic directions - just note letters and a contour.
- Stops are very important to get right. If you're playing when everyone else stops they're gonna notice!
- Include vocal cues and reminders of extended sections
Here's an example sheet and a line by line breakdown. The song is the soul classic 'Hold back the Night'
Normally I write the title at the top but forgot on this occasion!
From top to bottom, line by line:
Intro chord sequence which also happens to be the Chorus sequence (not uncommon).
A triplet ascending chord pattern (a major feature of the song)
A reminder of a specific arpeggiated verse pattern (again - an important detail)
From there it's just structure and any exceptions to the regular verse - chorus repetitions.
By the time I've prepared this I'll already know the song but I'll practice with it front of me for a while and quickly start to ignore it. Chances are I won't need it by the time comes to play it with the band but if I do it'll be clear to read from and will guide me through - even with my hand writing!
If there are sets that you don't play often it's good to keep these sheets as they'll serve as an excellent memory aid and you'll be back up to speed more or less straight away.
Over time you'll find your own ways of representing the important information.