How To Learn Cover Tunes on Guitar and Bass

hmm (2)When challenged with learning a new cover tune on guitar or bass, many beginner musicians immediately jump to one of the many tablature websites. If you’re not familiar with tab (short for tablature), it’s a very simple form of music notation using fingering on the instrument, as opposed to actual notes and pitches. Using tab is a terrible habit to get into. First off, the majority of tab you find on the internet is wrong. More importantly, once you get into the habit of relying on other people to do the work of figuring parts out for you, you will be stuck when you come across that song you really need to learn that nobody has yet tabbed. Even worse, you’ll be rendered completely helpless when the opportunity arises for you to jump aboard that original band you love whose bass player quit a week before their headlining tour. And those situations happen, often. Bassist Pino Palladino (who doesn’t read music) was asked to learn an entire Who set in a just a few days, when John Entwistle unexpectedly passed away. While chances are you’ll never be getting asked to play for the Who, I’ve had more than one opportunity to play in bands I was a fan of, and gotten the gigs because I was quickly able to learn the songs. Learning to play other people’s music is an essential skill that all well rounded musicians need to have, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. But you ask, where do I start? Let’s take a typical scenario, and then explore your options…

You have an audition for a cover band you’d really like to be a part of. They sent you a list of songs, and ask you to pick four. You never heard any of them. You know better than to trust the tab sites, and you’re in a slight panic. First things first:

Obtaining the songs:

youtube mp3 snapshotDo you buy all these songs in order to become familiar with them? You could, but it if you become an active musician, it can become expensive. My first stop is always YouTube. There is nothing that can’t be found there. My second stop is What youtub-mp3 does, is precisely what it says. It allows you to copy the music portion of the video and convert it with just a click, into an mp3 file. “But that’s stealing, and it’s illegal!” you say. That’s what I thought too, but it turns out that the fair use act states that you’re allowed to make one copy, for your own personal use. It’s similar to recording a movie to your DVR. Nothing wrong with doing that. If you start passing it along to others or burning cds and selling them, that’s where the trouble begins. So keep it for yourself and its all fair game. So you have the song file, what next?


girl w headphonesI always like to listen carefully to the song first. I get my favorite headphones, close my eyes, and hear all that’s going on. Sometimes I’ll jump right in after that, but if time permits and it’s a song I’m unfamiliar with, I’ll give it a few listens. It helps me hear things I might miss if rushing along with bass in hand, and it also familiarizes me with the song structure. When its several songs that I need to learn, I find it really helpful put them into a playlist and make them my only listening music until I’ve got the songs burned into my memory.

Finding the key:

The majority of recorded music in standard pitch (tuned to A440), so you should be fine with using an electronic tuner and then diving in. Trying to learn a tune if you’re not in perfect tune with the recording is difficult, if not impossible for someone new, so don’t get lazy here. Take the time to do it right. For the small handful of groups that don’t tune to A440, it will take a little trial and error to get it straight. You’ll either come across a section that is impossible to play (there’ll be a low open E note that is unattainable), or you’ll find riffs that are just plain too difficult without using open strings. While this might all sound slightly intimidating to a beginner, it’s not as complicated as it seems. And when bands are tuned differently, it’s usually just a half step down. There’s a small handful of classic rock bands that are known for doing it – Kiss, G’nR, and Metallica are the 3 first to come to mind. If you find yourself overly concerned about this, then it’s the only time I’ll tell you to check the internet tab sites. Find a few tabs for the song you’re learning, by different people, and if they match up you’ll know how to tune your guitar accordingly. YouTube can be helpful also, but we’ll talk about that in a bit.

Learning by ear:

listening graphic blackYour life will be much easier if you practice the skill of learning tunes by ear. I promise, but won’t waste time explaining why here. You can read more on that here (link to learning by ear). This is a skill that like any other, will become much easier with time. You will begin to recognize the relationship between notes (intervals), and finding them on the fret board of your guitar will in time become second nature. There are many tools available to help in the process of learning by ear. If you’re a PC person, you already own my personal favorite, windows media player. Even if you choose another program, read the following regarding media player as I’ve included some basic info that pertains to all other players also.

Windows media player:

WMP is a much more powerful software program than most people realize. And it’s free! To quickly explore it’s potential, open the song you wish to play in WMP (If it’s not already your default music player, right click on your file, choose “open with” and then choose media layer). Once the song is opened, right click in the black are at the bottom next to the transport bar. Hover over “enhancements”, and you’ll see an additional menu. The 2 that you will be using are the graphic equalizer, and the play speed settings.
With the graphic equalizer set at custom, you can EQ your mp3 to bring out whatever instrument it is you’re trying to hear and learn. You can cut or boost highs and lows to your heart’s content. There are no rules to this, your ears will to be your guide, just keep in mind that if you’re looking for bass lines that doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll hear the bass most by boosting the lows. Experiment also with the highs and mids, as those are the frequencies where the real character of the notes is more often found.

Windows_Media_Player 2 (2)The play speed setting is your next best media player friend. That riff that’s impossible to hear and get note for note becomes a lot easier when you slow the tune down. I like to start with going one notch lower, and then adjusting as needed. Once you get the notes down that you’re listening to, if the riff is out of your skill range, fret not (pun intended). Continue playing the riff along with the recording at a speed that you can play it. Better yet, do a search for a free online metronome, and practice the riff over and over at a comfortable speed. You’ll be surprised at how quickly the impossible becomes possible when you do that. The trick is to not push yourself past a tempo you can play along with perfectly. Play as solid as you can, for a few minutes straight, stop for a minute or 2 then raise the click speed one BPM. If you can handle the faster speed, repeat the process. If not, go back to the slower speed. What happens is while you do this, muscle memory kicks in and begins to do the job your brain used to. Your finger muscles memorize what you’re doing, and you literally wake up one morning able to do the impossible. Forcing yourself to play something faster than you’re capable won’t make you faster. Playing it over and over slowly does.

Other Players:

While windows media player is awesome, it’s not perfect. It’s missing 2 useful functions that I myself can live without, but you might find helpful. Those 2 functions are key change (which allows you adjust those earlier mentioned Metallica tunes to A440), and loop function, which allows you to repeatedly play riffs or sections of songs you’re learning. Last I checked you can’t have that for free though. You can download free versions of several great aps and programs, but the fully functioning ones run about $14.00. The 2 I’ve toyed around with and liked best are the amazing slow downer, and anytune. Both available for mac and iPad.

While I hesitate to go where I’m about to, it would be unjust to leave it out. If you’re pressed for time, or simply having too much trouble learning by ear and feel you need a little push there are other options:

Tab publications:

This is very different from internet tab. It’s different basically because it’s accurate. I don’t know exactly how they do it, but they do, and most tab from the publications I’ve purchased have been pretty much 99% on the money, lest some positioning errors. They may tab something in a position that is much easier to play in a different position on the neck. The notes are just about always accurate though, and once you learn them, it’s good practice learning to move them around the neck to find the most comfortable position to play them. I currently play bass in a Led Zeppelin tribute band, and have played in a RHCP, and a No Doubt tribute. In all 3 groups I was pushed beyond my time constraints, and purchased tabs books to “cheat” a bit. I was impressed with their accuracy.

You tube “how to play” videos:

As with internet tab, you’re going to get internet teachers here. Some are dead on, many (I’m tempted to say most) have no clue what they’re doing. You can search just about any song + guitar or bass lesson on youtube and come up with a handful of people willing to teach you how to play it. You can usually get a good idea how accurate a “lesson” is by the number of hits it has, along with the number of videos the instructor has, but your ears have to be the ultimate judge. And the more you work at learning songs on your own by ear, the better you’ll be able to judge.


Last but absolutely not least, you can find yourself a teacher. There are plenty of people advertising on craigslist, but you must do your research carefully. Don’t meet up with anyone you can’t research thoroughly, and make sure you talk with them, ask lots of questions, and tell them specifically what you’re looking for. Do you want to learn theory, how to read, or simply learn the basics and a handful of tunes? Some teachers are more than willing to simply teach cover songs, but you’ll be paying to do something you’re much better off learning to do yourself.

Stay tuned for a list of simple covers for newcomers. It will be included in an upcoming blog regarding songs that every cover band knows, or should.

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