Monday, August 8, 2011

How I Learn New Songs: a Roadmap for Bassists

I am learning a lot of new songs in preparation for a band performance.  I follow a predictable pattern in learning new songs.

1.  Buy a copy of the songs off of (or Napster or other sites) or record them off of YouTube videos.  The quality of the latter is good enough to practice with, but if you want to listen to these tunes in your car, it's better to buy a quality copy.

2.  Listen to the recorded songs from #1 above, particularly if you aren't familiar with the songs.  Listen for the bass part and mentally note any "signature riffs."  Signature riffs are bass runs that the audience will expect to hear if the performance is to be credible.  An example might be the bass part to Creedence's "Down on the Corner" or Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman."  You have to play these riffs.

3.  Create a song list (I use Excel for its editing and sorting abilities) of all the songs.  For my current project, I have listed the songs by set, sequence number and key (the key used by the band, not the original performer necessarily).

4.  Download chords and lyrics for each song in the list.  You can do this at or other sites (see links in the left sidebar).  Print out the songs and put them in order.  If you can't find the chord tabs in the desired key, you can convert the chord notations using a chord chart converter.  I will prepare one and post in a subsequent post; meanwhile, google "music chord converter" or some such and you will no doubt find one on the web.

5.  Play bass with the recorded songs.  Your first pass will be less than perfect, but you will become more familiar with the songs.  Note the original keys for the songs -- do they match the keys used by the band?  If so, great.  If not, you need to change the key in the recorded song.

6.  To change the key, you need to have an mp3 computer file of the song.  How do you convert to an mp3 file?  Good question.  If you buy songs from some sites like, it will already be in mp3 format.  In iTunes, you get it in mp4 format, so that won't work  However, I will create a second post that tells you how to put songs into mp3 format.  If you have the song in mp3 format, you can change the key with a free audio editing software called Audacity. Download a copy from the link.

The problem with changing keys in an mp3 is that it also changes the pitch of the singer's voice.  If you are converting from the key of C# to C, this isn't much of a problem.  However, if you are converting from the key of C to the key of G, the singer may now sound like Barry White or Alvin the Chipmunk, depending on whether you chose to adjust the pitch down or up.  (There is software for sale that claims it has this problem licked, but I haven't tried it yet.)

7.  Now practice with the amended recordings again.  Note which songs are easiest to learn and which are more difficult.  After running through all the songs once, choose one of the difficult ones and take your time learning the bass riffs and runs.  Learn one difficult song per day and you will cover a lot of ground in a week or so.  Use your sheet music so you don't have to guess at the chords, but do correct any errors (online sheet music often contains errors, since it is largely prepared by other musicians who may hear it differently than the original).

8.  Practice the new songs with your band.  This is the final step in making the new songs your own.  Now you can make any final adjustments in the way you play the songs so the band performance is tight.

9.  Last of all, I put all of my songs in sequence order in a three-ring binder, with the song list (printed in Excel) as a table of contents.  This is your band song book, your personal fake book.  It will grow in songs over time and you will have an excellent library of the songs you want to play.

Here's the format I use for my Excel-generated Song List:

The "X" column can be used for any purpose you choose.  I put an X by each song for which I have an mp3 file and the chord tabs, meaning that song is ready to practice.  Since Excel has great sort capabilities, you can sort the list by genre, original artist, by key or by set.  I generally print the list into a pdf file for email distribution to band members, so they can print it out and use it to organize their song books.

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