imageAs a working muso, I like to think that the catalogue of songs i can play comfortably is pretty large. I have acquired knowledge over many years of playing in function bands and acts of every possible style and genre. If you think about the number of words you know, I reckon it must be in the hundreds of thousands and you are able to recall all of them at a moment’s notice when you need THAT particular word or phrase to express what you’re thinking. Even if you are a non-muso, you probably know the lyrics (or most of them) to lots of songs that you’ve enthusiastically sung along to in the past. The same is true for me and bass lines. I have amassed a huge arsenal of material which has always stood me in good stead for those last-minute bookings or dep gigs.

However, there are still times when I have a few, or many, songs to learn for a particular set or an artist I haven’t played with before. Just yesterday, I had 2 sets to learn, totalling 41 songs and I’m often asked how I go about learning and remembering such a large pad of material. Some acts are ok with the musicians having manuscript or crib sheets onstage but many don’t want music stands, paperwork or iPads onstage so don’t assume it will be ok. Always ask.
Anyway, I’d like to share with you my process for learning songs.

The first thing I like to do when I confirm a new booking is to request the setlist for the gig or at least the setlist from the act’s previous gig so I can see which songs I know, which ones I need to brush-up on and which ones I need to learn afresh. Some acts will send you the audio tracks too, especially if their versions of well-known songs are very different from the original. Along with the setlist, I need to know what key the songs are in, possibly the original key or maybe the key has been altered to suit the singer’s range.
Once I have the complete set, I will set about obtaining the audio IF the act hasn’t already sent it with the setlist. I’m lucky that my iTunes library is pretty extensive but if I don’t have a particular song, I will buy it (it’s tax deductible). There are many ways to obtain music free of charge but remember, an artist should be paid for their work!

Once I have the complete audio set, there’s one thing to do….. LISTEN. I will spend a few days, maybe a week, just listening to the tunes in the car, in the shower or any free moments I get. Once I can look at a song title and sing the bass line in my headimage, I’m ready to start transcribing. One of my favourite tools is an old Tascam MP-BT1 which is an mp3 player and a headphone amp in one. I can plug my bass in and play along with the set BUT I can also alter the key of the song and play along in the new key if necessary.

There are many ways to transcribe music and you should use the one that works best for you. I find transcribing notation very long-winded and although I can read music, I see little point in transcribing fully unless I KNOW I’m going to have manuscript onstage. Also I find that if I’m reading a whole gig, I often feel detached from the rest of the band AND the audience,  as my head is buried in paperwork for the whole set.
My preferred method is to sketch out the chords, notate any crucial rhythmic passages or syncopated parts and have the song’s structure laid out. That way I’m still mainly relying on my memory of the song and the sheets are just to remind me of certain events during the piece. This enables me to learn the song quickly and commit it to memory much faster than if I relied on the full notation.

Once I have all the sheets complete, it’s just a case of running the songs over and over, continuing to listen to them in the car and ‘playing’ along in my head. Every act will have a setlist onstage for the gig so if you do need any reminders, write them on the set list. I will often note the key beside each song, maybe I’ll write the first note if it’s not obvious. Sometimes I’ll write something like “middle 8 – long notes” or some kind of reminder in that way.

The chances are that once you’ve been through this process, a lot of the songs will find their way into your memory bank and the next time you’re ask if you know a particular track, you’ll be able to call it up and blast it out!!!