Drummers: Here’s How to Learn Songs

In the past few weeks, I’ve been learning a lot of songs–both for gigs and auditions. As I went through the process of learning the material, I realized a few things:

1) Over many years of playing and learning songs, I’ve developed a methodology that works for me.

2) There are several “levels” of learning songs. The required level of learning for a particular set of songs depends on the reason for learning them (live performance, audition or recording session). If you’re joining a band and you’re going to play a lot of shows, you’ll want the songs committed to memory. If you are just going to play the song one or two times for a recording, you’ll just need a chart that gets you through the song for that session.

Since many of you are faced with having to learn music for similar reasons, I thought it might be helpful if–in this latest edition of “The Thinking Drummer”–I shared my thoughts on this topic with you.

Note: this is not a beginner’s method. I’m not saying it’s “above” beginners’ heads, but I’m assuming you have stage experience, some confidence in your playing and an understanding of rhythmic notation.

The “Highest Level” of song learning = Memorization
The highest level of learning songs is to have them totally memorized. I pretty much always want to be in this position when I’m playing because it generally makes me more comfortable.

There may be gigs you’ll play where reading charts is the accepted method and you’re given charts by the bandleader. But let’s say you’re playing in an original hard rock band. Chances are, reading charts is not customary on that gig.

In that case, I want to have songs totally memorized so I can relax. That way I can focus on listening to the other musicians in the band, looking at them for cues if needed and dialing in my groove.

At this level, there may also be some very specific drum parts/beats and drum fills that I’ve got worked out. I don’t usually have every detail pre-determined, but if there is a spot in the music where something “special” is required, I will work something out to play there beforehand.

So, how do you get to this level?

It’s pretty simple. The first step is to listen. A lot. The idea is that you listen so much that you can air drum your way through the song with ease. In fact, air-drumming is a great way to work through grooves and where certain accents and stops are in the song.

You know how there are a few songs you’ve listened to so much that you can’t forget them? Songs that you know every nuance of and maybe almost every fill? You know them at that depth because you’ve listened to those songs over and over again. Because you love them. The process for learning songs so you can play them with ease is really the same as that.

There is no rule as to how many times you need to listen. I believe it’s different for different people. Some people might absorb song details faster than others. More listens are usually required when the music is difficult. But regardless of your memory or how difficult the song is, you’ll need time because you have to listen a lot. So, don’t wait until the last minute. Start early if that’s possible.

Here’s what I do. I’ll go to my drum studio, where I’ll do a combination of listening and working on the physical playing details. I’ll work on each song in-depth. I’ll drill down into the first song in the set and try to have it pretty well locked down before going on to the next one.

First, I’ll listen twice. No playing. Listening only. Trying to play your drums along to a song too early–when you don’t really know the song–isn’t advisable or helpful. You need to really listen a few times–without playing–to learn and really suss out the details.

The first time I listen to a song, I’m trying to get an overview. Mainly, I want to see how hard the song will be to learn. An easy song is one with only a couple of simple grooves, four and eight-bar phrases, no stops, and no weird time signatures.

Notes/”Cheat Sheets”
When I’ve listened a few times, I’ll get out a pen and paper. I like to use sketch pad paper that has no lines on it; I don’t need paper with a musical staff on it because the rhythmic notation I write on these “cheat sheets” is usually pretty simple and not complete–it’s in note form so the rhythms and notes are often abbreviated.

Then, what I’m doing on the paper–my notes–is all focused on the essentials of getting through the song. How does it start, end, what is the groove, tempo and what weird stuff is in it? I want the notes to remind me of the stuff I wouldn’t expect. I want to know the rhythms I have to remember that I have to play in unison with the band (otherwise known as “hits” or “accents”). I want to know where I have to play quietly or stop playing altogether.

Some more details:

How the song starts: I’ll write “ALL IN” if the band starts together, or “GTR STARTS” if the guitar player begins the song by herself. If I start the song with a fill, I’ll write: “YOU START W FILL:” and then write the notation for the fill next to it.

How the song ends: This note might look like: “ENDS ON ONE (WATCH FOR GTR PLAYER CUE)” or “END: (with the rhythmic notation of the ending).”

Are there stops? I’ll note that. If the stops are easy to remember, I may just write the words “stops” on my notes. If they’re not easy to remember, I will write more detail about where they occur or any rhythms or cues that I need to remember. Sometimes I’ll remember where a stop is because of the lyric sung right before it, or maybe it comes right after the 2nd chorus. Whatever it is that helps me remember it goes in the notes.

What is the basic groove of the song? That goes on my notes. Just a simple rhythmic note that shows me what beat to play. I just need enough to get started in the song because I’m going to listen so much that once I’m playing the song, I will feel comfortable about what comes next.

Tempo? Yup–write it down. I generally like to have some metronomic source on hand to remind me of tempos. I wrote an article about how to get a tempo reminder in a live setting and you can read that here: A Drummer’s Full-Proof Method for Getting the Correct Tempo Live

All of the information on these “cheat sheets” is important. I need to have everything I need to know to play confidently figured out. It’s a process, but ultimately, at the end of it, if I’m going for memorization, I don’t want to need the notes at all. The notes help me get to that point, but I want to be able to push them aside and only look at a setlist with very little notes on the gig.

I should be able to look at the setlist and know how the song starts. I should be able to sing it to myself at will after referring to the list. I should also know how it ends with no notes.

So that’s memorizing. This method is most appropriate for live situations when I’m playing with a band that I’m probably going to be playing multiple shows with over time.

But what about other situations? Like auditions or one-off gigs?

The Second Level of Song Learning: You Actually Use Your Notes When Playing
What if you have an audition and you don’t have time to memorize everything? Or if you have a gig and you really don’t know if there’s going to be another one but you still want to play the gig?

In those cases, I will still use the process outlined above but I may spend less time trying to totally memorize because I’m going to use my notes when I play.

Notes for this purpose may have certain sections that actually look like a real drum chart. This allows me to count measures while I play so I know I’m going to nail a stop or a figure in the right place. Sometimes I’ll come across a song that is pretty simple in general, but I know there is no way I’m going to be able to remember where all the stops are. So I don’t make a complete drum chart; I’ll make my “cheat sheet” with the addition of the “hard to remember” sections fully charted out.

The Third Level: “Real” Drum Charts
Being able to make “quick” drum charts on recording sessions is an important skill if you’re going to do session work. I got pretty good at doing this by doing sessions. The reason for this is you have NO time. Note that we’re assuming here that this is a session where you go to a studio with a producer rather than a remote session where your time limits are less significant.

In this situation, you walk into a session and you listen to a demo of the song once or twice and then you have to go into the studio, sit behind the drums, and play the tune perfectly. I use the two listens I get to make a chart.

One other possibility is that you have a gig and you need to cop a lot of details about the playing done on the original recording but you’re only going to do it once. I had an AC/DC tribute gig a couple of years ago and I knew from being an AC/DC fan that their music is much harder than most people think it is. The details of the drumming are crucial to the songs sounding right. There are so many details, and I really wanted to get it right. But it was a one-off. So, I decided that I would write detailed charts and read on the gig. I figured I could use the charts here on the blog too, which I did. The charts worked like a charm. I nailed the show. Here are those charts: 9 AC DC Drum Chart PDFs

Here are examples of the other types of charts/cheat sheets I’ve talked about in this piece:

1) Cheat Sheet/Notes for use on the way to memorizing: Have A Cigar-Memorize Example

You’ll see in the “Have A Cigar” chart (for a Pink Floyd tribute gig) that only the basic info is listed. I knew the song well (goal = memorize) so I didn’t really need it at gig time. But now you can see the process. How it starts, the beat, the ending–those are all listed and those are the essentials.

2) Cheat Sheet/Notes that I am going to use on the gig (with certain sections actually charted): Five to One-Notes to Use During A Show

“Five to One” was from a Doors tribute show and there were a lot of weird stops in the song. Every stop had a different thing going on after it to get back to the next section of the song. They were all weird and non-symmetrical so I wrote out little mini-charts for each one. This chart is sloppy but it still worked for my purposes. Remember that the only one who has to be comfortable reading it is you.

3) Quick Drum Chart (for session work): Love In Paris-Recording Session Chart Example

This is from a recording session and the main thing here was to stop in the right places and build things dynamically in the song correctly. You can see that this charts the whole song but it’s a bare-bones chart that just gives me the song structure, when to stop, when to come back in, when to play more quietly (only bass drum and hi-hat) etc. A lot of my recording session charts look like this. In cases like this one, I don’t really know the song very well, and I don’t really need to, but during the performance I have to sound like I know it perfectly.

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That’s it!!

Let me know if you found this helpful. Post a comment, write me on the socials, email me, whatever.