The Fastest Way to Start Playing Songs, Part 1: Playing Melodies

Learning melodiesWith first-time students, many guitar methods say to start by learning open chords. This method makes some sense: Open chords are used in many songs, you can strum most or all of the strings at once, achieving a bigger and more commanding sound, and they can be used to play many, many songs in most genres.

But there’s a catch… They’re hard! At least at first. Each open chord is a different shape, meaning you not only have to learn which shape is which chord, but also coordinate your fingers into that position and make sure all of the correct notes are ringing and sound good, and you’re not playing any wrong strings or frets. Got that? Great! Now you have to switch rapidly between that and several other shapes. And don’t forget that strumming technique!

With time, patience, and practice, you’ll become very comfortable with open chords. But many people stop playing guitar right after starting, simply because they take that initial difficulty to mean they “aren’t good at guitar”. Which is balderdash.

So this week I’ll be posting a few articles on how to start playing your favorite songs and having fun right out of the gate, so you can enjoy practicing and get better and better. Sound good? Then let’s get to our first topic: Playing Melodies.

Playing Melodies

The easiest way for beginners to start playing their favorite songs is to play the melody by itself. Most songs have a very recognizable melody, or a repeating riff you can play. Some of these melodies and riffs are quite simple. The repeating riff in “Smoke on the Water”, for example, contains only 4 different notes.

For the first 6 months I played guitar (without any instruction or feedback of any kind) I developed a love for it solely by figuring out the melodies of songs I knew and liked—current hits, oldies, classical riffs, movie scores, commercial jingles, and more. When I eventually started taking lessons, I already loved playing and practicing, and was motivated to learn more.

What should you play?

Whatever music you like. Do you have a favorite song? A tune you can’t get out of your head? A song that means something special to your or someone you know? Try choosing a song right now (don’t worry, you’re not committing to anything here, and you can easily pick a different one later).

How do you learn a song’s melody?

There are two basic ways. One is to find the sheet music or guitar tabs, which you can often find in a book or online. Free guitar tabs are a great resource, but aren’t always 100% accurate. Try searching for your song name and “tab” or “guitar tab” and see what comes up. If the tabs look complicated, you might want to skip them for now and try the next method…

The other main way is to learn a song’s melody by ear. Some of you reading this might think ‘but I’m not good at that sort of thing/I don’t have perfect pitch/I don’t have a good ear/etc.” All I can tell you is that a good ear and perfect pitch are things most people aren’t born with, but rather develop—and you can too. One thing is for sure: If you decide before you start something that you “can’t” do it, you probably won’t. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

To figure out a melody by ear, make sure your guitar is in tune and try either listening to the song if you have access to it, or singing/humming/whistling it if not. Try starting with the very first note and sing, hum, or whistle it. Hold that note for a few seconds and play different strings and frets on the guitar until you hone in on that note. It may take a few tries, but just be patient and you’ll get there.

Next, try finding the next note. You might find it easier to stay on one string, or to move to an adjacent string. Simply do this for each note in order (it often gets easier after the first couple) until you can play the melody. It’s a good idea to play it several times or write it down, so you don’t have to figure it out from scratch again next time. Voila!

You can do this for almost any song. If you try learning one melody and it proves too difficult, simply switch to another song—you can always come back to it later.


Learning melodies is something you can do without a book, video, or instructor. It can be a lot of fun figuring them out on your own, and you’ll develop a great ear by doing so. Not to mention, your repertoire of melodies will grow quickly. If you’re enjoying yourself, you’re doing a great job. You’ll improve naturally as you practice, and you’ll build motivation to learn more complicated melodies and chords down the line.


Next time we’ll be going over more ways to start playing songs fast, so stay tuned!