Learning Lots of Songs Quickly

Contemplative Bassist

Q: I have a dep gig in 5 days and need to learn 23 songs. Any tips? I’m quite a good reader and have all the songs transcribed so I can probably read the music as I play but it’s for a rock gig and wouldn’t look particularly cool.

A: For those who don’t know what a “dep gig” is (I think it’s primarily a British term):

DEP = short for ‘deputy’ – a sub, understudy or stand-in for another musician, or a musician who learns another musician’s parts so they can jump in and play the show(s) if the need arises.

There are a few existing columns relating to this here on No Treble. Check these out as well:

As you can tell from my column mentioned above, repetition is the key.

However, with only 5 days and 23 tunes? I can only assume that this is fairly last minute (and that you haven’t been sitting on a folder of music for months and only now looking at it all). If this is indeed last minute, then I would imagine a certain amount of understanding and leniency from the band. Although it would be best to double-check, I imagine that you could at least get away with a cheat sheet of some kind.

If you do really have to memorize everything, I can only say that you need to listen, listen, play, play and repeat… every day. Play along with the tunes over and over again. Listen to them while you are driving or doing other somewhat mindless tasks.

Having the forms, melody and overall vibe of the tunes in your head is a huge help. Beyond that, there isn’t much beyond playing them over and over again that will really ingrain them in your head. I like to:

  1. Start with the chart
  2. Memorize any specific lines, unison licks, grooves that are pertinent to the song
  3. Make a cheat sheet of the changes and play along with just that for a while
  4. Slowly remove bits of information from my cheat sheet and continue to play along until I can play without any visual aids

Assuming that you can at least use a cheat sheet of some kind, I would recommend making PDF cheat sheets of the tunes and read from that using an iPad and forScore.

Try and get the set order ASAP if you don’t already have it. It’ll help if you can practice the tunes in order and get used to the transitions and flow of the show. Additionally, the PDF cheat sheet is especially justifiable and functional if considered a back-lit set list (with notes on each tune).

You can also use a bluetooth pedal to change pages as necessary, making the iPad mounted on a mic stand (instead of a music stand) almost entirely innocuous. It’ll hardly be noticed, but you can really fill up a page with chords, notation and notes to yourself, as well as change pages without anyone really noticing that you are, essentially, reading on the gig!

Of course, that does limit your ability to run around the stage a bit, but you’ll have to compromise somewhere as you just might not have enough time to internalize that much music before the gig.

I use a word processor (Pages, usually) to create my cheats and here are a few things which may help you:

  1. Use large fonts. You want to give the impression that you are not staring a hole through your chart so make sure that you don’t have to stare a hole through your iPad either. Make them big enough that you can read it 3-10 feet back from the stand (depending on your eyes).
  2. Color code sections. I often change the background color behind the font depending on the section. That way, I also get a representation of the form. If the purple background is always the chorus, than it makes it that much more easy to navigate when viewing from a distance
  3. Don’t rewrite every section. Put just as much information as you need but keep it fairly uncluttered. If you have a yellow verse written and a purple chorus, than you only need to write the first verse and chorus and then use a “V” and “CH” with the appropriately colored backgrounds after that for those sections and you can refer to the verse and chorus that you wrote down the chords for.
  4. Use whatever shorthand you are comfortable with, but keep it easy to navigate and decipher on the spot (even if you need to change pages but there are very few tunes that I can’t fit into a one page cheat sheet).

Readers, I’m sure that many of you have been in the position of having to learn and internalize a large amount of music in a short mount of time. How did you do it? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. Waw, good luck with that. I bet you can do it ;-) One thing that helps me is having allthe songs on your phone or ipod and listen to them as much as possible. Then imagine playing all the parts in your head, all the yricky things and find your bottlenecks. This helps alot amd will result in only checking the sheet for the mayor outlines of the songs.
    Again, good luck! Share a video of the show!

  2. Michael Olson

    Nashville Numbers! All that’s required is the key and a solid understanding of the major scale. You can write out verbatim phrases that have to be something particular (e.g., the bass line to “Radar Love”), but other than that, as long as you have the gist of the rhythmic feel, you don’t need much. This is enough to play a blues progression, where each numeral represents a measure: | 1411 | 4411 | 5415 |

  3. Chris

    Get the set list order. It helps me to practice the whole set in order.

  4. Jimmy Miller

    Fantastic article, Damian! That is pretty much how I’ve done it over the years, too, although I almost always didn’t have the luxury of transcriptions, and I’d handwrite my cheat sheets as I think it helped me retain the info better, but really, that’s up for debate as I’m much older than you :D But that is very valuable info for anyone who has to walk into a sub gig and learn a ton of songs with short notice.

  5. Monkeygroover

    I wrote hundreds of those sheets, I often wrote down parts of lyrics, a few words, that introduced another part, like the last frase before the chorus or before the bridge. Always keep your eyes and ears to the singer primarily, he is in contact with the audience, if he goes to the chorus or whatever, too fast, you gotta be there too. She or he can cue the band. Ask if there’s an agreement on certain signs, gestures. Lots of songs have similar forms.

  6. Monkeygroover

    I wrote hundreds of those sheets, I often wrote down parts of lyrics, a few words, that introduced another part, like the last frase before the chorus or before the bridge. Always keep your eyes and ears to the singer primarily, he is in contact with the audience, if he goes to the chorus or whatever, too fast, you gotta be there too. She or he can cue the band. Ask if there’s an agreement on certain signs, gestures. Lots of songs have similar forms.

  7. Steve

    I did 20 songs in 24 hours, that was ruff

  8. Chrisfrombass

    Another things that I do and that I share, since I tend to do a lot of these gigs, beside listen to the tunes constantly, is to look for patterns in the songs/forms etc as a whole. I create a mind map of the tunes based on their chord structures and how the parts work together. Since I am very visual, Nashville numbers work well to help create a ‘picture map’ of the tune that will fit into a story arch. Once the patterns are easily identifiable, they are easier to burn into the brain. Doesn’t work for everything, but most popular music is pretty formulaic.

  9. I am not a professional, I can’t read music, nor do I play in a band, but I think I do have a pretty good ear. I play bass for the sheer pleasure it gives me. That being said, every now and then I get asked to play in a band for a show. The last gig I did I had to learn 20 songs in 4 days and the genre was one I don’t normally play.

    I asked for the song list in the order that they were going to be played
    I downloaded Youtube videos of the songs in that order
    After listening to the songs I learned the less complicated ones first then tackled the others.
    I seriously spent the weekend cramming (the show was on Tuesday). Cramming was the key for me.
    By Tuesday I was comfortable and confident and the show was a success.

    The song list (which was the one I used to practice off of), I taped to my amp, and actually triggered my brain to recall the bass lines I had to play for each song.

    Damien, I really look forward to your columns. Thanks!

  10. Rodney

    If I need to learn a song or songs quickly I find that breaking a song into sections helps. Learn the Verse then learn the chorus (pre-chorus, bridge, intro, outro) and then put them together.

  11. Jean-Pierre Garau

    Hi Damian. There are 2 schools I use:
    * Charts (I use Sibelius) which I convert into PDF’s to be printed and/or uploaded into forSquare. Pro: charts provide useful info at a glance. Con: they can take a lot time to craft.
    * Listen and play along with recordings – especially good if the music is fairly simple and/or repetitive.

  12. Steve Perks

    I used to do a lot of depping.
    What worked for me was to brainwash/absorb the tunes away from the instrument – in the car, everywhere I could. I could ‘see’ the patterns in my mind’s eye. I would would then ‘woodshed’ the tunes on the instrument.
    If it was a real last minute (literally) dep job with a band/musician I hadn’t worked with before, I would keep my cheat sheet simple – set order, key & changes, twiddly bits and endings. I would keep it simple first time round, then flower if up when I was comfortable with the song structure. I would play close attention to queues, watch the guitarist’s neck and the drums. Learning to read is a blessing, but a lot of bands don’t have parts and you don’t always have enough time to write your own!

  13. jesse

    these comments are really valuable, nice one guys !!

  14. Mike O

    Great topic and advice. I had a audition this past Sunday for a corporate type band needing some one quick. I was expected to cover a little over 40 songs with a week notice. Half I knew from prior bands but they had a bunch of unfamiliar new country tunes in the mix. I used just about all off these suggestions to prepare and land the gig. One piece of advice I’ll add is ask for keys they will preform songs in.

  15. Thanks for the advice Damian. Just to let you know I played the gig and only had to read for 3 numbers at the end of the last set (Poison by Alice Cooper is all over the place!). I managed it by playing each song 3 times over and when away from my bass, listening over and over to the set on an ipod and picturing myself playing the lines. I found that being familiar with the song’s format is very important and once I had that locked in my head the rest came naturally. I must have done OK as the band have offered me the job as their permanent bassist :)

  16. Ken Harris

    My current gig started this way. An out of state 80’s tribute band sent me 45 songs I’ve heard but never played. I did have 1 month however. Most times I follow the same points brought out here already. I chart the song, make notes then repetition. This time I committed solely to memory. (I’m 60 by the way). I surprised myself and nailed the gig. I was so psyched up at the opportunity I guess I just wanted it so bad. I bet a million I could never do it again. Go work hard… You can do it! Believe in yourself!

  17. Lenny Mo

    Repetition and cheat sheets, then I transfer notes onto
    set list and that is it.
    On one gig, I got called Wed to sub for a gig on Sunday.
    Had to learn 75 tunes for a function band with 3 lead singers.

  18. Keith Folger

    15 songs in 5 days. Used ms word. Simple nashville number charts. Color coded and used V B and CH as stated. Just played the root notes and kept it simple. Everybody was happy. Hint: if u get lost STOP. Dont play another note until ur sure. Wrong notes are bad. ?