By Mike O’Cull


Song learning is one of the most challenging topics for many new and intermediate guitar players. Often, students at these levels come to me with no real idea of how to learn a new song outside of looking up an online TAB and hoping that it is right. TABs, sadly, are only as good as the person who wrote them and are notoriously inaccurate. I teach students to learn songs the same way that I do, using what I call The Pyramid Method. This is a systematic approach that starts with the broadest elements of a given song (the base of the pyramid) and proceeds upward towards the most specific parts of a song (the pointy top of the pyramid). I approach every song I have to learn in this manner and I have found this method to be the best strategy for learning I have ever used.

The Pyramid Method, like so many other things in life, starts at the bottom. This means that we start with the big picture/flyover knowledge of the song we are working on. That knowledge usually consists of the overall chord changes, key, and structure of a song. Every other part of our song will be based on this stuff, especially the chord changes. Every riff and melody lives inside of a chord, or tonality, so determining what that tonality is can be a huge first step towards getting the riff right. A good way to figure out the chords of a song, especially in rock music, is to listen to what the bassist is playing, as it will often be the root note of each chord. Pretend you are working up a ‘strum and sing’ version for an open mic and play the tune as simply as possible.

After this, we start climbing the pyramid by beginning to learn specific instrumental parts for each section of the tune until we can play along with the recording. Don’t worry about the solo just yet, just work on getting the main riffs and rhythm parts together so that you can jam along with the track like you were an extra band member. This is an important place to spend some time if you are struggling to keep up with the recording and it’s OK to camp here a while until you can get the parts up to speed. I try to get students in the first few years of playing to build up a bunch of songs to this level of learning to simulate playing a full set (10 to 12 songs) on rhythm guitar.

The top of the pyramid is reached by learning the first things we hear when digging a song for the first time, which are usually the vocals and solos. These parts totally depend on all that is being played beneath them, so the learning we did in the lower part of the pyramid becomes quite useful in figuring them out. Depending on what type of gig I am learning a song for, I will determine if I need to replicate the guitar solo and fills verbatim or if I have room to improvise. If a solo or other guitar part is crucial to the identity of the song, I will learn it exactly as it is. If a song has an 8-minute jam type of solo, I will usually improvise when playing it live. If you think the tune will sound incomplete without a certain part, you had better nail it down.

The final part of my method is writing all this stuff down. If I am learning something for real, I write a chart. It doesn’t matter if the song is simple or hard, because writing things down is part of my remembering process. It helps me internalize the songs at hand so I do not have to use a music stand and read the charts onstage, which I prefer not to do. If I am not writing a chord chart for a tune, I am merely BS-ing and not taking it seriously.

So there you have it. If you know the chords, key, structure, riffs, solos, and vocals of a song, consider your pyramid fully climbed. The more you do it, the better and faster you will get. Remember, I am doing this all by ear most of the time and that is a whole different challenge. The Pyramid Method will help train your ear and that is, of course, good for any musician. If you would like to take a lesson and see this in action, drop a line to and we will get together, either live or on Skype. Thanks for digging Street Level Guitar on Chicago Music Guide and please visit and

MIKE O’CULL plays guitar, writes songs, produces tracks, teaches, preaches, writes poetry, makes art, and is in love with human creativity. He has the ability to put a song in your ear and make it stick. He writes songs that combine every cool thing he has ever heard into a new sound that is funky, rocking, literate, and conscious and contains elements of blues, hip hop, rock, funk, and skid row poetry. He has a new release slated for 2016 that will contain his new and topical track ‘Tough Times These Days,’ which is now being previewed on YouTube. In 2015, he released a single, ‘What’s Old Is What’s New,’ that was co-written with poet/activist Leroy Moore of Krip Hop Nation which mixes down and dirty blues with old school hip hop and an EP, ‘The Mike O’Cull Band,’ that features seven funky blues/rock original songs. Both are available on iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon. He is also the creator of Street Level Guitar, his own unique method for learning to play guitar. SLG involves a concentration on the practical aspects of music and guitar playing blended with a personal development angle that ensures his students build the confidence to perform, not merely play. is the place to hang out for more info.

Mike has also worked as a music journalist and PR writer since the mid 1990s, including 12 years with the Illinois Entertainer (, contributing to the start of the blogosphere with in the late 1990s, and has been a contributing writer for,, Gig Magazine, and scores of others, and has written bios, press releases, and liner notes for many different artists.

This year is a new beginning in his story and career and Mike is making his most fully-realized music to date that is equal parts current and classic, old school and new jack. He is a fearless creative with an expansive knowledge of American music mated with the touch and vision of a modern producer, songwriter, and instrumentalist.