All I can tell you is that my standards have changed multiple times over the decades I’ve played the guitar. Way back when, in the days that my knowledge of guitar basics was a lot more limited it was necessary to compromise – a lot. Fortunately, all my guitar playing friends were pretty much on the same level so we helped each other and most of us managed to bang our way through quite a few songs. There were value judgements of course; we were all young after all and value judgements are much more cut-and-dried viewed through the certainty of what’s good and what’s not that all young people possess. Secretly though I think we all would have given just about anything to play a song to perfection.
When I left college and moved to Cambridge and immersed myself in the music scene there it quickly became apparent that being just good enough wasn’t going to cut it. Surrounded by players who were far superior was a major wake-up call. Even in jam sessions it was expected that you would know a song inside and out and be able to play it just about flawlessly. Which I could rarely do. I upped my practice time, made a point to hear and study players whenever possible and my playing and understanding of things like music theory improved pretty quickly. The unfortunate byproduct of that though was that I was a lot more prone to being critical of players who dove into songs without really knowing them.
What opened my eyes and led to being a whole lot less critical was moving out of the city and gigging around my home area. The first bitter pill was finding that the vast majority of listeners don’t really care all that much if you can play a lead guitar solo exactly like the recording or that your arrangement is flawless compared to the original. The first gig I had in Falmouth was at a bar where I was required to sit beneath a TV that was often tuned to a hockey game. The patrons had way more interest in watching Bobby Orr than paying attention to my hard-learned interpretation of a Crosby, Stills and Nash song. I was used to small rooms in the city where audiences sat in rapt attention. Welcome to the real world of music, Gene.
I began frequenting local bars and restaurants where local singles, duos and trios played. Real “listening rooms” just weren’t around. What became apparent was that the musicians who worked the most didn’t care all that much if a song sounded like the recording. As long as the words of the chorus were right and the song was up-tempo (and there was plenty of volume) the crowds responded. Further bruising of my ego ensued!
It took some years but I finally figured out a simple fact. People want be entertained. Simple as that. The trick was to find the balance between being entertaining and still challenging myself musically to avoid boredom. While I admit I’m still working on that after all these years I do think I’ve finally found that balance point, most of the time anyway.
All this gets back to the original question. I’ve played with reasonable success probably many, many hundreds of songs in many genres. But do I “know” those songs? For the most part, yes, but with one major qualification. If I haven’t played a song in a couple years it usually takes a few go-arounds to reacquaint myself with the guitar parts. It does come back, which always amazes me. The problem is remembering the lyrics if I’m going to perform or teach those kinds of songs! That’s where the now acceptable music stand comes into play (strange, strange….not long ago you were considered a hack if you needed to use a music stand and couldn’t play entirely from memory). Hoorah for this recent development in guitar performance!
So how many songs should you know? It depends upon the Big Picture. If you will always be playing purely for your own enjoyment, probably a couple dozen that you know you can play reasonably well and are not stressful. After all, it’s supposed to be fun, right? Then try to find a new song or two every month to try. There are hundreds of web sites offering at least basic lyric/chord arrangements of just about any song you can think of. Granted, in most cases these will be basic and if that’s what you want, no worries. At least you’re trying new stuff and as time passes you will most likely want to embellish those basic arrangements. I find that closely watching You Tube performances of an artist doing a particular song I’m working on can fill in the gaps there may be in the on-line version or what my ear can’t discern. But ultimately, remember that the best kind of satisfaction comes from being able to play a song from beginning to end in rhythm and with the correct lyrics. The fancy stuff will most likely come later.
How about if you do intend to play in front of people at some point in the future, or play with others? Then “knowing” a song – lots of them, really – becomes a bit more complicated. I think that the best way to do this is to take part in jam sessions. Even if you are a bit intimidated by the prospect and even if you just sit there with your guitar in your lap for most of the first few you go to, you will be learning things that are vital: timing, how to make your playing blend with others, the types of songs that are popular and worth further work on your own. Best of all, you’ll probably make new friends and who knows? You may even find some long-term playing partners.
If you’re inclined be organizationally minded, make a list of the songs you know and even the ones you’re working on. Even ones you’d like to know. This will give you a starting point when you pick up your guitar. Always view any song as having a beginning, middle and end. All those things are very important but many novices just think in terms of those middle parts. A solid intro and ending make any song, regardless of the complexity (or lack of) sound good.
Like you “know” it!
Peace & good music,