In all my years of playing guitar, the one thing I found I could bank on was once people get wind that you play, you can expect to be asked to perform. Say you're at a party and you casually let drop that you are a guitarist. Ears perk up and before you know it, a guitar miraculously appears out of nowhere and is presented to you. Requests start flying around the room and suddenly, you're the entertainment. Your aim, as a self-proclaimed musician, is to not let your listeners—or yourself—down.
It's important for you, as a guitar player, to have a solid repertoire (pronounced rep-er-twar or rep-eh-twah) that you can whip out at a moment's notice. A repertoire, as it pertains to a musician, is a compilation of all of the songs you can play at performance level, which is to say you can play the number without it unraveling somewhere along the line. If you don't know the lyrics like the back of your hand, or if you stumble at a particular chord or lick, the song has not reached performance level. You need to be able to execute the piece without embarrassing yourself or causing your listener any discomfort. The goal in developing a repertoire then is to be able to play songs, in their entirety, that are satisfying to both you and your audience.
Regardless of your preferred genre (i.e. jazz, rock, pop, bluegrass, classical, etc.), having a varied set of tunes at the ready to demonstrate your chops helps to make you more credible as a guitarist. But many guitarists can't play a song all the way through, start to finish. Instead, they play bits of songs that trail off after several bars. Or they play the riff of a song, or a couple of verses, and then move on to another part of another song. How many guitarists do you know who can play the intro to "Stairway to Heaven" but not much of the song beyond that? Or who think "Smoke on the Water" begins and ends with the riff? If your repertoire is nothing but a string of teasers, and perhaps unpolished ones at that, what does that say about your ability? Not much. Even if you have no aspirations of ever performing on stage, you have to be able to show 'em what you've got at some point. You have to have something that speaks to all that practice.
I never quite feel that I know a piece until I've been playing it from memory for some time. The songs that make up my repertoire are like trusted friends. They have been tested, tweaked, and tested again over a period of many years, even decades. At some point in my youth, I realized that if I didn't come out of the closet as a musician, I wouldn't evolve as a guitarist. Playing for myself for the rest of my life just wasn't enough and would take me only so far before I lost interest completely. If I was going to break through to the next level as a player, I needed to learn how to polish a song until it was ready to be presented to the world. And I needed to be able to do it again and again and again. Wasn't that the point of it all, the thing that made you pick up the guitar in the first place? To play songs?
As for what songs to include in your repertoire, well, that's entirely up to you. I would advise you choose ones that you love because once they become part of your stable of songs, they'll most likely be with you a nice long while. The Beatles are always a safe bet. Ditto artists like Simon & Garfunkel and James Taylor. The Eagles. Instrumental pieces are likewise a good choice. Oh, and those two mainstays on many a guitarist's list—"Stairway to Heaven" and "Smoke on the Water"—are pretty popular numbers. While you're at it, you might throw in "Free Bird" to silence the lighter-wielding blockhead in every bunch.
So how exactly do you build a meaty repertoire or beef up the one you've already got? Well, for starters, don't go blindly into your practice. Set performance goals. Commit to thoroughly learning one song at a time, straight through. It would make sense to begin with songs that you're already fairly proficient at playing and work to "fill the gaps" until they are finished pieces. If you can play the rhythm guitar part of a tune but not the solo, learn the solo. If you've got the intro down but have never bothered to learn the verses and chorus, now's the time. Only when you feel comfortable playing a song should you move onto the next. Know that creating a solid repertoire takes time and discipline and be willing to invest both.
Memorization skills are essential in building a repertoire. If yours aren't up to snuff, try looking at memorizing a song like you do consuming a meal: take it one bite at a time until the plate is empty. Break each song down into its parts (i.e. intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo, coda) and work on them separately. Try playing just a few notes off by heart, and then tack on a few more. Keep adding a bar or two each time you play the song. Say the notes out loud if it helps to burn them into your brain.
Once you've worked your way through the song bar by bar, play the tune once while looking at the notes, and then play it without looking. Take the song as far as you can. If you run into trouble, play around a bit and try to figure it out before referring back to the notes. Don't let a songbook be the lifeline between you and your music. Cut the chord. Wean yourself from the written note. Learn to trust your ear and your memory.
It also helps to keep a log of all the songs that comprise your repertoire. In a notebook or on a sheet of paper, make three columns. You might head the first column "In the Can," for those songs you know forward and back, top to bottom, inside and out. These are your performance-ready numbers. The second column could be titled "On Deck," for the song you're actively working on and a few others you plan to get to in the immediate future. And the third column is your "Holding Tank," a pool of all the songs you hope to eventually learn.
However you want to title your list, it's good to get your repertoire down on paper where you can see and refer back to it. Committing to paper all the songs you want to learn makes your intentions official, and often helps to rally the inner resolve required to accomplish them.
This list will be fluid. Songs should constantly be flowing into and out of the "Holding Tank," to the "On Deck" column, and then ultimately, they should be "In the Can." Every song that makes it into your "In the Can" column should pass this test: You should be able to play it repeatedly, without faltering, to a metronome set at the beats per minute that you'd want to perform the song in front of an audience. You should play the song until you have internalized it, that is, you can play it convincingly, start to finish. The act of moving a song from "On Deck" to "In the Can" is very empowering and a heck of a lot of fun. You'll be psyched to do it again and again, and before you know it, your repertoire will be spilling over with all the songs you know.
Once you've mastered a song clean through, don't keep going over and over what you already know. Move on. You will never get to the point at which one of your songs cannot be improved. Periodically revisit all the numbers in your "In the Can" column as it's important to stay intimate with each tune. You may want to set aside one practice a week, or every other week, to play through your entire repertoire as if it were a set list you were performing on stage.
The final step in building a repertoire is testing it out on someone. By this point, you should be feeling fairly confident that your repertoire will sustain you. So trot it out and give it a whirl. It's the only surefire way to know if, and where, there are any weak links.
As your repertoire grows, so too will your self-confidence. The discipline involved in learning every part of a song and committing it to memory will take your skills to a whole other level. You will feel less like a student and more like a player. And the next time you find yourself guitar in hand with a crowd gathered round you, you'll bring down the house.