Learning to play the guitar by ear is a skill that can take your musical abilities to the next level. It means training your ears to recognize melody, chords, and intervals in a song and then translating that to playing them on the guitar without needing sheet music or tablature.
In this blog post, we will explore what learning by ear is and how you can master it with practice. We will cover everything from understanding how playing by ear works, whether or not you need a perfect pitch, and how long it may take to learn. You’ll also get valuable tips on how to avoid common mistakes, focus on important exercises for ear training, and learn step-by-step techniques for playing melodies and solos by ear.
So let’s dive into this fascinating world of playing guitar by ear!
What Is Learning By Ear?
Learning by ear in music refers to the process of acquiring and playing a piece of music without relying on written notation, instead using one’s ear skills to listen and replicate the music. This method, rooted in folk music traditions, allows for greater natural musical expression and benefits from skills such as perfect pitch and relative pitch, which aid in accurately recognizing and reproducing musical elements by ear.
What is the Process?
The process of learning to play guitar by ear involves several steps:
- Listen First: Begin by just listening to the song without worrying about your guitar.
- Find the First Note: This is really important. If you can’t tell exactly which note it is because you don’t have a perfect pitch, don’t worry. You can figure it out by trying different individual notes until you get it right.
- Start the Melody: Once you have the first note, use something called “interval training” to get used to how different musical distances between notes sound. Apply this to the rest of the melody.
- Continue with the Rest: Keep using what you learned to figure out the other notes in the melody.
- Get the Rhythm: Rhythm is a bit easier to learn by ear. You can remember how the melody sounds and play each note at the right times.
- Double-check: If you can, listen to your playing alongside a recording of the song you’re learning. If they sound good together, you’re doing well. If they don’t match, go back and find the notes you got wrong.
- Listen First: Start by listening to the song without worrying about your guitar. Pay close attention.
- Figure Out the First Chord: This is important. If you can’t tell the chord by ear because you don’t have a perfect pitch, you’ll need to experiment. You should try to identify the type of chord, whether it sounds happy or sad (major or minor), and find the main note (the root note).
- Work on the Second Chord: Use interval training to help you identify the second chord, and remember what you’ve learned about chord types. It’s usually easy to tell if a chord is major or minor, but sometimes you’ll need to listen for extra notes in the chords. Interval training can help with this too.
- Continue with the Rest: Use what you’ve learned to figure out the other chords in the melody.
- Get the Rhythm: Rhythm is usually simpler to pick up by ear. Remember the sound of the chords you’re playing. This often involves strumming patterns and the way the chords are played, like funky, staccato, or with overdrive.
- Double-check: If you can, compare your playing to a recording of the song you’re learning. If they sound good together, you’re on the right track. If they don’t match, go back and find the chords or notes you got wrong.
Interval training helps you recognize how different musical distances between notes sound in a song. I’ll illustrate this using well-known tunes as reference points, and I’ll also provide examples of how to play these intervals on a standard-tuned guitar:
- Unison: This is when you play the same note. It’s the easiest interval because it’s just like repeating the first note.
- Minor 2nd: A minor 2nd is when you move up or down by just one small step. You can hear this in the “Jaws” theme or “Fur Elise” by Beethoven.
- Major 2nd: A major 2nd is when you move up or down by two small steps. You can find this in “Happy Birthday To You” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb.”
- Minor 3rd: This interval is my favorite. It’s a bit longer, moving up by one small step and one big step. Listen to “Axel F” and “Hey Jude” for examples.
- Major 3rd: A major 3rd goes up by two big steps. You can hear it in “Oh When The Saints” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.”
- Perfect 4th: This interval goes up by two big steps and a small step. It’s in the “Harry Potter” theme and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
- Tritone: The tritone is the devil’s interval. It’s right in the middle of an octave and sounds very strange. You can hear it in “The Simpsons” and Black Sabbath’s first song.
- Perfect 5th: A perfect 5th goes up by three big steps. It’s in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “The Flintstones.”
- Minor 6th: A minor 6th is a big jump. It’s in Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” and “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen.
- Major 6th: This is a bigger jump, and it’s not as common. Listen for it in “My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean” and “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”
- Minor 7th: A minor 7th is almost like an octave, but not quite. You can hear it in ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All” and Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.”
- Major 7th: A major 7th is very close to an octave. Listen to it in “Take On Me” by A-ha and “I Love You” by Cole Porter.
- Octave: An octave repeats the same note but higher. You can find it in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Willow Weep For Me.”
These are different ways notes can be apart from each other in music. Understanding them can help you play songs by ear.
Can you learn to play guitar by ear?
Yes, you can learn to play the guitar by ear. It involves developing your ability to recognize and replicate music through listening, transcribing songs, and practicing regularly. While it may take time and patience, it’s a valuable skill and a great way to enhance your musical abilities and creativity on the guitar.
How long does it take to play guitar by ear?
The time it takes to learn ear training depends on what skills you want to learn as a guitarist. Some ear training skills can be learned in a couple of months and others take years to master. For example, if you want to learn how to identify different guitar chords by ear, you can develop that skill within a couple of months.
However, mastering more complex ear-training tasks, like transcribing intricate guitar solos or improvisation, may require years of dedicated practice and experience. It’s important to understand that ear training is an ongoing journey and to get to the next step of proficiency you want to achieve will dictate the time it takes to develop your innate talent for playing guitar by ear effectively.
How can I learn to play guitar by ear?
Here are some tips:
- Start simple – Focus on melodies and single notes before attempting chords or songs. Use familiar tunes.
- Isolate small sections – Don’t tackle a whole solo at once. Perfect a 2-4 note sequence and build up.
- Use interval recognition – Know the sound of minor 3rds, major 7ths, etc. Apply this when transcribing.
- Learn music theory – Understanding keys, scales, and chords accelerate your ear training.
- Take notes – Write down the notes and tabs as you figure them out. Review often.
- Slow it down – Use apps to reduce the speed of songs you want to learn.
- Record yourself – Compare your playing to the original to check accuracy.
- Be patient – Playing by ear takes regular practice over months and years. Celebrate small wins.
- Have fun – Maintain motivation by enjoying the rewarding feeling of those “Aha!” moments.
The main mistakes when playing the guitar by ear
When learning to play the guitar by ear, certain common mistakes can hinder progress.
One of these is practicing interval-based ear training exercises, which don’t effectively develop your musical ear. These exercises lack a fixed tonal center, making it challenging to anchor your understanding of notes in relation to a key, a fundamental aspect of developing relative pitch.
Another common mistake is not actively listening to what you’re playing. While patterns and shapes are valuable for learning chords and scales, it’s equally vital to educate your ears alongside your fingers.
The “trial and error” method, involving randomly searching for the right notes, is also problematic. It fosters a brute-force approach, offering little in terms of reusable skills or musical advancement.
To play the guitar by ear effectively, it’s essential to engage in structured and tonal ear training, actively listening to music and notes while building relative pitch skills for more comprehensive progress.
Guitar ear training process – what to focus on?
In the beginning, ear training should be completely separate from your instrumental technique. Similar to learning a language, you must grasp the basics first, get comfortable with them, and then apply them through practical practice. It’s like learning to walk before you can run.
For example, you shouldn’t attempt to learn how to play guitar chords by ear without first understanding how to hear and recognize the tonic note of the key.
However, it’s a good idea to have your instrument nearby for reference if you encounter difficulties, and of course, you need something to provide the pitch. Just ensure that you don’t overly rely on your instrument or fall back into the ‘trial and error’ method when working on some of the exercises. The good news is that with practice and the right techniques, you can develop a ‘secret’ skill that will make the process of working out songs by ear much easier.
In essence, make sure your ears are doing most of the work, not your instrument!
Exercises to play guitar by ear
Here are some effective exercises:
- Recognizing major scale degrees – Sing them against a tonal center, then find them on the guitar.
- Playing familiar chord progressions – Train your ears with I-IV-V-I and other common sequences.
- Interval identification – Know the sound of major 3rds, tritones, etc., and listen for them.
- Transcribing simple riffs/licks – Isolate short segments and master those before extending length.
- Harmonizing melodies – Add harmony notes to simple melodies while retaining structure.
- Call and respond with a partner – Trade short phrases and echo what they play.
- Playing along with songs – Focus on identifying chord changes and motifs.
- Chord quality recognition – Know major, minor, 7th chords, etc. by ear.
- Target note memory – Sing and recall a random note without a guitar reference.
- Tonal center retention – Sing various melodic patterns in relation to a chosen tonal center.
- Get the blues – In blues, you often have improvised guitar solos, and there’s usually a known chord pattern that everything is based on, like 8 or 12 bars. This gives you a clear structure for figuring out which notes to play and lets you try playing by ear. Many guitar players in blues use patterns on the fretboard to know which notes to play. But it’s better to trust your ears. You can start by listening to blues songs and trying to copy the melody without looking at music notes or figuring out the chords without checking a chart. When you feel more confident, you can join a local blues jam session and play a song or two with your new ear skills.
Tips for Learning to Play by Ear
Playing guitar by ear is a valuable skill to have as it allows you to improvise, write songs, and perform live without relying on sheet music or other external aids. Songwriting is one area where this skill can be particularly useful. By playing around with different chord progressions and melodies a guitarist creates unique and original songs that truly reflect your own & real music style.
- Use familiar songs to start with and break them down into smaller sections.
- Slow down the speed of songs you want to learn. This helps identify notes.
- Focus only on the melody at first before trying to get the chords.
- Write down tabs, diagrams, or notes as you figure out parts to help memorize.
- Don’t expect to master complex guitar solos right away. Build up gradually.
- Learn some music theory like scales, keys, and chords to accelerate your progress.
- Be patient with yourself and celebrate small wins while enjoying the process.
- Reference recordings to check the accuracy of what you’re playing.
- Pay close attention to phrasing, articulation, and expression too, not just the notes.
- Use ear training apps and regular practice sessions to steadily improve over time.
In conclusion, learning to play the guitar by ear is a valuable skill that can enhance your musical intuition and creativity. It may take time and practice, but with dedication and the right approach, anyone can develop this ability. Remember to start by focusing on melodies, chords, and interval training. Don’t worry if you don’t have a perfect pitch; it’s not necessary.
Embrace your mistakes and keep practicing, making use of exercises and transcriptions to improve your skills. Take it step by step, learning melodies by ear first, then progressing to solos and visualizing playing before attempting. Lastly, be patient with yourself and enjoy the rewarding process of honing your musical intuition.