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One Great Way for Guitarists to Ear-Train

Updated on September 4, 2011
He's listening. Are you?
He's listening. Are you?

Inspiration is so precious yet so abundant to those fortunate to be sensitive to its movements.

This hub--written in record time, for me, at least--is in response to a recent question I received from a fellow Hubber regarding ear training--an oft neglected topic for guitarists. In fact, living legend Steve Vai made mention--with an awesome demonstration, I might add--of that same topic during his recent Guiness Record-breaking online guitar lesson (sponsored by Boston's Berkelee College of Music, I believe).

Without further ado, below is a description of a tested, proven, and--thankfully!--fun ear-training method for guitar players. A recording device will be needed, but it does not have to be digital (in other words, tape recorders are OK).

Single-String Ear-Training

A great ear-training method for guitarists is to record yourself playing random notes on one string--the High E, let's say--for at least 10 minutes, with the intention to match the notes during playback (so, immediately after the device--MP3 / tape-recorder / Ipod / etc.--plays the recorded notes, YOU correctly identify them, playing them back on your guitar).

It would also be best to verbally name them as you play them back--"C", "G#", etc.--but that would require knowing the names of the notes on the fretboard. And a fretboard poster could help with that. However, if you're not there, yet, don't let that stop you from the various self-tests for ear-training described in this article.

Specific Instructions for Single-String Ear-Training:

When you record, start with the open string (the High E in this case). This way you'll know where you began when you play it back. Allow the string to ring for about 3 seconds and pause another 7 seconds--more or less--before going to the first random note on the string. Play that note, holding it for 3 secs, then pause for 7 secs and go to another random note and repeat the process.

Don't go above the 12th fret with the random notes until you are ready. This way you'll be testing yourself first on all the notes within one octave. When you have gotten to the point where you are correctly identifying all or most of the notes presented in your single-string self-tests, it will be time to test identification of notes beyond an octave (such open High E to the 16th fret, or to the 19th fret).

Ear-Training on Six Strings, Separately

Obviously it is not quantum physics to apply the High E string's instructions to each of the remaining 5 strings. Just consider each string to be a separate 'test', and duplicate the instructions provided in the above paragraph. As usual, don't go beyond the 12th fret until you have successfully proved yourself in the 0-12 range.

Ear-Training on Six Strings, Together (Up to the 12th Fret)

Continue to broaden your horizons and apply this method up to all 6 strings as one test. This time, however, don't go beyond the 12th fret at all (this is typically more than half of the fretboard on any acoustic or electric guitar).

Ear-Training on a Full Fretboard (Ideally for Electric Guitar or Acoustic Cutaway)

Acoustic Guitar with cutaway (arrow)
Acoustic Guitar with cutaway (arrow)

Because number of fret-spaces involved in this self-test, I suggest first splitting the fretboard into two horizontal territories: 0 - 12th fret and 12th - highest, whether your highest fret is the 20th, 21st, 22nd, or 24th. By the way, if you went and got your electric saw just now, you indeed suffer from a severe misinterpretation of splitting.

Test yourself first on the lower frets, then the upper ones. Only after this should you self-test using the entire fingerboard. By the way, you can extend comfortably up to around the 15th fret on an acoustic guitar and higher on an acoustic cutaway.


Well, yes, of course. A test just isn't as fun without scoring. Here are some scoring suggestions:

  • Make the number of matching opportunities--you know, the test 'questions'--test-friendly. Use 50 or 100 as the number of 'questions' so you can tally your score more easily. I am writing 'questions' in this way because these are non-verbal but they are questions nonetheless.

  • Make a note of the intervals you consistently get wrong. You might have a hard time with minor 3rds (G to Bb, for example), or Major 9ths (open A to 14th fret, for example). If so you can pinpoint the problem much quicker by paying attention to it from the beginning so that error patterns reveal themselves to you.


So there you have it: four levels of ear-training for guitarists via self-tests.

  1. Single-String Ear-Training
  2. Ear-Training on Six Strings, Separately
  3. Ear-Training on Six Strings, Together
  4. Full Fretboard Ear-Training

Sound good? Let me know how it goes if / when you try this.



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    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 6 years ago

      SamboRambo, when I read your post I had no idea of the word-play you were referring to (quite embarrassing, I'll admit). I am happy to see that it was a decent joke after all and more happy it was enjoyed.

      Thanks for your comment!

    • SamboRambo profile image

      Samuel E. Richardson 6 years ago from Salt Lake City, Utah

      I know what "splitting" is vs. "cutting:" "Splitting" is cutting through the fret board vertically, separating strings EGB from the others. "Cutting" is sawing the fret board in half at the 12th fret. See? I don't misinterpret (Where's my saw?) . . . . . Just kidding! I enjoyed your hub, and I enjoyed your mention of the electric saw; that's why I carried on the joke. I voted you up.

    • 6 String Veteran profile image

      6 String Veteran 6 years ago

      Erik, my pleasure on the Hub and don't worry about a 'rip off'...last thing I'd want to be known as is a stingy instructor (or Hubber for that matter) LOL.

      I suggest using your cell phn as a recorder in the meantime, esp if the recording time is >1 min. If it is 1 min you could get at least 5 or 6 tones in for a quick self-quiz.

      Regarding singing/playing, you nailed it: it's 'just one of those things that you're better off practicing very slowly'.

    • profile image

      Erik S. 6 years ago

      I'm anxious to try this technique although I have no recording device, lol. Hopefully that will change soon. Thank you for your advice! I do have another question if you don't mind, although I doubt you'd need to prepare a hub for this one.

      When I try to sing and play at the same time, one usually loses out to whichever I focus on more. I can't seem to do both effectively, lol. Is there anything I can do to help, or is it just one of those things that you're better off practicing very slowly?

      I feel a bit like I'm ripping you off, 6SV. Let me know if I'm asking too much, or if you need to start charging me, lol.