Tips for Learning Songs on the Guitar By Ear
Now that I’ve been playing guitar for more than a decade, I’m not afraid to think that my technical skills have grown much stronger. Obviously there’s always room for improvement; learning the guitar is an endless journey. But I feel a lot more comfortable with my ability to tackle a song or melody that would normally sound intimidating. One aspect of my playing that I am really working on, however, is my ear. By that, I mean being able to identify specific notes, chords, scales and tunings by just hearing them. I’ve recently been able to tune my guitar by ear, but I would kill for that ability to just hear a song and start playing it with little to no reference level.
Why Learn By Ear?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the convenience of just being able to do a quick Google search and find tabs or sheet music for a song. However, I feel like relying on that won’t work to my benefit in the long run. Having this skill under my belt would not only help my ability to learn new songs from other artists, but to help create my own. For the greatest musicians out there, half of the battle is conceiving the melody; the other half is bringing that melody from the hands to – in my case – the fret board.
To tackle this challenge, rather than looking at tabs or sheet music, I’ve been trying to arrange covers of the music that inspires me. Here are some of the steps that I have been taking to approach this:
Get to Know the Song
Sorry if this sounds obvious, but I feel like it’s one of the most crucial steps to learning a song on the guitar, whether it’s by ear or reading music. For many of us, we will not be able to get a feel for a song on the first listen. Learn to love that song so much that you want to listen to it over and over again. You want to reach that level where you can hum the melody in your head in near-perfect pitch and time. Try not to think about what notes and chords may exist in the song just yet. Your goal is to have that song stick in your head so you know the sound that you’re going for.
Identify the Chords
Listen to the rhythm section of the song, and try to identify what chords they are playing. There are many ways to do this. One thing I do is to play the song, or the section of the song, in a loop and try to mimic the rhythm only using single notes. Once I think I’ve got a good feel for that, I’ll develop those single notes into chords, and then play that along with the same piece. From there, it’s just a matter of trial and error, until things sound right.
Sometimes, it’s not that easy and at this early point, there’s nothing wrong with a little cheating. If you just cannot fathom what chords are being used in a song – trust me, I’ve been there plenty of times – do a quick Google search with just the name of the song followed by the word chords. Many sites, especially for songs that feature vocals, will have just the chords for a specific song.
One site that I have found especially useful is Chordify. This site is great because it plays the song, while highlighting the chords when you should play them. This will help knock two birds with one stone, as you learn the chords while identifying the rhythm on your own.
Piece the Melody Together
Now that you’ve identified the chords and have a good feel for the rhythm, you can start to piece the melody together. The benefit of knowing the chords of a song is that many notes from the melody will exist in those chord formations. Listen to the song again and identify where in the melody the chord changes exist. So now, rather than the whole melody, you can picture it into pieces divided by each chord. Play the notes of the first chord while trying to identify the first note of the melody. Once you have that first note, you will have a solid reference point for finding the rest in that piece of the melody.
Do this one chord at a time until you have a rough draft of the melody. From there, you can hone it by adding missing notes and getting rid of unnecessary ones. A good exercise at this point is to record yourself strumming the chords with a software like Garageband – there’s plenty out there, that’s just the one I use. Slow down the tempo and practice playing the melody over and over again. Try to play it in different formations so you can find a way that is most comfortable.
Now obviously, right from the get go, you’re not going to be picking up John Petrucci solos by ear. Start off simple. Try to learn something by ear that would normally take you 10 minutes with a guitar tab site. In the meantime, you don’t have to learn everything by ear. Keep learning songs through tabs or sheet music. The more songs you have on your belt, the more similarities you’ll be able to identify between melodies and you will start to pick up more things on your own.
As I said before, remember that there is nothing wrong with a bit of cheating. Try to tackle a song on your own and when you hit a dead end, quickly glance at the tab or sheet music to help confirm or refute the observations you have made so far.