Learning By Ear

Probably the most asked question in any guitar lesson is “How do you do that?” I always thought a better question for the student to ask would be “How can I do that?” Really, who cares how the teacher did it? Students are there to learn how they can do it themselves! The original question is usually followed by some finger-wiggling, and the student walks out with a riff or two but not the underlying knowledge…how to learn it themselves.

Being able to hear something and translate it to your instrument is (to me at least) a fundamental part of being a musician. Train your ears just like your fingers – the more you
-practice LISTENING and transcribing, the faster and more accurate you get at it.

There is no ‘magic bullet’ or ‘secret’ to learning by ear. It’s a combination of many things, all used together and developed over time, through experience. With practice, you begin to instantly recognize things you’ve heard before.

Use Deductive Logic

Picking parts off of recordings can be tricky. You need to use a little deductive logic here. Some things are pretty easy to hear right away, even something like the first chord in ‘Stairway to Heaven’…there is really only one way to grab that chord shape and move the notes like the song does, without really overworking yourself.

You can make assumptions based on a few things – You can use the notes that come before or after a part to determine what’s happening, and if something seems illogical like a huge jump in frets, maybe that’s not how it was played, try another way. You can listen for specific tonality – does it sound like it’s on a low or high string, wound or unwound string?

Is the lowest or highest note only available in certain places on the neck? That can quickly limit your choices. With practice, you can very quickly figure out things in your head this way. By eliminating the illogical options, you narrow it down to the logical (usually easier) ones.

General Tips for learning music by ear

  • Learn things in small pieces, then build from there. It’s much easier to learn bit by bit than a whole long section. If that means pausing the recording after each note or chord, then do it!
  • Don’t start with music that is too difficult or foreign to you. You really need to be somewhat familiar with the style to visualize what is happening. Once you learn the basic vocabulary of a style, picking out things in that style becomes much easier.
  • Practice as often as you can – transcribe stuff as part of your regular routine. There’s really no substitute for putting in the time.

Tips for figuring out guitar parts by ear

  • Always listen for open strings, because they have a very specific and (often) easy to recognize tonality. Long sustained notes while others are changing can also indicate open strings.
  • Is it an acoustic guitar? Acoustic parts are usually played on the lower frets, and there could possibly be a capo involved. Does it sound like a familiar chord shape, like an open G or D. just higher? Suspect a capo.
  • Take into account the guitarist’s style. If they don’t normally use really weird or difficult chords, you can at least assume that they aren’t going to use something too far out.
  • Listen for things like hammer-ons and pull-offs – if you hear a pull-off then you can assume the interval didn’t span two strings. Likewise, hammer-ons on a single string have a certain sound and can determine the fret location.
  • String bends can be a dead giveaway of string and fret choice.
  • Listen for notes played at the same time, like double-stops, as these can often only be played in certain places on the neck.
  • Always try to use fingerings that are efficient and easy to get in and out of smoothly. Chances are good that the original artist did the same thing.

Keep in mind that guitar playing doesn’t have to be based on dogmatic ideas. Learn EVERYTHING you can and don’t base you approach on any one concept…use everything you can learn, whether it’s the CAGED system or whatever, just learn it, internalize it, and use it! Just don’t get hung up in any one method. Music is too diverse to be pigeon-holed by a narrow approach. Remember, the carpenter with only a hammer sees every job as a nail…