Learning songs by ear – pt 1

Learning songs by ear – pt 1

Wouldn’t it be great if you could figure out your favorite songs all by yourself, and not have to rely on tabs, or to wait until next week’s guitar lesson?  To a lot of beginning to intermediate guitar players, I might as well have said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you walked outside of your house this morning, and tripped over a bag of $100 bills, and a vintage Les Paul?”. Well sure Dave, but that ain’t gonna happen. Well, hold on, I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hard as you might think. It’s definitely not easy, but as they say, nothing worth it is. In this article, I’m going to give you some tips and inspiration to get you started.

If you’re just beginning to play guitar, you may want to hold off until you have further experience. You’ll want to be comfortable with at least all your open position chords, and at least one pattern each of minor pentatonic and major scale patterns to be best prepared to take on this challenge.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced player, and maybe have figured out a song or two, you’ll want to do more because figuring out songs and riffs by ear is one of the best things that you can do for your guitar playing and musicianship.

Before you Start…

There are a few things that might make your road easier…

You may want to invest in slow down software. There are many companies that offer this type of software. You’ll be able to slow down a song or a riff as much as you want so you can hear what’s going on with it. The program that I’ve used for years is Amazing Slow Downer, by Roni Music ( http://www.ronimusic.com/ ). The desktop version runs about $50, but the iPhone app is only $14.99.   They also have a free “lite” version that you may want to check out.  It’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s very helpful and worth it.

Find or create a nice work space for yourself, that you can see yourself sitting and working at for a while.

Finally, if you plan on writing your discoveries down (tab or standard notation) – which I recommend, but not necessary – get some tab paper, a sharp pencil, a good eraser and you’re ready to go!

Getting Started

If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry – nobody masters this the first time they do it. Just start with easy stuff – really easy ideally – and then keep building on that. To get your feet wet, you may want to try to figure out the vocal part to a song.

For example, if it’s the holiday season as as you’re reading this, why not try your hand at something like Jingle Bells? Like I said – easy!
Don’t even try to do the whole song – just try the “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way…” part – it’s only 5 or 6 notes.
Don’t want to do Jingle Bells? Great, pick any song that you can clearly hum the melody to.  This is important, don’t over complicate things for your first try at this.

Now I’m going to recommend something crazy. Once you’ve decided on a song to work on, I want you to actually sing the notes that you’re trying to figure out. It doesn’t matter if you have a good voice or not – that’s not the point. The point is that if you can sing the notes, that also means that you stand a shot at “holding” the note in your head long enough to find it on the guitar. All you have to do is match the note on your guitar to the one you’re singing.  Give yourself some time to get used to this process. I can sum it up in 3 steps:

1) Sing the note
2) Hold the note
3) Find the note on guitar
Again, it’s important to choose something that’s really easy if you’ve never done this before. As you get more comfortable, try singing and holding 2 or 3 notes at a time – gradually building up your ability to do this over time. If you want to be an excellent musician, this is important – so be patient! You’ll thank yourself…

Once you make the leap to doing slightly more difficult songs/riffs, I’d recommend that you listen to the section that you’re working on many times without trying to figure it out. Just LISTEN… This will make your job easier by helping to “burn” the sounds into your brain.

Scale and chord knowledge

Let’s take a moment to talk about scales. You can definitely figure out songs by ear without knowing any scales. But, I want you to know that it will be MUCH easier to do this if you devote some of your practice time to learning scale patterns – especially major scales and minor pentatonics. For instance, if you’re figuring out a song in either the classic rock or blues genres, many solos use exclusively minor pentatonic patterns. So, if you know those, your guesses will probably hit the right note a good amount of the time. So, in short, I’d say it would be a good use of your time. Actually, I’m understating that a bit. Here’s the full truth – If you want to be a solid or great player, knowing all your scales is essential – don’t let anyone tell you different.

As a side “note”, I think scales get a bad rap. Every great solo you’ve ever heard has been based on scale patterns. Once you get them under your fingers they’re a lot of fun to play, and practicing them makes your guitar playing go through the roof. What’s not to love? Anyway, I digress.

As you work on this, you’ll notice that after a while you may hear a few notes, and know exactly what shape they form on the guitar. That’s an exciting day! It may take a while to work up to this level, but it’s so worth it.

So get crackin’, and when you come back we’ll talk about how to tackle the chords of a song.  Depending on the song, figuring out the chords to songs will quite often be more challenging than figuring out the solos. By the way, my rant on scales applies to chords as well. The more you know and can do with chords, the easier it will be for you to hear chords in a song and find them on the guitar.

What do I do specifically?

The first thing you’ll want to do is to just listen to the song a few times. While you’re doing this, practice focusing in on what the bass player is playing. If your song has 4 beats to the bar as most rock/blues/pop/country songs do, beat 1 is where most of the chords change. So, listen carefully to that 1st beat. Most likely, the note that the bass player is playing will tell you the note name of the mystery chord.

The second job for you is to decide what kind of chord it is – major, minor, dominant 7th, etc. You can narrow down your choices considerably if you understand that different styles of music tend to use specific kinds of chords. Here are some general suggestions that may help – just remember that there are exceptions to every rule.

Check out part 2 of this article, where I’ll give you tips and tricks for figuring out songs in different styles…

Learning songs by ear – pt 2