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Learning to Play the Guitar by Ear with These 6 Essential Tips

By Emma, published on 11/07/2017 Blog > Music > Guitar > 6 Tips for Learning Songs on the Guitar by Ear

You can already visualize the corner of a couch in a beautiful living room.

You’re spending the weekend with friends, and a classic rock song from the seventies pops up on Youtube. One of those songs that everyone loves to listen to and sing.

A guitar in your hands, the notes and chords are a mystery…

An obstacle?

Not if you’ve learned to play the guitar by ear! It goes something like this: you begin by “strumming the guitar” and transcribe the song in a matter of seconds.

Your friends will be impressed and create a Facebook group in your honor.

It’s tempting, right?

Learning to play the guitar and execute the chords the way you’re shown is just the first step in your life as a guitarist. Why not work on your relative ear next? With regular practice, nothing is impossible: being able to play songs on the guitar is nothing more than listening to what’s around you.

Identifying the sounds, the chords, but also the style of play and the rhythm…

Would you like to learn to play the guitar by ear?

Below is a short program that, step by step, will hopefully get you to your goal.

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1. Play the Guitar by Ear, but Take is Slow at First!

Clapton playing by ear Eric Clapton is called “slowhand god” or “god” by his fans. Hold off a little before you try to imitate him!

You’re hoping to learn to play the guitar, but beyond that to develop your talents as a guitarist by learning songs with little help apart from yours. The famous ear for music. Below are three mistakes to avoid:

  • Mistake #1: not tuning your guitar, of course…
  • Mistake #2: “What if I start with my favorite song, “Stairway to Heaven,” by Led Zeppelin?” The result: an unprecedented disaster in the history of music.
  • Mistake #3: “And what if instead I dive into the complete works of Eric Clapton? After all, he’s known as one of the greatest guitarists, it’ll serve me well!” The result: you’re playing the triangle a few weeks later.

You should understand that you shouldn’t start out with overly complicated goals. Learning a song on the guitar, using only your hear, is a new stage in your life as a guitarist. A difficult next step.

The ear, or auditory apparatus, is the organ that you use to pick up sounds. But be careful not to be too ambitious at the beginning. In order to progress, present it with accessible passages: relatively simple songs that you can practice. Remember, you’re doing this because you’re not one of those rare musicians with a perfect ear.

A gift from a Mother Nature that allows you to attach a note to any sound, it would require a perfect auditory memory. It should be noted that a perfect ear has nothing to do with a relative ear, which is the ability to identify a note based on a given reference note. The former doesn’t require a reference. The latter does.

But both are incredible talents.

It’s towards the second that you should direct yourself: the relative ear. It’s in this way that you’ll be able to learn to play the guitar by replaying what you hear. But before getting to that point, it’s necessary to start with songs with easy chords and simple rhythms on the guitar:

  • “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” by Bob Dylan
  • “Love Me Do” by the Beatles
  • “Redemption Song” by Bob Marley
  • “Creep” by Radiohead
  • “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • “Imagine” by John Lennon
  • “Wonderwall” by Oasis
  • “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman
  • Most of the repertory of Bob Dylan and similar artists

The classics are relatively simple to learn to play by ear and you shouldn’t skip over them. You’ll find your confidence and range as your progress on the guitar. Why not familiarize yourself with the simple and childish melodies as you start out?

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Mistakes as You Learn to Play Guitar by Ear

You won’t develop a relative ear without making mistakes. Or in just a couple days or with only a few songs.

learn to develop ear The best guitarist’s tools for transcribing a song for the guitar: a musical ear, hands, and a sense of rhythm.

As you can imagine, before being able to progress and easily decipher songs by ear, it’s going to take a lot of patience and hard work. So learn to “embrace” your mistakes in your first attempts, before they can be erased, by the ear, later on.

This might seem obvious, but you won’t turn into a relative ear pro over night. Especially if you haven’t had many lessons on theory. Because learning the guitar begins there: familiarizing yourself with the musical language.

The first few times you try the guitar and especially try playing a song by ear on your instrument, you’re probably going to have some hesitant moments. The fear of making mistakes. And sometimes you’ll discover that you aren’t as naturally gifted as you’d hoped. But once this passes and you take a step back, you can change your mood.

You’ll understand that learning to play the guitar by ear is a long process. And that each false note will eventually lead you to the right one. The more you habituate to this process, the more “fine tuned” your ear will become. You’ll become, little by little, quicker at finding the right notes. It’s a natural progression that will guide you towards having a musical ear.

Having a perfect ear is the ability to recall, just by hearing a sound, the note or notes in the music, without prior auditory reference.

Having a relative ear, on the other hand, consists of recalling the notes within a specific pitch. A relative ear uses a long-term memory of musical intervals, while the perfect ear uses a long-term memory of pitches.

Learning music, melody, and recalling musical notes will eliminate the mysteries between your brain and inner year. Get yourself in tune.

3. Learn to Play the Guitar in Writing after Listening to the Sounds

A written transcription of what you’ve heard is the next step in your learning the guitar.

Look at as the next level to reach after having decided to get started with the guitar.

In order to do so, obviously, you’ll need a solid introduction to theory. Learning theory allows you to identify notes on the scale, but also their timing (quarter, eighth, sixteenth, half…), if it’s flat, sharp… Not learning theory will make transcription impossible.

transcribing music beginner guitarist Dear beginner guitarists: you must understand how to write musically in order to play by ear and transcribe (in tablatures or sheet music) what you decipher!

You do have, however, an alternative: the tablature. What is it? You can define a tablature in symbolic form, and adapt it to a specific instrument, to notate the music. It thus allows you do without classical sheet music and to read a song more easily. So if learning theory isn’t part of your plans, you still have this option.

Lastly, you should know that musical transcription (in tablatures or sheet music) is something that will help you initiate the act of creation. As you listen to those first sounds, you will inevitably make mistakes in transcription. But it won’t matter because you’re training yourself in musical writing. And certain mistakes could also give you ideas…

Learning to play the guitar by ear could, then, truly lead you towards more than reproducing well known songs!

4. Persist, Don’t Give Up, and Challenge Your Ears

This method is generally called “playing by ear.” Learning to play the guitar by ear can be, as we’ve said, a long process.

But when you encounter moments of doubt, it might be necessary for you to remember why you’re putting yourself through it all instead of reproducing chords along with a video demonstration…

Is it to show off? Don’t deny it, there are lots of guitarists who pick up the instrument to seduce others. It’s true. You can’t underestimate the power of seduction of sound and gentle melodies that an acoustic guitar produces. Or the power emanating from an electric guitar.

Since you’ve undertaken this challenge of seducing with the guitar, are you imagining yourself recreating a song at a party, just by hearing it? A recreation carried out with baffling easy that astonishing everyone in attendance? Cool, right? Don’t lose sight of your goal.

Another reason: to become a better guitarist. Perfectly recreating the notes and chords that you’re shown is at the heart of the guitar. This will make you a musician, to be sure. A guitarist even. But you’ll remain an “executor” in the end. And where’s the creativity in that? If your craziest dreams are to compose music beginning by training your ear? Learning to play the guitar and learning to decipher the lines of a song is a great beginning, don’t you think?

As we discussed above, learning to play the guitar by ear is essentially deciphering music and transcribing it on paper. So train your ear day after day and don’t throw up your hands. Playing by ear will undoubtedly get your to a higher level as a guitarist.

5. Learn to Play the Guitar by Ear but Don’t Forget Your Sense of Rhythm

guitarist by ear Magically hypnotizing but devilishly effective, never hesitate to play the guitar with a metronome at your side.

Sounds, notes, chords, those come first. But what about rhythm? Transitions? Bridges? Playing the guitar in an arpeggio (successive notes) or melody?

Unfortunately, there is one bad habit that guitarists trying to play by ear pick up: they forget their sense of rhythm. You who have potentially many hours of guitar lessons behind you, you know this perfectly well, learning to play the guitar also means paying careful attention to the rhythm.

To put it in its simplest terms: music isn’t only a matter of notes and melodies, rhythm is just as important.

It’s true that getting to the point of being able to transcribe notes from a song by ear is an important accomplishment. Getting them on paper in just a second. But it’s just as indispensable that you pay attention to the tempo of the song. What musical style is it? What guitar-playing technique (arpeggio, chords, rhythm, back up, picking, tapping, sweeping…)? Where are the rhythmic transitions?

In short, rhythmic transcription is just as important as the melody in order to play the songs you worked so hard to learn by ear!

6. Getting Started on the Guitar: Everything Comes from the Blues

If the only blues song you’re able to reference before learning the guitar yourself is Elvis’s “Blue Suede Shoes”… it’s like starting in class A minor league and hoping to jump to the major leagues (sorry for the baseball metaphor). This isn’t just a blown fuse, it’s a nationwide power outage.

But don’t lose hope!

blues guitarists When we say the blues have heart and soul… Listen to BB King, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards…

Know before anything else that the blues are the foundation of everything. Of rock, of rhythm and blues (of R&B and hip-hop as well), of folk, and of jazz. Basically of all modern music. We’d also say that bluesmen are among the best musicians in the world. Guitarists, singers, pianists, bassists…

The blues is a musical genre invented by African-American slaves around the end of the 19th century, in the cotton fields in the southern United States. A musical genre that literally has heart and soul and that enabled slaves to express their despair. But from a musical point of view, the blues, more than any other, is THE foundational genre to understand to become a good guitarist.

Learning to play the guitar without studying the blues is like going from A to C without reciting the letter B. And while we’re recommending the blues in terms of practicing your musical ear, it’s also because the music provides the best and simplest base. The basic chords allow for improvisation. A little revelation will open up millions of possibilities.

From one note or chord, you’ll learn to decipher many others as you improvise on your guitar. You’ll thus be able to create a true understanding of music. An array of notes and chords, all linked together!

And to gain a stronger understanding of this magical stringed instrument, dive into the history of the guitar, the various styles, the biggest personalities…

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