When you try to learn a song from a tab, do you become frustrated when the notes are wrong and you can't figure out what to change? Are you not sure which notes will sound “right” when improvising a solo or writing a song? How would you like to hear a guitar riff and be able to play it on the first try without any tablature?
Many guitar players, from novice to advanced, encounter these common challenges and either don’t know how to overcome them or don’t even realize it’s possible for them to bridge the gap. Regardless of how much they practice the guitar, these obstacles continue to pop up.
The fact is, in order to overcome these obstacles, practicing the guitar and developing technique alone is not enough. While building technique on the guitar is fun and important, focusing on that alone is leaving out an extraordinarily vital component of your musicianship.
The difference between a good guitarist and a great guitarist
I know exactly how it feels to struggle on the guitar, particularly with these issues. It is one of the most frustrating things to be able to physically play but to be limited in other areas, like improvising a solo, trying to learn a new song, or even writing an original song. When I was learning how to play, I would look up tabs online for songs I wanted to learn only to become frustrated because they clearly were not right but I didn’t know what to change. When I tried improvising my first solo at age 15, I couldn’t figuring out which notes would sound interesting together. I was able to play the guitar well with solid technique, knew all my modes and arpeggios, but I still felt lost overall. So what was missing? What was my problem?
I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some of the most distinguished guitarists of our generation and this experience revealed to me the clear reason why some get past these issues and others don’t. At a clinic with Andy Timmons, he made a comment about playing the guitar that completely changed how I looked at the instrument: "I can hear how everything is going to sound before I play it." This statement was so simple but undeniably profound. I had heard other guitarists allude to this idea, but no one had ever come out and just said it so bluntly. After hearing similar comments from other talented guitarists and musicians over the last 15 years, I discovered there is a common and very important practice that distinguishes the great guitarists from the good guitarists.
So, then, what exactly is the secret to becoming a great guitarist? By now, it’s probably obvious: you must develop your ear! If your ear is developed, you will have a better sense of what to do on the guitar even if you aren’t the most technically advanced player. The best guitarists in the world make everything they do look effortless not only because of their physical guitar playing abilities; they also developed their ears to the point that they know how the notes they are about to play will sound and feel before they play them. There is NO guesswork!
If you ignore your ears, you’re limiting yourself as a musician
The truth is, anyone can pick up the guitar and learn technique. Most people, however, will not take the time to also develop their ear. Developing your ear requires you to practice something that you can’t see or even necessarily feel. Unlike physically practicing your guitar where you can both see and feel your hands at work, training your ear requires you to practice both listening and internalizing how the notes sound and feel. It takes time to master and actually notice this skill in your playing.
It is true that with enough time playing music your ear could develop on its own, but it will take much longer and will not give you the same results compared to spending focused time developing them. It will require an initial time investment up front, but don’t let the amount of time and effort of training your ears deter you. Simply developing your technique alone -- like most do -- will significantly limit yourself as a musician.
Think of it this way: only developing guitar technique and ignoring your ears is like setting a car on cruise control without a driver. Everything is working mechanically and the car is in motion, but no one is steering the car on the road. The car might drive just fine, even stay on the road for considerable amount of time. But, eventually the car is going to crash because a driver isn’t around to anticipate changes in the road and keep the car on the road. Similarly, your ears are the musical drivers that will steer your hands, but this is only possible if you give them a chance to drive.
Your hands don’t make the music. You make the music in your head first and your hands are merely the extension of what you hear or develop in your head. In other words, your ears help guide your hands and thus training them well will open up many more doors for you musically. If you develop your ears, you won’t be stuck struggling with the same things for years. Instead, you'll be much more free. Free to have fun on the guitar, grow with your instrument, and focus on what you want to do rather than on what's frustrating you.
Start changing the way you practice
So how do you begin training your ear in a fun way? You change the way you practice and learn music. Start balancing guitar technique practice with learning music you want to play by ear.
Before the internet, guitarists had to rely heavily on their ears to figure out how to play their favorite music. Now, because of all the information available online, it’s easy to take shortcuts. Relying on tablature or sheet music is a common one. When you solely rely on those to learn songs, you are using your brain and hands first but your ears are last.
Not only is it hard to find accurate sheet music, but by taking this shortcut you are skipping a vital component of your development as a musician. If you remove written tablature from the equation, you are fully engaging your ears, which is the best way to truly develop them.
Ultimately, the process of training your ears will be much more fun; rather than just working on an isolated ear training exercise, you are actively listening and interpreting a musical piece that is interesting to you. Plus, there are many additional benefits to learning music in this way, including simultaneously building your repertoire, building your technique by learning songs, and developing a stronger sense of harmony.
A step-by-step guide to start training your ear
Transcribing music by ear is one of the more challenging undertakings we can take on, musically speaking, especially if you haven't done it before or haven't played guitar for very long. However, with practice you’ll show improvement and it will get easier. If this is your first attempt at learning how to transcribe a song by ear or if you've tried but didn't get very far in the past, here are some tips on how you can approach this:
Step 1: You will need a pen/pencil, paper, and decent pair of headphones (preferably a pair that will cover your whole ear as opposed to ear buds). I also recommend using equipment or software that will allow you to loop parts of songs and slow them down (while staying in tune). This will be particularly helpful if you are transcribing a faster guitar part or want to listen to a short section of a song repeatedly without having to constantly push the rewind button.
Step 2: Select a song you want to play. The key is to choose a song you actually want to learn and that is within your reach. I recommend a song that has mostly a strummed guitar part and maybe a short guitar solo. As you improve over time, you can add more complicated pieces.
Step 3: Start listening to your song as much as possible when you aren’t actively working on transcribing it. Put the song on endless repeat, whether you are listening on your iPod or driving in your car. The repetition will firmly plant the song’s structure in your head, helping with memorization and transcribing later.
When you start to transcribe the song, Listen to the song from start to finish a couple of times to get the whole song in your head. Start making notes for yourself about where sections of the song start and where new ones begin. Listen for commonalities in the music. For example, if you hear a part of the song that repeats itself at different times, write that down! By learning one part of the song, you may actually be learning several parts.
Step 4: Once you have a good sense of the overall format of the song, start listening for specific instruments or parts that you think you can figure out. I typically start with the bass line because it gives me a sense of the underlying harmony and helps me build chords from that. You could also start with a specific guitar riff or a phrase from the melody -- whatever will help you get started.
Once you decide what part you want to start transcribing, be sure to always hum or sing the notes you are trying to figure out before you try playing them to help you get the sound of the notes in your ear. Then, try to envision where you think the notes would be played on the neck. This step is crucial and I do this every time. Before you play the notes, really try to imagine where they are on the neck and what your hands will be doing to make the sound. Try to picture yourself playing the notes correctly. Even if you are unsure at first, as you improve your sense of where the notes are located will get better. Only after you have done these initial steps should you then try to find the notes on the guitar. By taking these initial steps you will reduce the amount of trial and error and you will figure out the song faster. Keep at it until you figure it out.
Once you figure out part of the song, you’ll start to feel a sense of accomplishment and progress as you will now have one piece of the puzzle figured out, which will ultimately help lead into the next. Plus, you will be connecting your ears to a mental image in your head. As your skills improve in this area, you will eventually be able to hear a riff, envision where it might be on the fretboard, and nail it (or get extremely close) consistently.
Step 5: With one part under your belt, now you can continue building onto the riff, bass line, or melody all the way through the song. Keep working piece by piece until you have the whole song worked out.
Finished with all 5 steps? Congratulations! You have now made a huge step forward to improving your musicianship and have set yourself apart from the majority of guitarists.
In the beginning, you will go through a lot of trial and error transcribing your first song, even if it’s a simple one. Developing your ear is a skill that will require persistence and patience so don’t expect instant results. Be patient with yourself and be prepared to invest for the long term. You will get better and soon you will be transcribing songs by ear you wouldn’t have been able to before. Your ear will be your guide, putting you one step closer to greatness.
If you’re looking for professional assistance in further developing your ear, I offer personalized plans and consulting sessions for guitarists in Roseville, CA. Click here to schedule!