Start Using Your Ears. Part 1

10 reasons you should starting learning songs by ear, right now.

Ultimate Guitar
I'm just going to preface this column by saying it's not for everyone. If you're the kind of player that just likes writing songs on an acoustic. Or you're more or less not too fussed about becoming a guitar God of the 21st century, this probably doesn't apply to you. However, if you're striving for greatness and want to the very best guitarist you can be. This lesson may be very important for you. You probably won't agree with all my points as I'm talking from my personal experience here. But give it a shot anyway and you might be surprised. My goal of this lesson is to help you think for yourself and develop your own sound. I'm going to give you some tips on something that seems to getting a little overlooked nowadays, learning songs. Alright, now that probably seems ridiculous, this is a TAB website after all! But I'm talking about learning songs by ear. The problem is that 'learning a song' these days means looking up the TAB, and 'learning a song by ear' is now referred to as transcribing; as if it were a completely separate thing. Transcribing is a word that scares off most guitarists, it's right up there with sight reading. But it really shouldn't be feared. I don't have anything against TAB, but I've discovered so many benefits from using my ears that I'd never want to go back. In the first half of this column, I'm just going to explain why I've really start to like doing things by ear so much. Hopefully I can convince you. 1. You'll Memorize New Songs With Greater Ease When you have to listen back to a phrase several times to work it out, then figure out how and where to play it on your guitar. It gets written into your memory. A complicated lick written in TAB is basically a telephone number. Memorizing from standard notation isn't much easier either in my experience. I'd have to go pretty out of my way to memorize a piece of classical guitar. The key to memorizing anything is to make the information more interesting, that's why people use mnemonics to remember long words. It's infinitely easier to remember a phrase from your inner ear and muscle memory than a long list of fret numbers and string names. 2. You'll Improve Your Improvisation How? You ask. Learning songs by ear will enable you to know how to play phrases before you've 'worked them out' so to speak. When you first start you'll have to do things one note at a time, but pretty soon you'll be able to figure out clusters of notes. Apply that same concept to improv. you can now hear phrases in your head and play them as you're improvising. That's the crucial difference between an improv. solo that sounds like guess work and one that sounds like it could've been pre-written. 3. You'll Develop A Better Ear for Tone To me, this just seems like common sense. You have to listen very closely to work out difficult phrases. So after a while you'll notice not just the nuances in pitch, but also in tone. This is especially true if you transcribe a wide variety of different guitarists. When you can hear all the nuances in tone like that you'll be able to have a better of idea of what you want for your own guitar sound. Developing an ear for tone may seem a slightly odd concept, but I know a fair few of use tried learning the Sweet Child O' Mine intro on the bridge pickup and it sounded awful. Being aware of how each note sounds is a vital skill. 4. You Won't Have to Rely on Finding a TAB When You Want to Learn a Song This one's pretty self-explanatory but I'm sure you can relate. You wanted to learn some super obscure hipster kvlt folk techno symphony and you couldn't find it anywhere on UG. You even tried Google. You shouldn't have to rely on someone else doing a transcription. Quite frankly seeing someone say 'I couldn't learn it, there's no TAB' seems ridiculous to me now. Who wants to be limited to what songs they can learn? If you stop relying on TAB you can learn anything, personally I find that an exciting thought. 5. You'll Be Forced to Focus on Dynamics and Subtle Nuances, and Then Be Able Use Them in Your Own Playing One of the first things I learnt by ear was Take Five by Dave Brubeck. Now the solo in that piece is full of tons of little pitch bends and dynamic variations. In the end I probably got it about 95% there, (but remember, I had a lot of fun learning it. I didn't have to force myself, it's not like doing an ear training exercise.) Picking out all the nuances was great, because I kept stumbling across stuff that I could use in my own playing. If I'd looked for a guitar arrangement and just play over the top with no variation whatsoever I wouldn't have learnt anything at all. I certainly wouldn't still remember how to play the piece. Learning parts for other instruments can be very useful in this way, because you can develop ideas that are very uncharacteristic for the guitar. Check out Marty Friedman's playing for a great example of this. Or Steve Vai's 'Freak Show Excess' which was supposedly inspired by Bulgarian wedding music. 6. You'll Train Your Ears, Without Having to Do Boring Ear Training Exercises Have you ever done one of those exercises where you hear two notes on a piano and have to name the interval? I think we can all agree that they're [b]really f*cking boring.[/b] I spent a lot of time doing that, I thought I was getting pretty good at it. But it seemed absolutely useless in any real context. When I listened to a song there was no way I could name any of the intervals, because they weren't played on piano and suddenly sounded completely different. When you learn songs by ear you start to pick up how different intervals sound naturally, and where to play them on your guitar. After that, all you have to do is learn what they're called. Doesn't it make a little more sense to do things that way round? My opinion isn't the law, but it's worth thinking about. 7. You Get to Do Things Your Way, and You Won't Learn Other People's Mistakes How many times have you seen someone play Smoke on The Water in 5ths instead of 4ths? (Or with single notes on the low E string.) The reason I started doing everything by ear is because I was sick of seeing mistakes in TABs, even if they were rated 5 stars. Even if the pitches are correct, I've seen so many instances where the fingerings make absolutely no sense. I think this may be because some people write directly into Guitar Pro, without checking if what they're written really works for guitar first. Then there's also multi tracking issue, just because there are two guitar players it's unlikely that the song will only have two guitar tracks in the age of Pro Tools If you do it your own way, you'll gravitate towards what's most comfortable for you and really end up owning the song. The whole thing will just feel more comfortable. Don't be tricked into thinking that just because you're learning from an official TAB book that it'll be perfect there either. 8. You'll Improve Your Song Writing I can't really prove this one, all I can say is that my song writing has improved 10 fold since I started learning music this way. It's probably the sum of all the other benefits. It may help you, it may not. 9. 99% of Your Favourite Players Will Have Learnt This Way The internet is a very recent thing, easy access to TABs has probably been around no longer than 10 or 11 years. Before that you had two options, buy a pricey TAB book (if there was one) or do it yourself. Or if you had a teacher you could get him to show you. Guitar players and bass players (that's write bassists, you're part of this too) have just traditionally learnt by ear. We've got it easy now, if you don't care about being the next guitar God that's fine. But if you aspire to be on the same level as your idols, most of them cut their teeth learning this way. And the whole instructional video market didn't really come around until the shred era, you were kind of on your own if you self taught. 10. It Makes Learning Songs Easier. I recently learnt Eruption for the hell of it, I found out it's actually just a lot of licks put together. Because I had to learn it one chunk at a time, I could pick out bite sized pieces and learn them one by one. You've seen the TAB for it right? It's like a phone book. By doing it this way the whole thing made sense, it wasn't just a minute and a half of notes. You maybe end up discovering a lot of stuff you really struggle is actually much easier when you're not trying to read it. Final Thoughts Still not convinced? Well, I tried. Next time you're stuck in a rut, give this a thought. I'm going to give a couple of disclaimers now so I don't get flamed too bad. First off: I have nothing against TAB. As a beginner I probably would've been way too discouraged trying to learn my favourite Black Sabbath and Guns N' Roses songs by ear. So here's a thank you to everyone who's ever taken to time to TAB stuff out, I might not even still play if it weren't for you. Then there's the validity of sheet music, classical musicians don't have to learn their pieces by ear do they? All I can say is that guitar is just traditionally learnt differently. In blues, rock and metal improvisation has much more of a role, and on guitar we have several ways to play any one thing. You don't have to play everything a certain way. Reading and transcribing are both valid, but using your ears seems more valid for this style of music. If you're still with me, next week (or whenever) I'm going to give you some tips on making the process a little less painful. But you should start now, because I think you'll have a lot of fun. Put on one of your favourite songs, work out how to play it and play along to record. Don't get the idea that you need a fancy backing track, centre cancel feature or .midi file. Just play along to record and have fun, play standing up pretend you're in the band. I'll see you next time.

20 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Have to say really like this column for two reasons. one I'm behind you all the way and think your spot on in describing the advantages of learning by ear. I myself was influenced in the past when i saw an interview with john frusciante that was right before he joined the chili peppers. he told the interveiwer that he learned most of jimi hendrix's songs by the age of 14 by listening to the albums and learning them himself. I was sold being that John Is an amazing guitarist and Jimi Hendrix's music is some of the hardest to copy but if he could do it then so could I. I started of easy by learning the the Warning album by green day. I thought it would take me a week or more but song after song I just picked up the pretty simplistic riffs and had fun with it cause i was like "hey, im learning the song and it feels so much cooler!" It honestly felt like jamming/improvising because I fealt like I was getting the feel of every fret on the guitar and not just looking at paper and numbers. The second reason I like this article is because it inspired me to start learning by ear again. I had recently been disinterested in the guitar and had just started again and haven't really came into my own with it but after reading this article I know right away this is how im going to start again. SO THANK YOU annon for providing a meticulous article on ear training and inspiring me to learn by ear again.
    This is a great article. The only problem I have is figuring out what tuning a song is in. Any tips on that?
    Great article but 'tab' isn't an acronym, why do you keep typing it in all caps?
    I'm a beginner and tried using those ear training programs before and got rid of them after a few days... This article has made me want to try learning by ear again, thanks
    Nice write-up. I agree with basically everything which you have outlined in the article. This method seems very valid to me and therefore I'll give a try. In the past I have transcribed a few of my local country's metal music as there are no tabs for them, but I have been discouraged a lot as I cannot seems to figure out some of the riffs. However, this article has given me motivation. Thanks!
    Looking forward to the part 2. I'm trying to train my ears. Is it better to do easier songs for training at first? Or will slightly tougher songs be more beneficial to training my ears?
    I love this,have been doing song by ear and i can testify to it that whateva solo u work out by ear stick to ur memory...have got most of bb king solo stock in my head that because i took my time in scoring them.....
    Excellent article! Cannot wait for the next one! Big question I have is how do I get started "using my ears"?? I have been playing for about 9 months now and when I want to learn a new song, I immediately head for the tabs and then when I try to play for my teacher, he tells me its wrong, which is very frustrating..
    s u learned by experienced? so how many months or year u learned it?
    im way too lazy to do this Ill admit. but its not like tabs are going to disappear anytime soon
    Damn I know I should start using my ears
    TP500 wrote: This is a great article. The only problem I have is figuring out what tuning a song is in. Any tips on that?
    Hm I guess you need to find the lower chord ?
    i'm with you, man. i started playing by ear when i was in highschool, even though i had internet access, but somehow i got lazy and started playing with the aid of tabs. i'm gonna try the ear approach again. i'm also with TP500, we gonna need some help figuring out tunings, but i'm looking forward to your next installment!
    I took a jazz studies class in college and my professor made us pick a solo and transcribe it by ear. Its tough, but it gets better and better.