Start Using Your Ears. Part 2

If you read part 1, hopefully you're thoroughly convinced that learning songs by ear is a great way to improve your playing. So here's how to get started.

Ultimate Guitar
'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.' Oops, I forgot. But in the few months it took me to remember I've gained more knowledge. So hopefully this article will be better than if I'd just hashed it out a week after. I've read through the comments of the last article, so here are my responses to some things. 1. How do I know what tuning a song is in? This is much easier than you'd think, there are a few ways to go about it. But really it just comes down to a bit of common sense. The first way is to determine the key of the song. Lets be honest, as guitar players (and in rock and metal) we generally play in E, A, D, G or B. Because that's what our open strings are tuned to, and it makes all the dots on the neck match up in nice places! Recently I've been transcribing some early Kiss tunes. The first chord in the song 'Strutter' is B flat. It seems pretty odd for a bare bones rock band to play in B flat, given what a hassle it is on guitar and bass. This song would've been written by a guitar player after all. So it became obvious the song was tuned down a half step and played as if it were in B. Then of course you can always listen out for the lowest note of the song, more often than not you'll at least know what the lowest string is tuned to. If it's not in E standard, the next step is deciding whether you're standard tuning tuned lower (i.e E flat/half step down, D standard etc.), or Drop D/C#/C etc. If the song is primarily riff based, normally the riffs will give it away. Riffs like Bad Horsie by Steve Vai or Slither by Velvet Revolver revolve around a low C5 and D5 respectively. Playing them in a standard tuning would be ridiculous as you'd haver to keep fretting that low chord. Likewise a song in D standard will probably make it clear that you're not meant to be doing 1 finger chords. Of course you can always just Google the tuning or find out from a tab... If it's going to save some trial and error and you're doing a majority of the work, it's not the end of the world. Especially if you're transcribing a Stones song and any number of capo'd open tunings are possible. But don't assume the tab is right. Songs like The Thing That Should Not Be by Metallica or anything by Motley Crue are generally considered to be in Drop D but are really in D standard. But at the same time, if you're playing a covers gig and can get by without having to tune your whole guitar down (or bring another backup guitar) maybe that's not such a terrible thing. The more you transcribe the more obvious these things become. One last annoying thing, if the recording isn't at A440. Try to listen out for an open E or A string and tune to that if you want to play along. Playing along to Van Halen 1 tuned perfectly to E flat is a painful experience. 2. How do I even get started? This is way too hard. Start with simple songs, I'm into a lot of 70's and 80's rock stuff so that did it for me. But the premise is simple. Hear a note or chord, by trial and error find the same pitch or pitches on your guitar. Then move on to the next note or chord. Once your ear gets better you'll be able to digest larger phrases without having to do things note by note. This is because you'll have improved what's known as relative pitch. That is to say, you can hear the distance between different notes. If you want to make a conscious effort to improve your relative pitch, check out for more information and some excellent ear training tools. After you've deduced the pitches, you need to find the right place to play it on your guitar. This is more of a tone thing. Playing a riff based on the A string on the E will sound more a little more 'wooly' or muddy than the original. But remember that you're the boss. The easiest way to play it for you is the most valid in my opinion, as long as you can still make is sound cool. I've always been confused by tabs where 2 pitches a semitone apart are played on different strings for no good reason. 3. Learn to hear the difference between 4ths and 5ths! I don't want to get into intervals right now, because this isn't a music theory article. So to put as simply as can. A perfect 4th is your Smoke on the water, 2 notes on the same fret, on adjacent strings shape. A 5th is your power chord shape. A common mistake from beginners is to play 4ths as power chords because it's very hard to hear the difference at first. Power chords have a more stable sound and sound great with distortion. So it's easy to assume a 4th is actually a 5th. The other dilemma is that if you play a power chord with an octave, you're actually playing a 4th and a 5th! As the distance between the 5th and the octave is a 4th. You can play Smoke on the water starting from the 3rd fret with 5ths, and to an untrained ear it'll sound fine. But it's got a different character to it, and played against the original it's obvious you're adding something else. It might sound a bit ballsier, but it's not really correct. If you don't dig theory, sorry if this annoying. But anyway, sometimes it's necessary to work out if you're hearing a power chord with the root removed (just the fifth and the octave, which is the most common) or a 4th played above the root. It doesn't really matter in the scheme of things (being the same shape and all) but it can help you get past the whole 4th or 5th thing. 4. When transcribing a solo, figure out what scale it's in. This one's fairly self explanatory. If you have a selection of notes you know are in the key, it'll save you some time. Most of the rock and roll clich licks are going to be in our old faithful position 1 minor pentatonic. I generally work from the framework of major or minor pentatonic and add any modal notes (or chromatic notes) in. This can be a nice insight into the fact that are a lot of your favourite players are probably just using a couple of different scale shapes and adding in a few in between notes (take note, fans of Slash, Angus, Kirk Hammett or a billion other players.) This a good way to see that's it's not what shape you use, but how you use it. Even if you are learning a solo from tab, try to be aware of the scale you're in. 5. Tab isn't an acronym. It doesn't need to be written as TAB. Oops. 6. I keep getting things wrong. Try working out small sections, then looking up the tab (although this takes the assumption the tab is correct!) and seeing how close you got. Things will eventually start to appear more obvious. I still do this from time to time with really challenging stuff. 7. Don't just transcribe guitar. Everything from radio jingles to Coltrane sax solos. Everything is worth being able to play. Figure out keyboard parts to top 40 single or listen to way the keyboard player is doing on Bob Marley live recordings. Now you can use your ears, your open to absolute anything. Not just things you can find the tab for! If you ever want to play in a function band, remember that a lot of the time you won't be playing guitar parts. An important part of all this stuff is being open to any style of music. You don't have to love pop music as much as you love metal, but you be surprised how tricky it is to nail a song by Blondie or Pink. How do you know if you've never tried? 8. Be very aware of multi tracking/over dubbing/ad libbing, whatever you want to call it. Just because there are two guitar players in the band, that doesn't mean there are only 2 guitar tracks. Check out any Randy-era Ozzy, and start to pick out each guitar track if you can. Quad tracking rhythm guitar parts isn't as rare as you might think, although admittedly it's more often used in modern recordings where a huge sound is the desired product. A cool example of this is Holier Than Thou by Metallica, at about 3:15 where the riff comes in again after the bass interlude. One on the left, then one in the centre, then on the right. 3 rhythm tracks, not 2! How many of you thought every Metallica song only had 2 rhythm tracks? It's the same with Megadeth and tons of other metal bands, 2 tracks left and right, 1 down the middle. 9. Start with headphones, then listen again through speakers. This might be slightly controversial. But I never really transcribe from speakers. You need to be able to pick apart every instrument separately and hear exactly where it is in the stereo field. In that respect, headphones win hands down (for me.) Equally though, if you're working out parts from a pop record with many layers of keyboards and other extraneous noises: Work it out on a good pair of headphone. Listen again on a decent part of monitors (if you have them) Listen again on cheap speakers (i.e. built in laptop speakers) Then if you feel the need, some cheap earbuds. Sometimes you're going to miss things, and it's possible to miss entire guitar parts if you only approach things from one angle. 10. Write out road maps and chord charts for popular songs. Look up the Nashville numbering system, I won't go into it here. But it's pretty easy to learn and just takes a basic amount of theory knowledge and practise. If you play in a covers band/function band you can write down the basic structures to songs really quickly this way. The killer part is you can then play the song in any key, this will normally be to accommodate the singer. So when you find out you're playing the new Katy Perry song in C# you can simply apply the right chords and everybody's happy. Whereas if you'd done it at absolute pitch (how the notes actually sound) it would take ages. Time is money! Eventually you can build up a huge library of chord charts like this, then when you need to go over a song. Half the work has been done for you already, you've got the structure, the key, tuning and all the chords down. Admittedly this isn't a great for songs comprised mainly of rock/metal riffs, unless you'll find a chart of [ I :x64] useful. Lastly, here's some stuff to work out so you can get started: Kiss's self-titled debut - Lots of fairly simple riffs and pentatonic solos. But some of it can be pretty tricky, the intro to Firehouse uses a combination of 3rds and 5ths. It's not easy to hear which note is moving and which is staying still. However, from a production point of view this is a great start. Because it's pretty consistent in having 2 rhythm guitars left and right, and 1 lead guitar centred. You might run into some points where the bass actually gets in the way a bit. Those were the days... Funkadelic, Average White Band - Once you've figured out what the chord you've been strumming for 2 minutes is, try working out what the horn section is doing! Then once you've got the notes right, try making it sound cool on its own. Then making it blend with the original recording. Bob Marley - This is a gold mine for transcribing IMO. Outside of the actual guitar parts, learn a few of the basslines. Check out what the keyboard player is doing too on the live stuff. It's not about the actual chord, but the rhythm. You can get some awesome reggae guitar parts from those rhythms. B.B King, Jeff Beck, Clapton - The whole point of doing this is to get a deeper understanding of the music, so you're not just playing notes. All 3 of these incredible players have a unique vibrato, and your job is to match it as best you can. Don't do the Kirk Hammett, Zakk Wylde thing of vibrating every note as fast as you can. See how quickly learning guitar parts goes off on all sorts of tangents? We haven't even touched on dynamics or tone yet! Always try and get as close to the sound as possible, this doesn't mean investing in lots of expensive gear! It just means fiddling with your amp and guitar controls and adjusting how you pick. How hard you pick the string, and where along the string you pick go are so important. You have no idea. A good player can get a great sound from anything, it doesn't have to be something you'd record with. But pleasing enough to the ear. Pro-tip: you're probably using to much distortion. That's all I have for now anyway, if more questions pop up I'll do a part 3. But you've got more than enough to get started now, I had to figure out most of this stuff myself over a couple of years!

18 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Great tutorial. another tip to add to #9, when using cheap earbuds, try and listen to the left ear and the right ear separately (like literally take one earbud out). You'd be surprised how much clearer the guitar parts become, especially if one guitar is panned left and the other to the right, i.e. any Strokes song.
    Great article! Some things were a bit confusing to read (the tuning section) but I'll bet I can figure out what you meant, once I pick up my guitar and try it out. I'd like to point out that good earphones are not the best to listen with. The best is to have a good and clear monitoring system, set up so it gives you as perfect stereo as possible. The problem with headphones is that the right channel is only right, through monitors you will hear a little of the left channel with your right ear also, and this will give a more natural and comfortable feel to it. Although I admit good headphones are cheaper, since good speakers are not cheap to make.
    A tip from me : Whenever you watch TV, bring your guitar in. TV has a lot of melodies and basic rock songs on it. Work out the melodies, or find the key and improvise over some ad music. I have worked out DOZENS of melodies.
    One trick I found that helps transcribing songs is to pull the headphones almost out of your MP3/iPod while listening to a song. Keep it that way, and you'll hear no bass and less noise from toehr tracks, and if you're lucky, you can hear the track you had a hard time hearing when listening normally. What I usally hear is rythm guitar and extra vocal/guitar tracks.
    Another thing to know: if you are listening to a regular recording and a live recording, the tunings may be different for each.
    How can you tell what key a metal song is in? I listen to stuff like children of bodom, kalmah they use power chords so its not considered major or minor, also sometimes they use like major 3rd or minor 3rd harmonics. can you do any video addint to these lessons in the near future showing you and how you approach it. If your too busy i totally understand and thanks so much for these lessons best lessons for a guitaist using the ear!
    Also do you use any programs to slow fast things down? like how can i figure out fast melodies or solos with full speed?
    monobrow7 wrote: How can you tell what key a metal song is in? I listen to stuff like children of bodom, kalmah they use power chords so its not considered major or minor, also sometimes they use like major 3rd or minor 3rd harmonics.
    Just because they're using power chords that doesn't mean it's not major or minor! Music can only ever be: major, minor, modal, chromatic or atonal. There is actually a difference between minor and the aeolian mode... But you don't need to worry about that now. Maybe some guys would frown on this... But if the theory is confusing you, do it by ear. You only really need to the know the note name of the key and not the quality for this stuff. I'm being pretty primitive. In COB the solos are generally in Aeolian, Dorian (with the blues note added), harmonic minor, Phrygian dominant etc. But anyway... To tie that up, play a major scale over pretty much any COB song (with about 2 exceptions I can think of) and it's obvious the song isn't Major!
    monobrow7 wrote: Also do you use any programs to slow fast things down? like how can i figure out fast melodies or solos with full speed?
    There's one called 'Transcribe' and another called 'The Amazing Slow Downer.' They're both cheap and pretty much do the same thing. I used to use them but I prefer the challenge of doing everything full speed now. Don't start of with solos and fast melodies though, because you'll probably get discouraged quickly how difficult it is at first. I know you're probably only into terrifying speed licks right now (I'm the same...) But start off with something slow and simple first, trust me. I don't discourage your musical tastes, it would just be a shame to try and work out Kissing the Shadows or something and get put off.
    strutter is the reason i picked up the guitar! great article but i dont agree with kiss's self titled album as a start, most of the chords are inversions, usually one rythm guitar plays 5th/6th chords and the other major chords. there are easier stuff out there.
    the other* I have no idea how I spelt that wrong like that! (must be the keyboard!) (sorry for dobble post...)
    I like how you mentioned the Nashville Number system. It works very well providing you know your keys well enough. It's pretty much essential to know if you want to be a session musician. There's actually an app I've been using called Key Degrees that displays a random 4 bar number progression and a key to play it in. Pretty good practice, with difficulty levels. I'm sure there's other out there you can try out. The number system is also great to use with your own songs. Saves a lot of time and money in the studio if you have someone filling in for you.
    TBH I am pretty confused about all of o man I want guitar lessons so I can learn songs by eaaaaarrr.
    Biggest tip I can give beyond what is mentioned here: Use an equalizer. No not that shitty iphone one, an actual one where you can up/lower hiighs, lows, mids etc. Being able to screw with the settings can help make a grungy or complicated song sound much clearer!