Teach Yourself How To Play A Guitar By Ear

By Ann Walters

Teaching yourself to play guitar by ear is something all guitarists can train themselves to do. There is no mysterious art to being able to play by ear. In reality, what it takes is practice to build up your ability to differentiate the chords and scales that are being played.

I shall detail in this article some techniques and drills which I have used over the last 20 years playing guitar to train myself to play by ear.

At beginner level, you want to start out by being able to differentiate between major and minor chords. A simple drill for starting with this is to record yourself playing a progression of major chords (A up to G). Next, record variations of the chord progression, but replacing a major chord with a single minor chord. Once you play back the variations you should be able to say to yourself whether each chord is major or minor as you hear it.

You can fine tune this by listening to tunes on the radio or TV ads and picking out major or minor chords. Confirm if you are correct by playing your guitar along with the tune or (if its a song, searching for the chords/tab online). If playing along, then start by just playing the bass note (the E-string) to find the main bass note then try playing the major/minor chord from this and decide for yourself how this sounds to your own ears. As an example, the root note could be 'c' so play a C-major chord followed by a C-minor chord with the tune and listen out for which sounds closer to the original tune. This is by no means perfect as complex tunes could have complex chord/bass variations (for example a 'd' bass note played with an A major chord) or more 'colorful' chords (sevenths, diminished, jazz chords, partial chords, etc.).

Proceeding on from this you should begin to focus on chord progressions. This simply involves listening to songs and trying to figure out the progression of chords being played. Pick a tune and break it down into its the verses, chorus and bridge. Take each verse/chorus/bridge and try to work out the chords used. You might find that most verses use two/four chords for each line of the song or that the chorus repeats four chords. Playing along with the tune to find the chords and start to build up a map of the chords. You can writing these down at first but move to memorizing the chords and their progression.

After some practice playing along with a variety of songs, you will have memorized a number of sequences and will start to see that most songs follow some fairly standard structures or templates in how they combine verse/chorus/bridge and also in how they group chords (major and minor).

The fun part of playing by ear is that you can never stop learning. There is always a new songwriter or musical genre (rap, jazz, metal, etc) that you can analyse and attempt to decipher the chord sequence and chord types. As you improve, you will begin to be able to pick out of a song complex chords (sevenths, diminished chords, jazz chords, etc) to the point that you should be able to play along with most songs after a single listen. - 31840

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