You know how to sing by ear
Playing guitar by ear is a skill like all skills, you can practice it and get better with practice. For example, somehow when you hear a song on the radio you know exactly how to manipulate your vocal cords to sing the song with your voice.
But if I gave most guitarists their instrument and asked them to play the same tune by ear, it would suddenly seem difficult, why is that?
The skill you need in both cases is almost the same: listening to something, remembering it, reproducing it. The only difference is the tool you use for that last step.
Playing guitar by ear is about mastering your guitar the same way you master your vocals, letting you play instantly (pretty much) any melody you hear in your head.
As you know, this site is all about developing basic music skills. So in this article I will show you how to learn to play guitar by ear from scratch. I’ll explain how playing works and give you a step-by-step plan to get started.
But first, let’s deal with some common misconceptions.
playing guitar by ear – Can you learn it?
People often think that playing guitar by ear is something they can never learn. They assume it’s a talent that you’re either born with or not.
This is not the case. As with most musical skills, it’s all about practice. If you can sing or hum to a tune you’ve heard, you can learn to play by ear too!
And you don’t have to wait to “get a little better at guitar”. You can start developing this skill from the first moment you start learning – I think you should! You’ll start using your guitar as a tool to express your musical ideas.
Do you need a perfect pitch ear?
Perfect Pitch is the ability to hear pitch and instantly know the pitch. So whether it’s a C or an E flat or an F sharp and so on, it seems to be something you born with.
You either have this ability or you don’t (although some people claim you can learn it).
Whatever the case, having a perfect pitch ear is very rare and you don’t need it to play by ear or compose great music.
And to prove my words, here’s a little test for you. Here are three famous musicians, which one has a perfect pitch ear?
If you guessed that only Mariah Carey has the perfect ear, you’d be right! Yes, that means that the writers and artists of some of the greatest and most popular songs of all time, including Bohemian Rhapsody, and Let it Be, don’t have a perfect musical ear.
In fact, most professional musicians do not have this skill, and this includes Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Paul Gilbert, Maurice Ravel, Miles Davis, Stravinsky, David Bowie, Esperanza Spalding, Gwen Stefani, Leonard Bernstein and Carlos Santana to name a few.
What all of the above-mentioned musicians possess, though, is called relative pitch: the skill of recreating a tone or melody when you get to the first note. The idea of relative pitch is about hearing the relationships between tones, rather than hearing any individual tone.
You can say that the perfect pitch is knowing the coordinates of any city, and the relative pitch is knowing the directions to any city from your current location. This article will show you how to develop a relative pitch.
Playing guitar by ear step by step
When most of us started learning to play the guitar, we learned the notes, some scales, and other things that sound good and comfortable to play the guitar, whether it’s Smoke on the Water, Nothing Else Matters, or Seven Nation Army.
The result: the things you know how to play are the things you learned on the guitar.
But you’ve heard a lot more music in your whole life than just the things you learned on the guitar. Your mind is filled with information and music you’ve heard in movies, video games, cartoons, TV, radio, YouTube, Spotify, and more.
In short: you have a much larger source of music that you can draw on while playing.
This step-by-step guide will help you do exactly that. To recreate all the things in your brain that you can sing or hum, but can’t immediately play on your guitar.
Step 1: Knowing the melody by ear
If you’ve used TABS and videos to learn songs so far, the first step is to start figuring out simple melodies by ear on your guitar. This is something you can do even if you are a complete beginner.
Learning songs by ear is an important first step because it’s a little easier to discover the music you actually hear, than the music you hear in your head.
Step 2: Learn the solos you play
Put on a backing track or record yourself playing simple chords on your guitar. Turn on the recording (your phone will work fine). Listen to music and wait for the melody to pop into your head. (If nothing happens, just relax, don’t play anything and give yourself space to hear something. Make sure there is plenty of time for something to develop inside of you. It may take a while!)
Sing or hum that “solo” out loud and record it. (Destroy all evidence later if you like.) Don’t worry too much about what you sing, it could be anything that comes to mind.
Then, listen back to the recording and find out how you play the solo you sang on the guitar. You are now “programming” the musical logic of the fretboard with your fingers.
When you discover the solo, play along with the recording several times.
This step is how you begin to access all those thoughts that you have stored in your head. Of course, there will always be new ideas, but they are often a mixture of old ones.
Step 3: Visualize the Playing in Your Head
Once you feel comfortable with the previous step, you can make things a little more difficult. Again, record two simple chords and sing a tune over it. Keep it short and sweet. Anything between three and seven notes is perfect.
After that, all you have to do is discover the starting tone. Stop here! Don’t try playing the rest of the tune just yet. Instead, imagine how you would play this tune on the guitar. Imagine which fret you need to tap to play the melody.
Once you have an idea of how to play the short melody, try playing it on the guitar properly. Did you get it? Gorgeous! Did you miss a few notes? Try to find out why. After some errors, you may notice patterns in the errors that you make.
Continue this exercise until you get better. Resist the urge to learn the melody by trial and error. There is nothing wrong with that, but this exercise trains your musical imagination on a more conscious level, and helps strengthen the connection between your musical imagination and your fretboard.
Step 4: playing guitar by ear
It’s time to put everything together and finally play the guitar “for real.” This step is straightforward. Play some music you love and play what you hear. You don’t need to know which key or scale to use. Just play!
It is important to know that you will continue to make mistakes in this step. Mistakes are a good sign. This means that you don’t rely on things you already know how to play, i.e. things that are comfortable and familiar.
Alternatively, when you make mistakes, it is a sign that you are really listening to your inner ear, to your musical imagination. As saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins said:
“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not really trying”Coleman Hawkins
Even the best musicians make mistakes. But most of the time, you won’t even notice them, because they really manage to make the “wrong” notes look “correct” retroactively.
Quoted by Miles Davis: “It’s not the note you play that’s wrong , it’s the note you play next that makes it right or wrong.”
In other words, a big advantage of being able to play by ear is that you’ll be much better at dealing with mistakes and making them not look like mistakes. So keep making mistakes and you will develop this skill too!
What about scales and intervals?
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention scales or intervals in the article. It wasn’t an oversight.
Of course, scales and music theory can help you a lot.
But the above steps are about developing a more basic ability: getting a subconscious sense of how your hands must manipulate the strings on the fretboard to produce a tone or melody, the subconscious sense of what happens when you go up or down the string, or when you move up or down the fretboard.
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