I’ve talked a bit before about how I started playing guitar. Up until now, I’ve been very dependent on someone else telling me how to play a song. I’ve written a couple of songs myself, but only recently started learning to play by ear. Since playing by ear is something I’ve been thinking about and practicing, I thought I would share my method.
Step 1) I pick a song — usually something with a relatively slow tempo. If there is a section with single notes played at a relatively slow speed that helps. It also helps if there is only one guitar, although if the guitar parts are distinct enough from each other, that doesn’t matter as much.
Some examples I’ve used:
“Jockey Full of Bourbon” by Tom Waits — this song has a relatively lengthy — and slow — intro which uses single notes
“Blessed State” by Wire — there are several motifs that are repeated throughout this song. It’s pretty easy to pick up a few of the single note phrases and work backward from there.
“Sour Grapes” by Screaming Females — the advantage of this one is that Marissa Paternoster’s guitar playing is really distinct. The notes are clear. There is a motif she plays through the verses, followed by a chorus using barre chords. There is a short solo, followed again by the chorus using barre chords (you could also use power chords).
2) I choose a short phrase or riff, usually 4-5 notes.
3) I sing that phrase a few times, using the word “lah” or “dah.” Most people are pretty good at matching pitch. We’ve all hummed or sang along to our favorite songs. Singing a guitar line is the same thing. If you need some help learning how to match pitch, there is an instructive Expert Village video here.
4) I find the first note of the phrase on the fretboard. (The first few times you try this, it might be pretty difficult. But stick with it. Eventually, you’ll be able to lock it in.) I keep singing the phrase until I find that first note on the fretboard. If I lose the sound of the phrase, I go back to the song and listen again, repeating step 3
5) Once I have found my first note on the fretboard, I think about how the other notes in the phrase relate to it. Is the next note up or down? Is it a whole step? A half step? Is it more than a whole step? A minor third? A perfect fourth? (It helps to know a little music theory at this point. But you can always just think of the the song “Doe, a Deer” from the Sound of Music. Most of us know either from this song or elsewhere that the major scale is root note, whole step, whole step, half step, whole step, whole step, half step, root note, or Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do.)
6) At this point, I find the rest of the notes of my chosen phrase along one or two adjoining strings.
7) Once I’ve found the notes on the fretboard, I play the phrase along with the song, listening to see if the pitches sound the same.
8) Next I think about the phrase, seeing if there is somewhere on the fretboard the phrase is easier to play. (Again, at this step, it helps if you either a) have a little music theory under your belt, or b) know the notes on your fretboard. For example, if the phrase starts on A, is there another A on the fretboard that is the same pitch? If so, is it easier to start from that note?)
9) Repeat! I repeat this method until I’ve got the whole song. Once I know a phrase or two, it is fairly easy to determine what key the song is in. (Chords are more difficult to determine, but if you know the single note phrases use a particular note over and over again, that’s a good place to start. Does the phrase you chose keep coming back to G? If so, try playing a G chord over different points in the song to see if it sounds right.)
There are several resources that can help when playing songs by ear. Like I said above, a little music theory helps. There is a great book by Ed Roseman called Edly’s Music Theory For Practical People. The style of the book is fun, and the material covered is extensive. There’s also the Hal Leonard Music Theory for Guitarists.
One tool that helps me quite a bit is the Capo app for iPhone. It’s twenty bucks, and allows you to add songs from your song library, slow them down, and mark sections you want to repeat. You can also slow down songs using GarageBand if you have it, or by using Audacity, which is a free program and can be used on both Macs and PCs.
There are other ways to learn how to play by ear, but this is the method I have found easiest and most effective. Please comment if you have other tips or suggestions.