Archive for ‘Rants and Guitar Advice’

January 22, 2012

How To Play A Song By Ear. If I Can Do It, You Can Too!

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.

December 30, 2011

Rocksmith For 360 – Initial Impressions

We got Rocksmith for ourselves for Christmas.  If you don’t know what Rocksmith is, it’s basically guitar hero.  But instead of playing a plastic toy with square buttons, you plug in an actual electric guitar.  The experience ends up being something in between playing the guitar and playing a video game.

Interesting to note — they’ve got a woman in one of their new commercials.  (Not unlike the World of Warcraft video featuring Aubrey Plaza.)  It seems that video game designers are really trying to get more women to play video games.

Here’s the commercial I’m talking about.

I wish I had access to all the guitars she’s using!

We’ve only had the game for a few days.  I’ve played three of the songs, and done two of the technique challenges.  Here’s my initial impression — it will sort of teach you how to play guitar.  The technique challenges are pretty good.  Right away, they teach you the difference between sustaining a note and stopping it.  You learn hammer-ons, shifting position, string bending.  So you will definitely learn techniques right away.  And… you will learn how to play a version of the songs that are on the game.

That said, it’s not going to teach you how to read music at all.  Not chords, not tab, and not standard notation.  At least it’s not going to teach you that as quickly as you could teach yourself.  It doesn’t teach you the name of the strings, using a color-coding system instead.  (Instead of E, A, D, G, B, and E, you learn red, yellow, blue, etc.)

So basically if you are really good at playing guitar, it will probably feel much more like playing a video game than playing guitar.  If you’re intermediate, it will feel sort of like playing guitar, and will help you with some of your techniques.  If you’re a beginner, it might be a helpful teaching aid, but you are probably better off going to a class, or private lessons, or getting a decent book.  Or watching lessons on Youtube.

I will write more when we’ve had it a bit longer and have a better idea of what the more complex lessons entail.

December 4, 2011

Twelve Amazing Guitarists Who Didn’t End Up On Rolling Stone’s Stupid List


You may have heard that Rolling Stone released the issue with “the list.” I’m not positive how often they do this – if it’s every year, or every other year. But of course, there are two women on it this year. Interestingly enough, they had a few women on the panel of voters.

I never know what to think of Rolling Stone’s list. I do know that Rolling Stone, in general, seems to be behind the times on what is going on in music. They tend to feature artists after they are already extremely popular. They get scooped on most artists by magazines like Magnet or Venus — these indie mags do much better on up and comers. The list itself is subjective, and was created by a panel of guitarists.

And…I love most of the male guitarists who are on the list. Men like Lee Ranaldo, J. Mascis, Mike Campbell, and Tom Verlaine — I listen to their music on an almost daily basis. I love these guys and think they deserve recognition. But it’s interesting that someone like, say, Jack White makes it on there. He’s admittedly a great guitar player, but the list skipped women like Wanda Jackson, who White has held up as one of his influences.

I’m going to say more about these artists later, but since it’s topical now I thought I would just go ahead and throw some names up here. This list is not definitive, but it is a list of women guitarists who I think are spectacular.

1. Elizabeth Cotten — created the alternate picking style now called Cotten picking.
2. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders
3. Wanda Jackson
4. Joan Jett – who has been on the list before but didn’t make the cut this year
5. Nancy Wilson of Heart — who was on the panel of voters for Rolling Stone but didn’t make the list
6. Mary Timony of Helium and Wild Flag
7. Ruyter Suys of Nashville Pussy
8. Poison Ivy of The Cramps – Ivy’s style was simple, but she’s influenced countless numbers of guitarists and bands. Plus, she looked way better while playing than any of the guys on Rolling Stone’s list. Style’s gotta count for something…
9. Carrie Brownstein
10. Viv Albertine, formerly of The Slits
11. Kristin Hersh
12. Thalia Zedek

This list isn’t extensive, and it could have included any of the other women who have been on this blog. Rebecca Gates is excellent. So is Sarah Register. So are Marnie Stern and Alex White. Amy Klein! There are the female “shredders” like Orianthi and Jacqueline Mannering. Ani Difranco. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers. Joan Armatrading. Kaki King. PJ Harvey. Sister Rosetta Tharpe!  I could go on. I guess what I’m really trying to say about the Rolling Stone list in particular and lists like this in general is this. It’s the age of the internet. When I was a teenager, you still had to read magazines to find out information about music. Or at least zines. But now you just have to do a Google Search. So ignore Rolling Stone. Go find a woman you know who plays guitar and ask her something about her influences, or what she likes to play.

November 11, 2011

Keith Levene Is Too Cool For School

We are learning this in guitar. I will defeat this m-fing song if it kills me. I hate that Keith Levene looks so nonchalant as he plays the guitar part. Grr.

October 30, 2011

Learning The Fretboard

So… I’m taking a “how to play lead” style class right now. And that means I’m doing what I imagine every guitarist dreads, but which they all have to do at some point — memorizing all the notes on the fretboard. Our teacher said to learn five frets at a time. I already have the E and A strings more or less memorized down to the fifth fret, and probably the seventh, from playing power chords. So I’m working on the D string this week. And I’ve been doing that by taking a piece of fret paper and writing out, over and over again, “D open, D sharp on the first fret, E second fret, F third fret, F sharp fourth, G fifth.” Sometimes I skip the sharps/flats. Unfortunately, aside from doing the exact same thing on my actual guitar fretboard, I’m pretty sure this is the best way to accomplish this task. I wonder how long it’s going to take to memorize the whole thing.


September 6, 2011

Follow Guitareste on Twitter And Like Us On Facebook


Do you get angry when your friends think that Taylor Swift is the only woman who plays the guitar?  Have you ever turned your stereo up really loud and danced around in your underwear?  Have you ever dug under your couch cushions to find change to buy a cd?  If you have answered yes to any or all of those questions, you need to do a few things for me right now.

1)  Go tell your friends about this website.  Right now.  I can wait here.

Did you do it?  Ok, now onto…

2)  Go follow our  Twitter account.  Seriously.  Go do it.  Now.

3)  Go like us on Facebook.  The future of music depends on it.  Honestly, if you’re on Facebook and you haven’t liked this page yet, you’re kind of a shitty person.

Ok, you did all that stuff, right?  Now don’t you feel better?  You’re dismissed.  Now you can go about the rest of your day.

August 13, 2011

New Yorkers! Get Guitar Lessons From Marnie Stern!



Seems Marnie Stern’s available for lessons.  Do it for me, people.







August 1, 2011

Old But Awesome Podcast: Thao On KEXP

Photo via Flickr by weeklydig

I recently downloaded a ton of old podcasts that I had missed from the KEXP Live Performances Podcast.  If you’ve never heard this podcast, go subscribe now!  It’s an invaluable source for new music.  And even if you listen to it regularly, go back and review the one I’m about to mention.  It’s a podcast from way back in 2008.  It’s with Thao Nguyen.  She’s performing with her band, The Get Down Stay Down.  (Here’s the link for more info about the podcast, but you can also just download it in iTunes.)  And in the podcast, she talks about her songwriting process, about how the band formed, and about how they got on Kill Rock Stars.  Quite a bit of cool stuff.

And on an additional note of Thao goodness, had fans submit questions via Twitter for Thao & Mirah.  Here are the answers.

July 19, 2011

Better Know A Guitareste

I was asked to talk a bit more about my own guitar playing, and about why I decided to learn how to play.  So here it goes!  I think I was always interested in learning.  I had a few guy friends try to teach me at different points in my teens and twenties, and playing the guitar seemed totally baffling.  In fact, I know at least once during one of these “mentoring” sessions, I held the guitar upside down, with the neck in my right hand.  My memory is vague here, but I think the boy who was teaching me guitar at the time said that was ok.  And while it is possible to play a right-handed guitar upside-down, I’m not sure why someone would learn that way on purpose.

I don’t remember why I decided to pull the trigger exactly.  But I’m lucky enough to live in Chicago.  And in Chicago, we have this amazing community of musicians called The Old Town School of Folk Music.

The Old Town School gives private lessons, but they also have group music classes.  Basically, a bunch of kids or teens or (in my case) adults get together in a room and learn to dance, sing, or play an instrument.  They also rent instruments, which was key for me at first.  I had been really shy of buying a guitar outright, convinced that I would not be able to learn how to play.  So I rented a guitar and enrolled in what they call the “core guitar” curriculum at the Old Town School.

I learned the basics that way, in a group setting.  We literally started with how to hold the guitar.  We learned the names of the strings.  We learned all the basic open chords:  D,E,A,C, G, B7,D7, and an “easy” version of F using the top three strings.  We learned how to follow a chord map.  For any of you that don’t know how to play the guitar, that is just a sheet of lyrics with the corresponding chord names written over the places in the lyrics where you make the changes.

In the OTS core program, you can learn basic chords and strumming, barre chords, finger-picking, how to read guitar tablature, and some basic music theory and musicianship.  I did all of those classes, and then began playing in some ensembles.  The OTS ensembles are a bit like playing in a really big cover band.  In them, you can learn to play songs by a wide variety of artist:  PJ Harvey, Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Elvis Costello, Television, Sonic Youth.  The list goes on.  And you learn to play with other instruments.  There are usually a boatload of guitarists, a bassist, a drummer, a singer.  You get the idea.

So I’ve been playing for about three years at this point.  And I’m what most people, I think, would consider an intermediate player.  My big challenges now are learning to play lead guitar parts.  And because I learned with a group, and always with music in front of me, I’m just starting now to learn songs by ear.

I’m going to write some more posts about playing lead and playing by ear in the future.  I also plan on writing a few on how to choose a guitar, how to get started playing, and where to find material.  I’m open to more suggestions as well, so if you’ve got ’em, shoot them over to me by email at guitareste at gmail dot com.  Until then, just know if you’re right handed, the guitar neck goes in your left hand.  😉

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