To a lot of beginning to intermediate guitar players, I might as well have said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you walked outside of your house this morning, and tripped over a bag of $100 bills, and a vintage Les Paul?”. Well sure Dave, but that ain’t gonna happen. Well, hold on, I’m here to tell you that it’s not as hard as you might think. It’s definitely not easy, but as they say, nothing worth it is. In this article, I’m going to give you some tips and inspiration to get you started.
If you’re just beginning to play guitar, you’ll want to be comfortable with at least all your open position chords, and at least one pattern each of minor pentatonic and major scale patterns to be best prepared for this – the more you know, the better.
If you’re an intermediate or advanced player, and maybe have figured out a song or two, you’ll want to do more because figuring out songs and riffs by ear is the one of the best things that you can do for your guitar playing and musicianship.
Before you Start…
There are a few things that might make your road easier…
First, you may want to use a CD player that has decent stop and pause controls, because you’ll need them. It’s possible to do it with iTunes or something similar, but trust me, it’s much harder to do on iTunes , because the controls are very hard to use.
Second, you may want to invest in slow down software. There are many companies that offer this software. You’ll be able to slow down a song or a riff as much as you want so you can hear what’s going on with it. 2 pieces of software that I’ve used with success is Transkriber by Reed Kotler (http://www.reedkotlermusic.com/transkriber.htm), and Amazing Slow Downer, by Roni Music ( http://www.ronimusic.com/ ). They run about $50 each, but they’re worth it. They’re not absolutely necessary, but helpful and worth it. I’m not sure about Transkriber, but Amazing Slow Downer has a trial download option.
Find or create a nice work space for yourself, that you can see yourself sitting and working at for a while.
Finally, if you plan on writing your discoveries down (tab or standard notation) – which I recommend, but not necessary – get some tab paper, a sharp pencil, a good eraser and you’re ready to go!
If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry – nobody masters this the first time they do it. Just start with easy stuff – really easy ideally – and then keep building on that. To get your feet wet, you may want to try to figure out the vocal part to a song. It’s December 11th as I write this, so why not try your hand at something like Jingle Bells? Like I said, really easy. Don’t try to do the whole song – just try the “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way…” part – it’s only 5 or 6 notes. If it’s July when you’re reading this, maybe you can try to play a few notes of the vocal part of your favorite song.
Now I’m going to recommend something crazy. Once you’ve decided on a song to work on, I want you to actually sing the notes that you’re trying to figure out. It doesn’t matter if you have a good voice or not – that’s not the point. The point is that if you can sing the notes, that also means that you stand a shot at “holding” the note in your head long enough to find it on the guitar. All you have to do is match the note on your guitar to the one you’re singing.
Give yourself some time to get used to this process. I can sum it up in 3 steps:
1) Sing the note
2) Hold the note
3) Find the note on guitar
Again, it’s important to choose something that’s really easy if you’ve never done this before. As you get more comfortable, try singing and holding 2 or 3 notes at a time – gradually build up your ability to do this over time.
Once you make the leap to doing slightly more difficult songs/riffs, I’d recommend that you listen to the section that you’re working on many times without trying to figure it out. Just LISTEN… This will make your job easier by helping to “burn” the sounds into your brain.
Let’s take a timeout to talk about scales. You can definitely figure out songs by ear without knowing any scales. But, I want you to know that it will be MUCH easier to do this if you devote some of your practice time to learning scale patterns – especially major scales and minor pentatonics. For instance, if you’re figuring out a song in either the classic rock or blues genres, many solos use exclusively minor pentatonic patterns. So, if you know those, your guesses will probably hit the right note a good amount of the time. So, in short, I’d say it would be a good use of your time. Actually, I’m understating that a bit. Here’s the full truth – If you want to be a solid or great player, knowing all your scale patterns is essential. As a side “note”, I think scales get a bad rap. Every great solo you’ve ever heard has been based -at least mostly- on scale patterns. Once you get them under your fingers they’re a lot of fun to play, and practicing them makes your guitar playing go through the roof. What’s not to love? Anyway, I digress. Shortly I will write an article on strategies for learning and absorbing scale patterns and sounds – so stay tuned!
As you work on this, you’ll notice that after a while you may hear a few notes, and know exactly what shape they form on the guitar. That’s an exciting day! It may take awhile to work up to this level, but this skill is crucial in your development as a musician, especially as an improvising musician. So get crackin’, and when you come back we’ll talk about how to tackle the chords of a song.
Depending on the song, figuring out the chords to songs will quite often be more challenging than figuring out the solos. By the way, my “rant” on scales applies to chords as well. The more you know and can do with chords, the easier it will be for you to hear chords in a song and find them on the guitar.
The first thing you’ll want to do is to just listen to the song a few times. While you’re doing this, practice focusing in on what the bass player is playing. If your song has 4 beats to the bar as most rock/blues/pop/country songs do, beat 1 is where most of the chords change. So, listen carefully to that 1st beat. Most likely, the note that the bass player is playing will tell you the note name of the mystery chord.
The second job for you is to decide what kind of chord it is – major, minor, dominant 7th, etc. You can narrow down your choices considerably if you understand that different styles of music tend to use specific kinds of chords. Here are some general suggestions that may help – just remember that there are exceptions to every”rule”:
Metal – mostly power chords, with an occasional major or minor chord.
Classic Rock – if it’s on the lighter side of classic rock – rock ballads – listen for mostly major and minor chords, with an occasional power chord, and maybe an occasional dominant 7th chord. On some rock ballads, you may find some notes added to your basic major or minor chord. Major add 2 chords are very popular, as these chords are perfect for rock ballads- very pretty chords. If you’d like to know more about these chords, let me know, and I’d be happy to give you some info on them in a separate post. For the heavier stuff, it’s reversed – mostly power chords, with an occasional major/minor chord.
Blues/Blues rock – Anything that sounds “bluesy” is likely to have a fair amount of dominant 7th chords. Once you’ve heard them a time or two, they’ll probably jump out at you compared to the major and minor sounds. Blues rockers like Eric Clapton, and many others, generally use a combination of power chords and 7th chords.
Like I said generally speaking…
Folk/Folk rock – major and minor chords
Country – These songs rarely use power chords, but rely more on major, minor and dominant 7th chords.
For this next group, you’ll most likely need a good amount of experience with chords, and actually playing songs in these styles. For that matter, for any style of music, the more songs you’ve played, the easier it is to hear and identify the chords.
Pop – By pop, I’m referring to the big pop ballads that you might hear Mariah Carey (like “Hero”) or Whitney Houston sing. Pop songs use a bit of a wider range of chord types. They’ll use major, minor, dominant 7th, major 7th, minor 7th, and others. They also use what are called inversions. Inversions are easy to understand – instead of an A note being the lowest sounding note in an A major chord (the usual situation), another note from the chord takes its’ place. In the case of an A major chord, either a C# or E. They usually take a bit of experience to hear. But there are ways to figure them out, using a little music theory, which I’ll explain later. So given all that, you may want get some experience with some of the other genres before tackling these . But don’t let me stop you if you feel ambitious and want to test your ear! That’s always fun, when you work and struggle to hear something, and you FINALLY get it. I’ve been transcribing songs for over 20 years, and that feeling never gets old – and I always learn something.
Jazz – Seventh chords, inversions, and some more advanced techniques – slash chords, polychords. Slash chords are kind of like inversions, except they can have ANY note as the lowest note, not just the notes of the chord. Polychords are combinations of 2 chords, which can create a very sophisticated and complicated sound. For these kinds of chords, you’ll most likely have to figure them out note by note, which I’ll talk about shortly.
What I’ve covered so far should get you up and running. However, no matter who you are, you will ultimately get stuck at some point. Here are some advanced ideas to help you out of a jam (or help you into a jam!) …
If you’re not currently using a piece of slow down software, this is where they usually pay for themselves. You can loop down to less than a second of the song, and slow it down at the same time. I’ve found that if I just step back and listen – and not try to figure it out – the notes become clearer to me.
This applies to both lead and chords. If you’re stuck on a chord, most of these software packages allow you to “freeze” a chord and loop it. Once you’ve done this, try to sing the notes in the chord. It will take some practice, but try to match your voice to the notes that you’re hearing in the song. I’ll let my voice slide up and down until I feel like I’ve “landed” on a note that matches the chord. Then, I’ll search for another note in the chord that way. Sometimes I can figure out the whole chord this way. Other times, I can hear only part of the puzzle. Which leads to…
Figuring out chords this way is kind of like playing Wheel of Fortune with notes. Once you’ve snagged a few, the picture will become clearer and hopefully your growing knowledge of chords will lend a hand and solve the rest of the problem for you.
Here’s what I mean by that: What if you hear the bass player play an E, and you hear a G somewhere in the rest of the chord? Well, if you know your chords, you’ve already got some options to try…
Em: E G B
C : C E G
What do these chords have in common? Well, they both have an E and a G in them. These are the only 2 major and minor chords that have both notes. If you included 7th chords, you would have more options to work with. Now all you do is test both chords against the one in the song, and decide if you’ve guessed right. This isn’t an exact science, but it will definitely help you get to the finish line.
Transcribing, or figuring out songs by ear is quite a challenge, but it’s definitely worth it. All the great players have done it, and it’s largely how they got to where they are today. So, keep learning about chords and scales and learning everything you can by ear. This way, you can think AND feel.
I think it’s the best of both worlds. Thanks for reading and I look forward to hearing what your experiences are.