You can train your ears to give you the skills needed to easily play songs by ear.
Exactly how you should train your ears for playing guitar by ear will depend on quite how you want to play. The ear training needed if you want to play pop and rock chords by ear will be different from the ear training suitable for a lead metal guitarist, for example.
Here are some starting points in learning to play guitar by ear using ear training exercises:
1. Develop your relative pitch
Relative pitch is your ability to recognise notes based on their relationship to other notes. Examples include:
- Playing melodies by ear – by understanding the role of each note’s sound in the current key/scale
- Playing chords by ear – by recognising the degree of each chord in the progression (e.g. I, IV, V chords)
- Improvising, playing what you hear in your head on your guitar – by understanding the intervals between the notes you’re imagining
Clearly, relative pitch is an essential part of being able to play by ear. Whenever you need to choose which notes or chords to play, you are relying on your relative pitch.
You can develop your sense of relative pitch with dedicated ear training exercises. Begin with some pitch ear training to hone your sensitivity to how high or low notes are. Then start practising interval recognition, or using a system like solfege to understand scales by ear. Build on this with chord type and chord progression ear training.
All of these exercises will feed one another, as they all develop the same core sense of relative pitch, but each also helps you with different specific skills.
2. Improve your sense of rhythm
Many guitar players forget about their rhythm when it comes to ear training, but the timing of notes is perhaps just as important as their pitch. To convincingly play songs by ear you must match the style of music, which means the timing of notes in the melody, the strumming pattern, overall tempo, and so on.
Don’t assume that your sense of rhythm is just a natural thing you can’t change! Rhythm ear training can help you have a keener ear for rhythmic patterns and more reliably reproduce them when playing guitar by ear.
3. Tune your effects
This one is mostly relevant for electric guitar players – and particularly those with a board full of FX pedals! It’s not enough to buy the gear and use the default settings. Every song you play by ear will be influenced by the effects you use, and if you want to accurately reproduce the sound of the original you must make sure your effects are set up right.
Even apart from song-specific FX, you should also think about your overall guitar tone. Different FX will help or hamper your ability to confidently improvise and play songs by ear, so be sure you have chosen effects and settings which support you when playing by ear.
Doing audio effects ear training gives you the listening skills you need.
4. Study song-writing
One way to considerably accelerate your progress in learning to play by ear is to deconstruct songs in detail. Aside from simply trying to play the song, take the time to transcribe it (or look up the sheet music) and use your theory knowledge and listening skills to pick apart exactly what’s going on.
The lessons you learn by analysing songs like this will give you the mental constructs that allow you to rapidly and easily work out other songs by ear in future.
Guitar ear training
There are many types of ear training which benefit guitarists and the points above are simply an overview.
If you’re trying to play songs by ear, use the suggestions above to find ear training exercises that will help you and be sure to explore the other guitar ear training and play by ear resources here on the site.
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