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Learning to Play By Ear

So perhaps you've learned a few basic chords. You've been working on your strumming, and it's starting to come together. There's a couple of songs that you like to play and they sound OK. When you tune your guitar, you're starting to get a feel for when the strings are really in tune. What now?

"When bands write great songs using just 'three chords and an attitude', it makes your job a lot easier."
I cannot stress enough the importance of being able to play by ear. Everything that you've ever heard anyone play on the guitar is at your disposal - you just have to figure it out. Learning how to play tunes or guitar parts using your ear is just like anything else you practice: the more you do it, the easier it gets. If you do it often enough, you won't even need your guitar to figure it out.

The first step is to pick out a recording of a simple tune that you like. Listen to it very carefully. See if you can determine when the band is changing chords. If you can pick out where these chord changes occur, then you'll know the points in time when you need to determine what the next chord is.

Tune your guitar to the recording. Take the first chord in the tune. As it plays, try to pick out a note on the 5th or 6th string that best matches that chord. There should one note that resonates with the recording. Did you find it? This is the root note of that chord. If this note is a C, you know that the first chord is a C (something). It could be a major chord, a minor chord, a 7th chord, but whatever it is, it's a C version of that chord. If you're listening to "Hey Jude", the root note for the first chord is a D. If you're listening to "Wonderwall", it's an F#....

Now that you have your root note, the next step is determine what the quality of the chord is. Is it a major or minor chord? Is it a power chord? One surefire way to determine this is trial and error. Assume it's a major chord. Test out this possibility by playing the major chord for your root note along with the recording. Does it sound good? Does it resonate? If so, you've just figured out what the first chord is. If not, try a minor chord. Play the minor chord for your root note along with the recording. Does this sound good? Does this resonate? Try a few different choices. If you get stumped, look at the tablature or a transcription of this recording. This is your answer key so to speak, but keep in mind that not all tablature is necessarily correct.

After you're figured out the first chord, go to the next point in time where this changes, and figure out what the second chord is. Repeat this process until you've covered the entire tune. A lot of popular music is cyclical in that the same 3-4 chord pattern will often repeat throughout the tune, so you may not have to figure out more than 3-4 chords for the entire song. Yes, when bands write great songs using just "three chords and an attitude", it makes your job a lot easier.

So why would you want to do this? Well, first of all, you're improving your ear. Secondly, you're improving your knowledge of chords because you're forcing yourself to play a variety of chords. If you know your root note for a particular chord is an F#, but you don't know what the quality is, you may have to test out an F# major chord, an F# minor chord, an F#7 chord, and so on. This solidifies your knowledge of chords throughout the fingerboard. The more tunes you figure out, the easier it is to find and play these chords. The other benefit of going through this process is that you're playing along with recordings, which is going to make you're playing better, because you're subconsciously absorbing all the nuances of the recording into your playing.

The main thing is to not get discouraged and to do it on a regular basis. Turn on the radio and try your hand at whatever's playing. If you don't like the tune, change the station. Put it on the classical station - yes, you can play along with classical ones too. Don't be afraid. It's all just music, and in the end, armed with just an ear and a knowledge of some basic chords for the trial-and-error process, you can figure out how to play it...

Christopher Sung was once a struggling jazz guitarist in Boston, but now runs a website called WholeNote with his good buddy, Sean.