How to play guitar by ear

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Being able to play your favourite songs on the guitar gives a feel good factor. What makes that even better is being able to figure that guitar part by ear. Imagine being able to hear and play any song you want; there is no need to rely much on tabs or even sheet music.

To begin, treat the guitar as an musical instrument. Carefully listen to the elements of music and it will give you important clues to play that guitar part.

What do you really need?

Music theory is important as a background knowledge to understand and process what your senses are experiencing. However, theory is simply knowledge. You need to have an awareness of what to listen for and the focus to listen attentively to a piece of music, followed by a method to break it down into manageable chunks. All these happens before any theory comes into play.

There can be a lot happening over a piece of music and it can be quite overwhelming. My approach is to think of a piece of music or song as a construct of ‘layers’ to be figured out. Target these ‘layers’ and you will find out what to play on your guitar.

Below are some ways to be analyse music, though you might not need all of them to nail that guitar part:

Listen for the rhythm

As a guitar player, listening out for the snare drum really improves your sense of rhythm. The snare is important in shaping the groove; it defines the rhythm and also indicates any syncopation. By anticipating the snare, the guitarist can know how and when to play the note(s).

Also, try to focus on the note groupings and be careful about which beat do they fall under. Often, we play the notes too soon or too late. Be very aware of how the rhythm grouping between the notes for a passage of music.

Some common groupings:

Triplets (say banana)
Sixteenth notes (say watermelon)
Eigth notes (say apple)

Listen for the bass line

The bass line of a song dictates the chords used. In songs where harmony is often less structured or partial chords are played, the bass line can help to give an idea of the chords that are implied.

Usually if a song is less harmony focused, like funk, the bassline might have motifs that repeat itself frequently. Whereas a song with an unfolding diatonic progression will have a bassline that’s moving, say from the root to the fourth, fifth then back.

Listen for the chords

So many songs use standard chord progressions. Listen to enough songs and you will start to hear them almost everywhere.

Unless referring to Alternative genres, typical chord progressions can’t vary too much as the chord progression is definitive of the genre. Pop will usually have a I-vi-IV-V due to it being easier to sing, the Blues has a I7-IV7-V7, etc. The progression might have slight twists but the usual chord suspects will be present.

Analyse if the chords are close together. Are the notes of the chords within an octave or are certain notes higher pitched.

Common progressions (Key: G)

I-vi-IV-V
G-Em-C-D

I-vi-ii-V
G-Em-Am-D

ii-V-I
Am-D-G

vi-IV-I-V
Em-C-G-D

I7-IV7-V7
G7-C7-D7

Listen and figure out the melody

Break down the melody in coherent chunks. It could be within a 1 bar, four beats. Or a part of the melody could be a fast run of 16th notes across 2 bars with no rest in between. Or it could be the start to the end of an evocative phrase. Find a way to divide up the music in a way that makes sense, either by rhythm or by its meaning.

Listen for the space between notes and where the melody is leading to and when it takes an unexpected turn.

Try and feel if the notes a moving forwards or backwards and in small or huge steps. Look out for patterns(melody ascending in thirds)

Listen for the intervals, the distance between notes. Instead of trying to figure out a single note.

Listen for dynamics and articulation

Some questions to ask are: how fast or wide is the vibrato? Is the note slightly muted? How loud is the note played? Are the notes sliding between each other or is there string bending?

Sleep on it.

Don’t be discourage if it doesn’t work out that smoothly. Stick to a specific time you have allowed yourself to work on it and rest after that. The mind and body needs time to adjust to this new information that is taken in subconsciously and consciously. You will surprise that melody you are listening to starts to ring in your mind.

Conclusion

Like any skill, it is easier to use as it gets honed. The more you rely on your hearing, the better it gets. Next time you want to learn a new piece of music, try to resist reaching for a tab or sheet music as the first thing.

In subsequent posts, I will further discuss theory, practice and technique to get to playing what you have heard. Thanks for reading till the end and happy listening.