Playing By Ear - A Guide To Getting Started

Weekly Newsletter #69

December 2, 2022

Wouldn’t you like to be able to hear something in your head and just play it  without thinking? 

It’s a skill that most people assume is out of reach, but it isn’t! 

It can be learned and mastered. I know, because I’ve done it myself. 

I went from being unable to play anything but pre-written phrases/licks/solos to being able to play anything I hear in my head. 

How did I do it? I learned to play by ear. 

What does that even mean? 

What Is Playing By Ear 

Well, playing by ear is the process of learning music just by listening to it. 

No tabs, sheet music or any video lessons…listen to it and learn it the old fashioned way. 

It’s intensely difficult and a daunting task for many players, but it’s one of the most valuable skills you’ll ever learn in music. 

Some players learn to do this from the beginning and so they are much more comfortable with this skill. 

However, most players these days learn from tabs or sheet music or online videos that show them step-by-step how to play a song, solo, lick etc. 

There are tons of drawbacks to learning from these methods as opposed to playing by ear. 

Why Should You Learn To Play By Ear 

For starters, you are basically locked in to the fingering and articulation that the tab or online teacher gives you. 

As you surely know, you can play the same lick in various places on the neck, but when you learn from a tab you’re learning only one of those ways. 

If you learned by ear you’d not only be able to establish a fingering for that particular lick that makes sense to you and how you play, but over time you’d develop such a good ear that you can actually tell where on the neck the lick is being played on the recording. 

When you learn how to play by ear, as you get better, you are connecting your ear and your fingers. 

By connecting your ear and fingers you are actually removing the conscious thought process from playing, which is ideal! 

Instead of thinking your way through playing, you’ll be able to hear a lick or phrase in your head and your fingers will begin to play it without you needing to map it out on the fretboard. 

This is the height of improvisational and musical ability, and it all stems from playing by ear. 

Refining Your Ear 

In order to learn this skill you must first learn how to use your ears properly. 

Just as your eyes can focus on something very specific, so can your ears. 

Learning to actively listen to certain parts of a song is the first step toward mastering this skill. 

When listening to a song can you pick out and focus on individual instruments? The guitar, bass, hi-hat, kick drum etc.? 

If not, this is a great and easy place to start. 

Listen to songs every day and as you listen try to focus on only one instrument and block out the rest. 

But don’t pick the vocals! 

This is because the vocals are always mixed to be up front and in your face, so focusing on them won’t enhance your ear’s ability to pick up small details. 

When listening to guitar, listen for sounds you already know. 

The different strings have different timbres, and a developed ear can learn to hear the difference between the strings. 

Play a D on the 3rd fret B string and then play the same exact note on the 12th fret D string. 

They sound totally different. This is a small version of being able to hear the timbre difference…a skill you’ll acquire the more you play by ear. 

Choose A Lick And Learn It 

Ok, so you’re ready to try your hand at playing by ear. 

Following these steps will get you going and you’ll soon be playing by ear! 

1) Pick something that isn’t overly complicated. 

Don’t pick a Stevie Ray Vaughan solo or a lick from Steve Vai, you’ll get frustrated and give up. 

Instead pick something that has long single notes that are clear and easy to hear. 

Great examples of this are common blues-based songs such as: 

-The Thrill Is Gone - BB King 

-Graveyard Train - Credence Clearwater Revival 

- Heard It Through The Grapevine - Credence Clearwater Revival 

-Trouble No More - Allman Bros. 

-Going Down - Freddie King 

-Crosscut Saw - Albert King 

-Wonderful Tonight - Eric Clapton 

These are examples of songs that have clear guitar lines that are mixed loudly enough to easily hear above the other instruments, and that are simple enough to get started on the process of learning by ear. 

Feel free to find songs that meet these requirements in any genre or from any player you enjoy. 

But make sure you are starting this journey by learning guitar licks! 

Don’t start out trying to learn a piano line, sax lick or vocal melody on guitar. 

It’s important that you connect the lick you’re hearing with the instrument you play. It’ll be much easier to find the notes because the sounds of the strings and how players strike, bend and fret them will be much more familiar to you as a guitarist. 

2) Slow it down! 

Being able to play back the track you’ve selected at a slow speed is important. 

Even if the song isn’t very fast, like Wonderful Tonight, it’s still very helpful to be able to hear each note for much longer…that means playing it back slowly. 

YouTube has the ability to play back as slow as half-speed. 

But other programs such as QuickTime and various other media players have the same ability. 

So find a way to play back the song slower than the original speed, but make sure the pitch of the song doesn’t change. Most modern media players have the ability to slow tracks down without pitch change, so find one you can easily use and go for it! 

3) Find the most obvious note. 

This often means not trying to learn the first note of the lick. 

Very often, the first note(s) are quick and lead up to a note that is louder, more pronounced or longer than the others. 

That is the note you should first try to learn. 

On Wonderful Tonight this would be the third note, the last note of the opening phrase. 

Focus on learning that one and working backwards. 

4) Finding the note on the guitar 

This step is a lot of trial and error. 

You must listen to the target note and decide how high or low you think it is. 

Is it on the treble strings or the bass strings? 

Is it high on the neck, or down low? 

This is where you really refine your ear. 

Once you decide where you think it might be, you simply have to start guessing by playing a note. 

Decide on a string and fret you think sounds right and play the track slowly starting from the beginning of the lick. 

As it approaches the target note, get ready to play what you think the note might be at the exact same time as the track. 

If it’s wrong, you’ll  hear that it doesn’t match up. 

From there you have to decide if the note you played is too high or too low. 

If you can’t tell, then simply guess. 

Move up or down one fret and try again. 

Keep doing this one fret at a time until you find that the note lines up with the track. 

5) Work Backwards, then forwards. 

Once you've successfully found the target note, then move on to the note that comes right before that one. 

You’ll repeat the previous step for this note too. 

But at least now you have a reference on the fretboard as to where the notes might be located. 

Most likely if the target note you found is on a high string at the 10th fret, the note just before probably won’t be on the 1st fret bass strings. 

Most licks tend to always be located in the same general area of the fretboard. 

Finding the previous note allows you to then work backwards to the beginning of the lick. 

If there is a note that is too short to hear correctly, or one that is muted or difficult to pick out, simply skip it and move to the next one. 

6) Use theory to help you decide. 

Once you’re gotten to the beginning of the lick you now have some context. 

You likely have several notes and figuring out what they are can help you understand what key or scale the artist is using. 

This is a massive help in allowing you to figure out the rest of the notes. 

If you’ve gotten a few notes such as: A-B-C-E it’s very likely that you’re in one of a few keys. 

You’re definitely not in a flat key, and since there is a C and not a C# you’re probably not in any key other than C or G. 

Knowing this will help you limit your search for notes to these keys. 

As you figure out more notes you’ll get more information to help you decide exactly what scale you’re in, which makes the whole process much easier. 

7) Listen for articulation. 

This can be tricky and can fool you. 

Quick hammer ons or pull offs, bends, and slides can all trick you into thinking you’re hearing a note you aren’t. 

This means that if you decided that you know what note is being played and you play the lick back (as much as you have already figured out) and it doesn’t sound exactly like the original, then you’re possibly missing some articulation. 

It’s easy to hear a note at the top of a bend and miss the beginning of the bend. 

A note bent from C to D you might hear as just a D when they are really bending up to that note from a whole step below. 

These articulations will become clearer the more you do this. 

You’ll necessarily get some stuff wrong and that’s ok. 

Working at this is a lengthy process but it will pay off! 

8) Check your work. 

Play back the full lick at a slow speed along with the track. 

Does it match up exactly? 

If you think it does and you’re really confident you nailed it, then you can go and check a video lesson, TAB or some other reference to see how other people are playing that lick. 

But beware! 

There is a lot of bad info online and people teach things the wrong way, so be sure to check 4 or 5 sources and make sure that they’re all playing that lick the same way. 

You may notice that they are all playing the lick using a certain fingering on a certain spot of the neck different from where you learned it by ear. 

That’s fine, you’re job was to learn it by ear and you did! 

Now you can analyze why they are playing it differently from you. 

Is their version easier? 

This is something to take into account when learning by ear, and relates back to hearing the timbres of strings. 

Overall, this process is one that will take many weeks, months or even years to master, but if you’re serious about becoming the most proficient player you can possibly be, this is the most important thing you will ever practice. 

If you ever need help, advice or assistance, please contact me and let me know. I’m always available for my subscribers and you shouldn’t hesitate to reach out. 

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-Max Rich