Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How to learn to play by ear - The Great Secret revealed!

Over the years, I have heard many, many excuses as to why people "can't figure songs out by ear". To be more accurate, I should say: excuses as to why people "WON'T figure songs out by ear".

The most common by a mile, is the ever-popular: "I just wasn't born with it I guess". Or the sublime: "I tried and just can't do it.". Then there is my personal favourite: "I dont want to learn something wrong - accuracy is important to me.". I am sure many of these well meaning guitarists actually believe what they say. I mean, ... they must... They deliver the lines with such sincerity and gusto.

All kidding aside, learning to figure out songs using only your ear, or "lifting" is I'd say the single best skill any guitarist can have. If you devote yourself to learning how to do this, I promise you, the rewards for the time spent, will appear in your playing for years to come. Not only are you learning great licks and ideas, but you are also developing the single biggest asset you as a musician has - your ears.

These days, with the ease and availability of internet-based video lesson and tab resources; it makes it THAT much harder to force yourself to do the work. Don't fall into the trap of internet reliance that many young players fall into today. The 'net is a wonderful resource, but should be used to supplement your current learning - NOT direct it. There is a growing number of tin-eared, yet highly advanced technical players coming up. Don't let this be you.

The key to lifting success in the earliest stages definitely lies in one decision: song choice. Trying a song that is above your level is usually the catalyst for creating the negative "I can't do it" thoughts.

The first thing you need, is a song that has a VERY strong and obvious riff. Deep Purple's classic 'Smoke on the Water' is the poster-child for what you are looking for: a riff that is clear, repeats and is memorable.

The second thing you need is PATIENCE! (and a tuner helps! Be in tune). Listen to the riff several times first before you even pick up the guitar. Sing along with it and get the pitches in your head. Then, try to find the first note. All following pitches are relative to this so find the starting point, then stop the music and find the notes as best you can. Start the music and play along listening for notes that sound a little off. Keep at it, be patient, until you have it down.

The third thing that is an immense help is one of the software packages that will assist you in the process. Lucky you! I just did a post about my personal favourite (Transcribe!) - click here to see that post. There are other products on the market but these will help you. I WISH they had these when I was learning! I ruined more than a fair share of records, slowing them down with my finger, or moving the needle in fractions of an inch endlessly (yes i am that old!)

So here comes your homework! I have assembled a list of songs that I feel are excellent gateways into the world of non-tab-reliance. I want you to figure out as many parts of as many of these as you can. Don't get frustrated! If you can't get a part, simply move on. The more you do it, the faster you will get.

These songs all reside in the rock genre. So if this isn't your taste - too bad! : ) Treat it as a truly academic exercise. Once you have the basic principles down, you can venture off into whatever style you choose.

What we are looking for here is the riffs. The chords and solo sections will come later. Start slow and get the feel for how this process works. Before long you will be wondering why you avoided doing it.

Here are the songs:
  • Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
  • Iron Man – Black Sabbath 
  • Aqualung – Jethro Tull
  • Heartbreaker – Led Zeppelin
  • Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
  • Paranoid – Black Sabbath 
  • Breaking the law –Judas Priest
  • All Right Now – Free
  • Wipeout - The Surfaris
  • Purple Haze – Jimi Hendrix 
  • Highway to Hell - AC/DC
  • Lets get it up - AC/DC (I could list almost all of AC/DC's catalogue on this list)
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana) (Same comment as AC/DC)
  • Crazy Train (main riff) - Ozzy
  • When I come around (Green Day) (Same comment as AC/DC)

Please feel free to add comments to this post with any questions as you go through the process. Or song suggestions for the list. If you are truly serious about learning to play the guitar, you owe it to yourself to learn this skill. Trust me, once you get good at it it gets FUN!! With this skill you have access to the whole world of music. No more searching for tab books or sites.

Just grab your guitar, hit the 'play' button, throw on your spandex* and rock out!

Good luck!!
* spandex optional


  1. Jeremy I showed this post to my son, Cameron. He read over your list of songs and tried to supress a grin (he is very serious and doesn't like people to see him smile for some reason)and said "these are all the songs I already like."

    He is taking bass lessons and drum lessons right now. I am assuming your advice about developing your ear applies to those instruments too. Let me know if it doesn't. Keep up the great posts.
    Jen Morley

  2. Hey Jen!

    Thanks for the read. I relate! One of the only things that made me smile for a period of my life was anything guitar related. It's good for us anti-smilers! I'm with ya Cam!

    Absolutely the same applies to bass (Drums are a whole 'nother world!). Glad he likes the songs, as it will make them a lot more fun if he decides to try. Urge him to give it a whirl. He CAN do it. If he has any questions fire them on over.


  3. Great post Jeremy - I realised I only know about half of these, so I'm gonna take a week or two and work out the rest. First song I ever transcribed was Now I'm Here (Queen), closely followed by Black Dog and it's a great way to train your ear.

    Especially when you have a copy of Transcribe ;-)

    jonPhillips (LL)

  4. Man you started with some pretty advanced stuff Jon! You should rip through this list. Get busy : )

  5. Good post!

    Wholeheartedly agree - ear training is a must!

    I'm probably going to actually look into some of those riffs - just because they are fun. Other than that - I have been very lucky to have begun my guitar journey in the time and place where Internet did not exist, and the way to learn new songs was either "have someone show you" or "listen and try to reproduce"...