Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ear Training 101 - Figuring out chords by ear

When you are picking out chords there is a pretty systematic approach you can use.

  1. Find the bass note first (the lowest one). Use just the low E string and go up and down its length for each note. Do this for each chord in the progression and play along with single notes until you are sure you have the bass movement.
  2. Start with the first chord - Using the bass note you found, try a major chord shape. If that sounds wrong try a minor chord shape... If that sounds wrong try a dominant chord (7) chord shape. 95% of the songs you try it will be one of these three types. I have included a chart below to assist you.
  3. Do this for each chord until you are pretty sure it is right. Play along with the song... then turn it off and play solo. If one chord sounds off try a different chord type until it sounds good.
  4. If it sounds right, but you are sliding up and down the neck too much, then find the higher bass notes using the A and D string. Do whatever it takes to get the bass notes mostly in one place. Most guitar parts are positional - meaning they typically are in one area of the neck.
  5. Apply the chord type you worked out to each bass note in its new location.

Knowing the names, or at least knowing how to figure out the names of the notes on the neck is extremely beneficial. For example, If you found a bass note waaay up on the 8th fret of the low E string. It is very helpful to know that this note is C. As most even beginning guitarists know how to play a C chord in open position. A song with a simple G, C, D chord progression can look like this:


Here is an image of the different chord types as played as a barre chord
(borrowed from: http://home.roadrunner.com/~nils/GuitarChordCharts.htm)

Lastly, the most important thing is patience. MOST people give up WAAAAAYYY too soon. The first few songs you do will be a nightmare. Take a long time. But with each new one you learn some tricks. STAY with it. You CAN do it with some dedication.


  1. Great post! Playing guitar is my hobby and your blog is a huge inspiration and priceless resource. Lately I'm trying to incorporate into my practice time as much ear training as possible, but so far I've been dealing only with single note lines. Another post or two on this tough topic (ear traning in general and distinguishing chords from one another in particular) would be much appreciated!

    Best regards from Poland!

  2. Really great to hear! Glad I am helping you out. Messages like these inspire me to keep going with it.

    Really keep going with the ear training.. It is the stuff that will get you the farthest. I will definitely try to incorporate as much help with this on future posts. Thanks for that feedback.

    Not sure if you have seen it but there are some other ear training posts here. Like this one:


    You can also use the search function at the top of the page.


  3. I really like this post and your blog. Thanks to Sean Driscoll for having a link to your blog on his blog. Way back when l first started playing guitar and my old classmate Karl finally taught me how to play. And said early on in six months I would be playing better than him. l did not believe him at the time, but within a couple of months l was teaching him songs. And we learned "songs" together. Mostly by ear because neither one of us could read music. l myself was playing folk mass at Karl's church after three weeks of him teaching how to tune the guitar first so l could do that without his help. The learned "songs" by ear. It was not until 21 years later that l learned how to read music and started to learn the notes on the neck. And now at 63, with the off and on relationship l have with playing and learning. l am back into the learning mode. But one thing l have gone back to while trying to learn jazz standards and other tunes is playing by ear and finding how to make those chords for tunes l want to learn. Even if l have the transcription. l have made myself hear the melody in my head and play it and not worry too much about whether l got it right the first go round. l want to get and have the feeling, the essence of the tune. Sometimes all that theory really keeps me from actually learning how to play a tune. I tend now to go and listen to recordings of someone playing it and sit and figure out how to do it the "old school" way. l don't have a "Karl buddy" around yet to show me and has the patience to show me how and what to play. But l do have an online instructor my the name of Morten Faerstrand of mortenslesssons.com where l and many other receive great lessons on improvising, among other things. He is a working musician from Norway. But again, l am still going back to the way I originally learn how to play. And that is by ear. More importantly than that though is learning by the feeling the music does to you. Gets to your passions. Like when you got the hots for gal or whoever!

  4. The ear image you have used... do you have rights for that? I have purchased this image. Please submit your proof of purchase or this may be considered a copyrright violation

  5. I also have purchased this image - as are ALL images connected to this site. Unless you are the artist who created the image I am under no obligation to submit you proof of anything.