Guitar Lesson for Beginners: Learn To Play Guitar By Ear

Today a short article to introduce you to the idea of playing by ear.
Most people start out playing the guitar by buying some books and work themselves through the ideas introduced by the books. A lot of books focus on the readingaspect of playing music. Great!? Hmmm, it is good but why not learn to play the guitar by learning to read and to play by ear?
The advances of playing by ear? You will feel freer and play guitar in a more natural way.
Let me quickly compare learning to play the guitar to the learning of a language as a baby (the learning of a mothertongue): A baby will learn its first sounds and words by copying the mother. It is the most natural and pure way to learn to speak a language. Later on the child will get introduced to reading, grammer and all the other things childeren will learn about a language while at school. All very useful to get on in life but the fun will go away at some point  (for most childeren anyway).

Is it possible to learn by earn when someone does not know any music at all? Yes it is, but it all depends on how one gets introduced to the guitar and playing music. Let me first tell you why some students love books so much  ( I used to be one of them in the past!!) Opening a page with musical notes will give some people security, it tells them what to do, what to play ect. And once people know how to read they can actually play what is says on the paper. The downside? Some people keep on reading, even when they have played a particular piece of music for a long time. The first band I played in ( I used to play organ at that time) I was reading some of the songs we played, I even used the sheets on some of the gigs we played. Why? Because that was how I was intoduced to playing the organ: You read the music from the stand as you go along. Okay, I was not reading closey, I was just skimming, and improvising a lot with those chords and melodies, but still, I kept the music in front of me, just to remind me where we where with the song. There were also some songs I had made myself, I think I just had the lyrics and chords for those songs, but a similar thing applies: I probably knew those lyrics by heart anyway, but still wanted them in front of me as a prop. Wrong! learn to do it without. Scary? Maybe in the beginning, but once you get used to it you will love it, as you will be so much freer in your movements and your whole experience of playing music.

                  Listening to Music, What Do You Hear??

Most of you will listen to music  (Well I hope you do, as I also deal with students who do not listen much, but still want to learn to play the guitar……….)
Your listening experience will change as you start to learn an instrument. Mainly because you become more aware of sound and how it is produced. When you listen to music ask yourself what you are actually listening to? What instruments are being used? Is the music all on one level or does the volume (dynamics) of the music change? All obvious things you may say, but there is a lot going on at the same time, and it takes time to become aware of this.

It may be a good idea to make a choice what to listen to. For example just listen only to the bass throughout an entire song. Do you find it hard just to listen to only the bass without hearing the melody? (in most cases, the vocals of the song) You probably need to try listening in this way for a while before you get comfortable with it. Once you can seperate different parts in a song by ear you are on your way to becoming a better listener! Next time try listening to the chords of the song.

The chords may be played by a whole orchestra, or just one guitar or piano. Again, only try to listen to those chords while forgetting about the melody.

Why forget about the melody? Is it not the most beautiful and important part of the song? The melody is obvious in most music, it is the part which stands out, therefore you will not need much concentration to hear it. Most people will notice it anyway, because of how the song is made. It is an effort to hear the other parts.

Once you can hear the seperate parts of a song, put all the different parts together and try listening to the whole song to see how all those parts interact with each other. There is a reason why a bassline sounds so cool, but you need to hear that bass in context of the rest of the drums or melody or whatever parts are there. Songs are great because of their individual parts, and how they all interact together. Not many songs sound good by just playing only the main melody or riff. Listen to “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple. Okay a cliche song, but it still sounds great. What is it that makes that song work so well? The interaction of the bass, guitar and drums. Take away drums and bass, and the rest of the song does not make much sense.

When you listen to guitarmusic, ask yourself which part of the fretboard the guitars use. Do they play over the whole fretboard? Can you hear it? Or do they mainly play in open positions? Whey you get really good at this you may even be able to hear the different brands of the guitars people use. I have to be careful with this obsevation, as the digital technoloy of today can fool you easily. Older recordings may be better for this purpose as they are cleaner and purer in what was recorded and what you hear. 

                  Do It YourSelf:

One way to learn to play by ear is to give yourself a small part of a song you like. Sing this part (or hum it), find the first few notes of this part on the guitar and play back on the guitar what you sing. Why sing? You internalize the music, you memorise how the music goes. It will take some time before you can play a whole part in this way, but stick to it as you will grow so much as a guitar player, and once you can do it you will love it!!

Work out the chords of a song you like by listening to the bass. Play those bassnotes and turn those notes into chords. The only issue you will have at this stage is deciding which chords are major or minor, as the bass does not play any chords but just single notes! To work out the major/minor chords of the song I would suggest for now you just try it. Play either major or minor and see how it souds like. Once you have all your chords you can check on the internet if you have done it right or not. Again, it probably will take you some time to work out the chords in this way, but once you get used to it you will love it. For most of my students I work out the songs they like on the spot, and in most cases it only takes me a few minutes to see how the song goes. Of course, I also use my  harmonic knowledge and whatever else I know about music theory, but for now just trying to hear those chords is good enough.

Once you get curious how it all works you can get deeper into the theory of how paricular chords work together. This may then get you into composing, songwriting and learning more about melodies and scales. Before you know it you are just doing music all the time, just because you got fascinated by how some of those chords of your fist songs worked!


Be relaxed and ease yourself into learing parts by ear. When you are into guitarsolos do not go for those fast solos staight away as it may frustrate you that you cannot hear all those notes, better to play vocalmelodies which you can hear very well. Remember, first sing it, then play it back. There will be times that your fingers will help you to give away those notes of the melody you could not hear at first. That is good too, as all these different aproaches of how to work out a melody, help each other.

Have fun and hope to see you soon again,