Learning songs can be a great way to become a better guitar player and musician. For one, it ensures you’re solving problems that you’re actually running into, instead of learning stuff you’ll never really need. There are just too many exercises, exotic scales, and techniques to learn that you’ll never end up using.

But you can also learn dozens of new songs without progressing at all. Why is that? In this mini-series, we’ll answer that question and discuss a better approach that will make you improve. This week we’ll take a look at the very first thing you do when you decide to learn a song. Do you simply google a tab or do something else?

Tabs vs. Your Ears

Tabs are great. You hear a song you like, google the tab and BAM you know how to play it. But for many guitar players that gets old after a while. They feel like all they know how to do is play a bunch of tabs. And if you want to be able to play guitar by ear, improvise or write songs, tabs won’t get you there. While tabs might help improve your technical abilities, you’re missing out on an opportunity to vastly improve your musicianship by learning songs by ear.

When you learn songs by ear, you’re training yourself to listen closely, pick out exactly what’s going on in a recording and remember that sound. This really sharpens your ears and teaches you to hear even the smallest details. Next, you’re training yourself to figure out what your hands need to do to get the sound you’ve heard out your instrument. At first, it’ll take a while to find the right notes on your fretboard, but through practice, you’ll get faster and faster at it.

Learning songs by ear is also the first step to playing guitar by ear: at being able to play whatever you hear in your head. If you think of music as a language, being able to play what you hear in your head is the same as saying what’s on your mind. That’s why it’s an invaluable skill for everything from songwriting and composition to improvisation, jamming and easily communicating with other musicians. The list goes on and on.

How Hard is it to Transcribe Songs by Ear?

So, becoming a better musician with each new song starts with learning it by ear. But many people think that it’s too hard and/or they’re not talented enough to learn how to do it. Many guitarists never even try because it seems so difficult. But learning songs by ear is a skill like any other: strumming, picking, tapping… It just requires practice. In my experience, when people spend a little time learning stuff by ear, they’re shocked at how much better they get at it within just a few weeks.

Do I Need Theory?

You don’t need to know theory to get started with figuring out riffs or melodies by ear. At first, it’s more important to first learn how to find the right notes on the fretboard using nothing but your own two ears, though learning some theory, later on, will help.

When it comes to figuring out chords, however, you do need some theory to get started. You never know what chords you might come across, so it’s important to know how to play guitar chords in any key. In other words: you need to be able to play barre chords.

It can also be helpful to know how chords are constructed. But again, you can get started by learning melodies by ear and you don’t need to know theory for that.

What About Ear Training Exercises?

While ear training exercises can be useful, the most effective way to train your ears is to listen to a recording and figure out how to play the song by ear. In the end, that’s what you want to improve your ears for right?

Your goal isn’t to be able to recognize intervals or chord types in some ear training app. Instead, your goal is to listen to actual music and understand what’s going on. Learning songs by ear is the best way to get better at that.

How Do I Get Started?

If you’re just getting started, I highly recommend you look for some guitar songs that are played on just one string. That simplifies the process for us guitar players because you don’t have to deal with melodies skipping from one string to the other. For a step-by-step plan on learning songs by ear, check out this guide.

Having figured out a song by ear is not only satisfying and rewarding, but it’s also the first step towards growing your skills with each song you learn. In the next part of this series, we’ll be looking at how you can improve your technique with every new tune. See you then!

by Just from StringKick