Learn solos by ear or tab?

Hi everyone

With YouTube and the internet , it’s easier than ever to find what you are looking for these days. This can be good and bad I guess. Some say it’s essential to learn solos by ear while others say just hit up YouTube.

Does anyone have any advice on this? I’ve tried learning by ear but it’s a pain in the ass so I just go for the tabs or YouTube. Am I cheating myself of valuable ear training by doing this or simply being practical.


Speaking as someone who has a strong ear because I worked at it: they serve different functions. Ear training is super crucial if you want to be able to play the stuff it’s in your head. It’s also super crucial if you want to be able to communicate with other musicians spontaneously. For example, the piano player plays a cool lick so you play variation of it back to them in your comping. The bass player suddenly modulates key so you follow them. Etc

However, some stuff is too fast and if you don’t have a good ear for it yet then you literally cannot hear it. I don’t think there’s really a strong argument personally for slowing the stuff down super slow and figuring it out unless it’s absolutely crucial to your aim. If there is no transcription of the thing and you really want to know how to play it, of course you should slow it down. However, if it’s already transcribed I say just learn the transcription. There’s no way I ever could have learned to play John Coltrane transcriptions if I would have also had to have worked on making the transcriptions. There are only so many hours in the day and I had to dedicate those hours to issues of performing the material and not figuring out what the material even is

But if you’re trying to get to the bottom of a technique that hasn’t really been thoroughly explored yet, then you have to just slow it down and do the transcription. For example, the wonder that is this website

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Both. It’s good to learn from all sources and really if you follow a transcription you need to be able to use your ear and logic to determine where it is faulty. If you REALLY want to learn, you have to use both.

If there is a piece I want to learn, I get my hands on any and all transcriptions that are available, any online lessons/demos, etc. Then I correct them by using my ear and logic. I then get help from others who are smarter than me. It’s really important to use any and all sources and your ears and brain.

Learning by ear is probably best, especially for all the times when you want to work something out that no one has tabbed; but learning (or partially learning) from a tab is a million times better than just not learning something at all.


May be it’s strange to hear from me, since I 've been transcribing things by ear since my childhood, but if you have tabs - then use it. Why not?
Obviously, if you have tabs that you are sure about…

If it’s a piece I’m not familiar with I prefer note sheets because I’m still not good in guessing the melody from tabs (

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I will answer with a (useless) question because I am an academic by training :slight_smile:

Suppose I learned all the most common melodies by just reading music (tab or sheet, whatever) - no transcription. But suppose I got to the point where I have all these sounds perfectly memorised.

Would I then be able to recognise such melodies when hearing them, hence would I have the ability to transcribe a lot of stuff without having done any explicit transcription practice?

EDIT: I guess what I am getting at is that, by being given the music directly (not having to decode it ourselves), we could potentially learn songs at a much higher pace, hence become familiar with many more melodies and harmonies in the same amount of time. But I don’t know if this would translate into having a better “ear”, whatever that means.


It’s certainly not either/or. Both is best IMHO. Ear training is fundamental to musicianship so…learning by ear is good. Picking out tunes from tabs can help you finger the things that are beyond your ear’s current level to hear…so good for getting new vocabulary…which will eventually help your ear.

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When I first started, I was apprehensive about learning songs by ear. I was worried that end up with would be wrong and it would sound bad. It sounds silly looking back, but that was a very real worry for me.

I think it would have been disastrous if I hadn’t learned to get past that hesitance. I realized that I could always try to figure something out by ear first, and then compare it to transcriptions after. It became a learning opportunity without any negative feelings attached.

Be honest with yourself. If you have not trained your ears much or at all, you need to do some ear training. Learning to identify melodic and harmonic intervals is vitally important. Then, you need to know how those intervals translate to the fretboard. After that, you can use TABs when you have them, but you won’t be lost without them.

I have decent ears, but I still wish they were better. I can work out pretty much any melody with some patience and Transcribe! to create loops and slow down things that are too fast. I have difficulty with unusual inversions of complex chords and some modulations. The only thing that has helped with that is continually trying to expand my chord vocabulary and continue studying harmony.

I think I’m too much of a perfectionist for my own good. When I’m transcribing my favourite players, I’m trying to get every detail absolutely perfect. It’s massively beneficial, it has helped me to develop a concrete understanding of their styles and has helped me to imitate them better. It’s just too much of a time demand to try to work that standard very often.

If I want to learn a typical rock or pop song, I can get a passable version worked out by ear fairly quickly. You have to practice any song for a while to commit it to memory anyway, and I find it easier to remember parts I’ve worked out myself. For me, it’s just part of learning a song now. I can always consult a transcription if I get stuck.

If I’m trying to learn a difficult piece, I like to have TAB at hand before I start, if possible. Still, I’m going to listen to the recording carefully. I make changes to the transcriptions if I feel there mistakes, whether it’s wrong notes or that the notes aren’t organised onto the fretboard appropriately. I’ll also look for any performance videos or lesson videos I can find for reference. This is how I might go about learning an Eric Johnson tune, for example.

Hardest for me, is when I’m trying to learn complex pieces which don’t have any available transcriptions. In that case, I try to find any performance videos I can for reference. If I prefer a solo from a studio recording, I’ll just have to invest the time and slow it down in Transcribe! when I need to. Most Holdsworth tunes would fall into this category. I don’t do this very often, but there’s a lot of value in doing it occasionally.

When I’m learning a jazz standard I just use my Real Books. Sacrilege to jazz musicians, I know. I’m not much of a reader so it give me an opportunity to work with notation. The time saved learning the chords and harmony goes into trying to find nice inversions and voice leading.

God so much this, I can read a tab (badly and slowly) to get myself in the ballpark, but I’ve found that if I try to learn off the tab BEFORE I’ve basically committed the song to memory, I have a much harder time. For instance, trying to learn a bluegrass fiddle tune, I spent a good half hour on like a single section of tab yesterday and didn’t have a great feel or anything, then for whatever reason, I woke up this morning and could “think” my way through the entire A+B section in my head, near note for note. Makes finding what I’m looking for on the neck and following tab about a billion? times easier.

“Am I cheating myself of valuable ear training by doing this” - Yes.

If this were the kind of forum where I could change the font size within a post, I would make that “Yes” 10x larger. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.”

I think there are two main things here:

First is - whether you want to play guitar stuff for fun, with no goals beyond just having some fun working out some riffs from songs you like, or if you want to be able to improvise, write music, make arrangements, etc.

If you just want to sit down with a beer and play some riffs, then that’s great - enjoy yourself, play a little guitar, do the activities that are fun in the moment and accept that some skills will improve faster than others. If you want to just work out the physical details (what the hands have to do, pick angles etc) so you can perform the stuff for your own enjoyment, then you can do that working from a tab, but ear training will help you. (But even if you’re just sticking with working from TAB then even for that kind of goal imo you’re going to experience a tiny fraction of what kind of progress you’re probably capable of)

This isn’t a BAD thing - there’s nothing wrong with playing guitar for fun, or just having some personal interests on the guitar and sticking to those. I like weight training, but I know my 10-15 minutes a day with the limited set up I have at home will not help me achieve grandiose fitness goals, nor will it even put me in ‘great’ shape. I’m fine with that because fitness isn’t a top priority in my life, just like being a well rounded musician doesn’t have to be a top priority for everybody who picks up a guitar.

But if you DO want to be able to improvise, write music, arrange music, play well with other people, then (“imo” again) you’d be doing yourself are an enormous disservice to just work from TABS and youtube lessons rather than figuring out the music for yourself. It’s probably best that CTC doesn’t have the font size option because I’d probably wind up making this post look all Beautiful-Mind esque but I’m going to re-emphasize ENORMOUS.

When you work on your ears:

  • You get faster at figuring out new music the more you do it, to the point where you will know how to play something just by hearing it once. The things that fit into this category will be very small at first (for example, there notes ‘do re mi’ - it does not take that long to get to a point where you can hear ‘do re mi’ and instantly recognize what that is and how it would be played on the guitar. That’s an isolated three note melodic phrase in a conventional pitch set. Time passes and the work continues and things in the ‘instantly recognizable’ category might expand to longer phrases, chord progressions, voicings, etc etc. Putting it more succinctly: learning new music gets faster and faster.

  • The skill of learning music by ear isn’t ‘that sounds like the 7th fret of the B string’ but it’s usually a process of strengthening relative pitch. You learn to hear “that sounds like the root, then the fifth, then the flat fifth, then the sixth.” In learning to aurally process music this way, you’re also learning theory and harmony and constantly using ‘real world’ examples to compare and contrast. Exact same is true with rhythms as well as pitches. Rather than “you know, it goes like…dun dun…jugga jugga dun…or something, you’ll get the idea when you hear it, or, maybe you won’t” you build the skill of listening and recognizing 'ok that’s beat 1, then the ‘uh’ of beat 1, two 16ths and a quarter giving us ‘3 e and uh 4’ "

  • In improvising or composing, the above allows you to have more control over what it is exactly that you want to play, what sounds you want to come out of your instrument, what you personally like and dislike, rather than just picking a scale and hoping for the best. (…Which is fine too but not usually what people are after…)

  • If you’re playing music with other people, learning to recognize what it is they are playing allows you to interact with them much better and sound way better in the group. It’s basically like it’s hard to have a conversation with others if you don’t speak the language.

  • Probably 1,000 other benefits.

If your goals ARE more in that latter camp of ‘musicianship’ rather than just working out some riffs,
one important factor in this discussion is what the discrepancy currently is between your physical abilities and your aural abilities. If the physical is miles ahead of the aural, then I think it’s practical to have separate material to work on continuing to improve the technique stuff while you work on the aural stuff. For example you might want to learn challenging music from notation (I would recommend being at least comfortable with staff notation in addition to TAB, but that’s another conversation) but be working on much easier material to figure out by ear.

That way, you have aural practice that comes in more bite size manageable challenges, so you feel like you’re more tangibly moving forward with your aural skills rather than taking like two weeks to learn one measure of a Rick Graham solo or something.

I think there’s a huge problem right now of conflating fun guitar-related stuff with more structured musical advancement, to the extent that sometimes I see things online that are labeled ‘lessons’ that are just licks or musical examples that don’t get much into the ‘why’ or ‘how.’ Imo if that’s educational, it’s passing an extremely low bar for the term.

Learning from TABs is great for just quickly knowing how to play something you wanted to know how to play, but the advantages pretty much stop there. And learning how to play a bunch of things other people wrote is neither good nor bad, there’s just a lot more in music/guitar playing that is possible.

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Just wanted to add that a major transcription tool that I use is a software called Transcribe. I use for the obvious purpose of slowing down while retaining pitch but it can also be used to shift the pitch of the song a semitone so you can transcribe something using a guitar that is tuned a half step down on a song that is in standard tuning. It can also do certain other trick like chord identification. It is a relatively inexpensive software.

I agree with almost everything you’ve written @JakeEstner, but I think there is a massive benefit to having accurate TABs. Knowing how the elite guitar players organise their lines onto the fretboard informs you or their mechanics and allows you to recognize repeating or transferable co-ordinations. Many times there has been a phrase I’ve been able to work out by ear, but which I wasn’t able to play comfortably until I had some more insight into how the phrase was actually played. Moreoever, once I have the mechanical insight, I often find it easier to transcribe more of that guitarist’s playing.

You definitely get a lot of understanding of how to organise lines on the fretboard just from learning the notes (either by ear or from notation) and the experience of trying to play them on the instrument. However, my being able to work out the notes by ear is no guarantee that I’ll actually be able to play them.

I also use Transcribe!, I think it’s great. I just configured a USB foot pedal so I can control playback while keeping my hands on the guitar.


I sorta kinda agree with this paragraph, but two things have to be assumed for this to even potentially apply. One is that the music you are trying to figure out is played on guitar as opposed to another instrument (I think TAB can promote the tendency to make our worlds very guitar-specific rather than the big world of “music”) the second is that the hypothetical TAB in question is accurate and we can have confidence in that, as many transcriptions are not.

Once we isolate to scenarios where the two pieces above are true, then I think what you’re saying only might apply when you’re figuring out how to play something you’re finding is physically difficult to play at the desired tempo, and/or you’re interested in how a specific player organizes their playing on the fretboard, fingerings, locations, etc. But even then, I think a TAB gives some information and considerations, it doesn’t play a pivotal role in helping us solve speed issues or fretboard mapping issues.

Knowing the techniques used is useful and interesting however I also think if as players we’re also working on our mechanical strengths and weaknesses, we might just want to play the notes in the way that works for us, and doing so requires somewhat separate knowledge of technical possibilities for ourselves or in general. For example, I might transcribe something and arrange it in the way that I know works for my strengths, regardless of how it was originally played (assuming it was played on a guitar and not a different instrument.)

We look for fingerings and articulations that match the sound and also work for our technique, or some compromise of both. If we’re aiming to improve ourselves as musicians, we should be very comfortable arranging many alternate fingerings/note locations and finding what fits the bill. I think this is way more powerful than reading someone else’s “he plays this fret on this string, then he plays this fret on this string, then he…” etc

There’s a lot to be said on this topic on the importance of ear training to include timbre and articulation. These things make a big difference in sound and expression, so if we can’t hear the difference, what informs our decisions in our playing/improv? I hope that makes sense. For example, if we transcribe something and ‘hear’ the slurs in the wrong places, I feel like that’s actually an argument for strengthening our ears rather than an argument for working with someone else’s TAB.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great to figure out how the original player played it, I just think that element is way less important than all these other things. And obviously it depends what someone wants in that moment - to learn how to play a thing and practice that thing to have some fun with it and maybe inspire one’s own original creations, or to build long term big picture musical skills. Both are valid.

For myself, I have to do a lot by ear on a regular basis, and I also enjoy doing it, so there are a lot of transcription hours logged, often with time constraints. It’s rare that something really stumps me especially in terms of just pitches and rhythms, but if I can’t figure out the location of the notes I’ll check out videos of people playing it or the original artist playing it, or I’ll see what other transcriptions say. But when i’m checking out covers of other people’s transcriptions, I’m looking critically and asking myself if what’s written sounds correct.

You definitely get a lot of understanding of how to organise lines on the fretboard just from learning the notes (either by ear or from notation) and the experience of trying to play them on the instrument. However, my being able to work out the notes by ear is no guarantee that I’ll actually be able to play them.

sure, but we’re talking about how to ‘acquire the notes’ - whether we figure them out from TAB, ear, staff notation, carrier pigeon, or morse code, if our goal is to play the thing then takes a separate kind of work once we have them. I might argue that our ability to retain and understand each passage will generally be better if we are working by ear primarily, then other sources to ‘fact check’ or double check fingerings and such.

Good topic of conversation!

Absolutely, and those are massive qualifiers. TABs that are actually accurate enough to get the insights I’m talking about are rare, and are usually the work of the artist themselves or are the work of very careful, very dedicated fans.

Yes, that’s sort of what I mean. For me, it’s about learning how a players musical choices interact with their mechanics and their conceptual approach to the fretboard. The more accurately I can understand a player’s idiosyncrasies, the more concretely I can integrate their influence into my playing.

It’s little enough to be sure, but in certain situations that little bit of extra information can be illuminating.

Absolutely. There are many instances where I’ve deliberately chosen not to play something as it was originally played to better fit my own strengths.

Again, total agreement. I think I should mention that I think this is one of the benefits of learning music from notation too. For most things I’m much better at hearing than I am at reading though, rhythms in particular.

Again, total agreement. This is really why it takes me so long to transcribe my favourite players. I want to understand every detail exactly. It’s not so much about being able to play something and sound like them so much as it is a means of learning what it is about their playing that I enjoy so I can sound like me.

I think developing a “style” largely comes down to how we develop original vocabulary and how we form an amalgamation of our influences.

No argument here either. How the original guitarist played it really isn’t all that important unless you’re specifically trying to understand the minutia of their unique style.

I totally agree with this. I am much more able to retain and understand phrases I transcribe myself.

@Tom_Gilroy Well that was anti-climactic. Aren’t we supposed to throw guitars at each other and play this out until Godwin’s law applies?

Kidding of course. These are tricky things - you and I are on the same page, and I think when someone hasn’t done all the ear stuff it can be hard to understand why it’s so important - and especially tempting to avoid when all these tabs are available.

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You smash them together in the air obv, c’mon man! Like the musical opposite of the Predator bromance handshake.


I’m still thinking that there’s nothing wrong with going through music journey without transcribing. But. You must do solfegiio if you want to improve your ear skills.
Though… that’s my classical scholar biased opinion )

I like to use both, and I think it’s necessary if you’re into obscure music. Communities of fans are typically smaller, and the odds of having someone with a really great ear as well as an understanding of the mechanics necessary to create an accurate tab are low.

But doesn’t it depend on what/which journey is desired? What the individual’s end goals are are probably the biggest factor…eg just wanting to learn some solo covers vs wanting to be a professional improviser/composer, or everywhere in between

Traditional approach is to use theory, solfeggio, and practice, practice, practice, play, play, play. In a classical world people do not transcribe things often, being nevertheless good composers, improvisers etc.
It’s just another way. Neither better, nor worse. In my case solfeggio is what helped me to develop my transcribing ability. I mean, after you sing (and play) some scale or arpeggio thousand of times, you start to hear it instantly in a song. Other people start from transcribing things, and get the same experience. So…

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