Learning To Play By Ear


I’m wondering how many of you notice your students just going straight to tablature when they decide to learn a new song without even trying to figure it out for themselves first. I notice that a lot!

It seems the younger generation is so accustomed to having tablature easily available that they don’t put in the time learning songs by ear like previous generation did We had tabulature to four or five songs a month in GFTPM and that was about it!

That was good because it made us develop our ears when we wanted to learn a song since the availability of tablature was so limited. Now that tabulature is ubiquitous, do you think it might be hurting the younger generation as far as them not developing the ability to play by ear as much as previous generations did?


“Kids these days…”

Eh, ear training is definitely important, and some times really cool ideas can come out of figuring things out incorrectly. At the same time, for increasingly technical music, how lines get arranged on the fretboard can matter hugely to how you can pull them off, and you’ll not necessarily catch a lot of that working by ear (without extensive trial and error).

Tab is a tool, like any other. A good tool in capable hands can change the world. And, it’s a poor craftsman who blames his tools. At the end of the day, if a player turns out to be a technically accomplished, musical performer with a great touch on the instrument, I’m not going to be overly worried about whether or not he learned by ear or by tab.


Professional musicians go and buy the lead sheet or score. Even though most can, they don’t have time to learn things by ear.


If i spent a fraction of the time I spent rewinding tapes simply doing interval training on the instrument maybe my ear would be better as well as my technique.
I would have also had more time to cover more material

I also think everytime you take a note from a page and play it you are doing a form of ear training.

As usual these are just my opinions

But I would like everyone to suffer as much as I did if that helps. Lol

In the long run i do enjoy being able to
Transcribe simple things but complex things require some form of notation.
So even after all my hours Im still only sort of ear trained.

The other thing to remember is that we all play for our own reasons and if you are happy having someone teach you their version of Nirvana tunes.

So be it. Enjoy

I feel if you are a teacher it is your job to expose the student to things they might not see the value in on their own.

But if they are adults all you can do is offer.
If dealing with kids I would find a way to get them interested.

If you can show how valuable it is they will be more likely to invest.


Every now and then I do try the by-ear-figuring-out thing, and I’m definitely getting better.

But as an extreme metal fan the number of times I’ll be doing this and then find there’s a note I don’t have in the tuning I’m in, or that I’ve got the notes but now there’s an open string pedal riff only their open string is my 2nd fret, and so on and so on and so on in a million possible permuations of pain-in-the-ass… I just get the tabs.


Lol, altered tunings
They should be banned


Tabs and transcribing are both important, but I don’t think there’s any substitute for learning things by ear. It’s harder work, but teaches you a lot more about melody and the sound of various intervals than reading fret positions.

That’s not intended to say that you shouldn’t use tab to expand your vocabulary, obviously. Doesn’t teach much about rhythm, phrasing etc though.


About three years ago I started jamming in a tribute band with a guy around my age who has this incredible ear. Like savant-level shit on the guitar. He grew up much like the prodigies we watch on this website: learning the stuff he liked to listen to, working it out by himself and jamming songs in groups.

I’d worked with killer ear players before but this guy was on another level. We sat in his bedroom one night working on songs by Blind Guardian, a German power metal band. Blind Guardian has a killer lead guitarist. Not Gilbert-level chops but a very unique sense of melody with lots of colourful note choices and modulations. This dude had the guitar solos nailed down. Every bend, the vibrato, the little accents and articulations.

We got to a newer song on the setlist, one that neither of us had started learning. My friend opens up YouTube and we start hacking our way through the riffs. I’m mostly following him. We get to the solo, we stop and listen. my buddy pauses, picks up the guitar, purses his lips, plays the first phrase, nods his head and puts the solos back on. We listen to the of the solo and he pauses again. He picks another phrase with the volume rolled down, muttering a bit under his breath. He asks to rewind, he listens to the solo in full, pauses the video and then plays the solo at about 90% accuracy by himself.

“Kind of like that?” he askes.

“Uh, yeah,” I say, staring. “How did you get that so quickly?”

He shrugs. “I dunno. I just thought about it.”


I completely gave up the use of tabs after that night. Everything I do is by ear now and I’m a much better musician for it. I’ll probably never be as crazy good as my buddy but I’m at least 500% better than when I started.


You got it man, you nailed it! That’s what I’m getting at. If you don’t want to do the work of learning something for yourself because you’d rather have someone do it for you, you’re just cheating yourself!


That seems a little baby/bath water no? Would you say the same for standard notation?

It’s important to learn things by ear and develop that skill obviously, but seems pretty limiting if you only ever learn things you can transcribe by ear.


I don’t think so because after one of my students has at least attempted to learn a song by ear, if he wants to check the accuracy of his transcription by comparing it to tablature to see how accurate of a job he did, that’s great. He’ll find that as he progresses, his transcriptions will get better and better over time. He may even notice a mistake in the tablature.

The idea is to develop that ability to play by ear so that he’s not dependent on someone figuring out songs for him. Self-sufficiency is the desired outcome. When I wrote " If you don’t want to do the work of learning something for yourself because you’d rather have someone do it for you, you’re just cheating yourself!" I meant that if you always depend on someone else to provide tablature for things you want to learn, you’re going to cheat yourself out of developing that skill of learning to play by ear as well as cheat yourself out of becoming a more self-sufficient musician.

Especially in the very early stages - the beginner level. I don’t usually teach beginners but when i do I don’t expect a guy who has been playing a month to figure out how to play songs by himself. By the same token, if a player is at an advanced level and has gotten as good as he can at playing by ear but still can’t transcribe some things he’d like to play, then sure, use tablature. The message here is to at least try to learn to play by ear instead of immediately going to tablature without even trying to figure it out for yourself first. You never know what you’re capable of until you try.


Just for the sake of argument: learning by ear is a much slower process than reading scores/tabs. So, this leads to a smaller number of songs one can learn in a given amount of time (except for the Mozart types perhaps :wink: ).

Arguably, the more songs you know, the better you become at recognising the melodies, riffs and cliches of a given genre, and this makes you better at translating in your head the geometric guitar shapes into sounds and vice versa. Makes sense? :slight_smile:

PS: my favourite learning method is looking at the hands of someone playing the thing and copying their motions, possibly face-to-face so I can ask them to repeat.


Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you, but is your argument basically saying that the best way to become good at playing by ear is to not do it because that way one can learn more songs in a given amount of time, therefore becoming better at recognizing melodies, riffs, etc?

That is a great learning method and one of the things that keeps us teachers in business, haha! Being able to ask your teacher to repeat something he’s showing you and especially being able to ask him questions is an advantage taking lessons will always have over learning from a book or a DVD.


Hehe luckily I started with “for the sake of argument” - no perhaps that’s too extreme. Perhaps a mix of methods is best: like every 4 songs learned with some assistance, try to do one by ear (perhaps of a lower technical level). Ideally, this song should share similarities with the previous 4 so one can make use of the previous experience in the transcription process.

But really I’m just thinking out loud :slight_smile:


I think a blended approach makes a lot of sense.

And if learning a song from tab equals learning patterns by rote for a particular student, that’s a bigger, more fundamental problem.


Eh, this is a little bit of selective listening here, I’d say. Sure, there are guys having this experience. And sure, their experience is valid. But, there are also guys chiming in having this experience:

.,…and I don’t think you can say one is objectively better than the other.

I’ve gone both ways. I’ve spent a LOT of time transcribing stuff, especially when I was a teenager, and I took a number of theory and performance classes in college while working on an unrelated major. I could see the pros and cons of both - especially back then, in the early days of the internet where there was a lot of stuff that simply hadn’t been transcribed, or the tabs were inaccurate, it was kind of cool to sit down with a part by a favorite guitarist and in a few cases I was able to share transcriptions that weren’t previously available (mine was the first tab of Jimi’s “Midnight Lightning” available on the net, though if you search now the version now widely available someone else is claiming - I’d have to track down the files to see if it’s a perfect copy of mine or if they just got to the same place, though I went back and forth with a guy from Germany over email not long after I published it on a few passages we;d come to slightly different interpretations of, so it’s possible this is his version). Also, I think this is the best way to get your head around how different articulations sound on the guitar - in that above example, the guy in Germany had relied a lot more on open strings for his version than I did, whereas I was pretty confident that he was using fretted notes.

At the same time… as far as “learning a song by ear” goes, you’re basically talking about recognizing intervals on the fly, or recognizing the sound of diads and triads or picking out individual notes within chords. And, I think simply focusing on THAT rather than doing it in the context of “learning a song” is probably the most efficient way to do this, and since ultimately writing a song or improvising a solo is largely a matter of taking something in your head and translating it onto the fretboard, then a well-trained ear that recognizes the sound of a major sixth jump in a melody line, coupled with the fretboard knowledge of where that major 6th falls relative to the root, is what you need to get there.

So, I don’t think there are wrong answers here. Using tabs to learn music, but also spending time training your ear to recognize intervals on their own and within chords, is a very efficient way to grow as a musician.

That said, I think focused “ear training” on articulations on the guitar are incredibly important - as an easy example, I’ve never seen a 100% accurate transcription of Vai’s “Liberty.” All the notes are correct, sure, and if you want to learn the fast lines, this is the best way to go… But, for example, the melody line is always notated unagumented and straight, whereas there’s a TON of ghost notes in there - little slides, hammers, pull offs, etc.

Ultimately, though, if I had to choose… I’d err on the side of charface. If you want to improve your ear, just cut out the middle man and work directly on interval recognition.


Eh, I primarily play rock/metal guitar so this a non-issue for me. With all the tools available to listen to and slow music down I’ve found my technical playing abilities to be a much bigger hurdle than my hearing. It’s much better for my memory too. The stuff I learned by ear I can recall and replay and review in my head. As a kid I always struggled with retaining songs and even remembering melodies after learning how to play them.

@tommo I guess it depends on what you’re learning but I learned about 14 rock/hair metal songs in two weeks for a cover set back in Halloween and I did it all by ear. Some of the solo sections were improvised but I learned the hooks. Having a handful of guitars set up to different tuning came in handy, of course. Lots of those songs have similar chord progressions and the 14 songs could be played in a grand total of four different keys, haha!

I’ll still use notation to learn some stuff on the piano, that’s kind of a different story. Depends on the kind of music. Ear work as much as I can though. It feels like I’m making up for lost time, you know?


I think it can totally work within a genre/technical level you are reasonably comfortable with, especially if you don’t want the solos to be 100% exact. In fact I also enjoy learning stuff by ear - except those times when I try to transcribe Vinnie Moore’s solos haha.

But I also know that some things I am now able to transcribe only because I acquired the necessary vocabulary in advance, be it from tabs, lessons or copying other players.


Some of the bands I listen to are nearly impossible to pick out by ear due to layering or intentionally awful recordings. I usually rely on official tablature, and I’ve almost entirely neglected learning by ear after moving from jazz to metal years ago. I’m sure there are negative consequences in my ability to write quickly and get music from my head to the fretboard. It’s very important.


Ear training is pivotal for musicians of all types and should be something to strive for.

That being said, I have a terrible ear because I relied on tabs since I started

I wish I could go back in time and never discover Guitar Pro. To this day I struggle figuring out basic melodies because I didn’t try to figure them out by ear when I was younger. You don’t get that from tabs, it doesn’t seem to translate, at least for me.

As for

how lines get arranged on the fretboard can matter hugely to how you can pull them off, and you’ll not necessarily catch a lot of that working by ear (without extensive trial and error).

I end up changing the fretting anyway because the guitarist I’m learning from plays it in a way that’s comfortable for them and not for me.

And, the stuff that I have figured out by ear comes to me a lot easier than translating it from tab to guitar.

As with all things, YMMV.