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From: (Mike Livengood)
Subject: LESSON: Figure out tunes by ear

Today's lesson

When I first started playing guitar I was ultimately frustrated that I couldn't 
play the songs that I heard on the radio unless someone showed me how. This was 
pretty tough, seeing as this was before the days of the Internet and guitar 
publications and because I was raised by a pack of roaming wolves who were 
completely tone deaf.

Then out of desperation I sat down with a tune that I knew pretty well, but 
didn't know how to play (I think it was an REO Speedwagon tune.) I fiddled 
around and poked and experimented and finally after three days of 
it completely wrong.

But the silver lining to my otherwise gray cloud was that I figured out what it 
takes to pick up tunes by ear. It just takes time. The more you try to pick out 
tunes by ear, the better you get. I promise.


So how do you do it? Well, I first listen closely a few times to the CD and get 
the general feel for the song, the layout, the sections, the different 
instruments etc. Then I sit down with my guitar and pick out the bass line, or 
even just the bass notes to the chord changes. This may take a while if the 
bass is tough to hear. Sometimes headphones help. The thing about bass notes is 
that there are no majors, minors, sevenths, suspensions or anything like that 
to confuse you when you're just getting started. I just start at the open E and 
continue up and down the string trying each note until one fits. I usually try 
the common keys (E, A, D, C & G) first. Then I restart the CD and narrow it 
down even more, until I have the first note, then the second, then the third. 
This process usually drives my wife crazy because she has now heard the first 
part of this song 14 times. So you might want to consider headphones.

So once I have the bass notes I play along with the CD and just play the bass 
notes. I'll also try experimenting with other notes in case I am not sure of 
some of the notes. I often pick out a note a fifth up from the actual bass note 
and think it's right...until I poke around a bit more and play the right one.

With bass'll know it when it's right.

So now I have the chord changes. Now comes the easy part. If your tune is a 
contemporary rock tune then most likely the chords for those bass notes are 
either major or minor. Admittedly it is the minority of bands that employs a 
more intricate chord selection than these few. Be careful of bands like STP who 
use very creative chords.

So now I just try adding in major chords to each of the bass notes that I had 
previously figured out. Certain ones will fit, others won't. For those that 
don't, try playing a minor chord and see if it fits better, sometimes the 
difference is subtle...try them both anyway.

There are times in songs when you hear a guitar chord change but the bass 
doesn't. In this case the chords may be suspended chords that resolve to the 
bass note chord. These are tremendously common in rock guitar. They usually 
will be a suspended 2 or 4 chord. You can learn to recognize these by the lack 
of a bass note change. The alternate to that is when the bass note changes and 
the chord doesn't seem to change. This could be a mistake by the bass player, 
....uh...just kidding...more likely is a chord with an altered bass note. Like 
playing a C major then a C/B to an Am7. The C major sounds the same troughout 
but the bass line descends.

Listen closely for notes that ring throughout chord changes. Finding a common 
tone between two chords might help you find the chord type and fingering. 
Usually open strings sound different and are easy to pick out. Certain chord 
progressions have common notes. An example is a Dsus2 (or D9 or Dadd9) to E to 
F#m7 progression. The common note is E. (This is the chord progression to "Hey 
Jealousy" by Gin Blossoms).

It also helps to know a bit about the band. Does the guitarist tune up or down, 
or to a different key, or use a capo? Are there certain chord fingerings that 
they use often? By the way don't try to pick out any Michael Hedges tunes until 
you get real good.

For more complicated tunes and tunes with lots of chord changes you'll have to 
just keep working and listening very closely for the subtleties.


By now you may very likely have the chords to the tune all figured out. But now 
there may be a melody to figure out too. The trick to melodies is to get the 
first note. After that it gets easier. Pick out the first note of the melody 
just like you did the bass line. Pick a note on your guitar and figure out if 
it is higher or lower than the first note of the melody. Or maybe another 
salient note in the melody is easier.

The chords will tell you what key you're in. From there you can play around in 
the major or minor scale in that key and find the notes that fit. Listen to the 
character of the string used to get the fingering. The same pitch will sound 
brighter if played on the higher strings at a lower fret as opposed to a lower 
string at a higher fret.


This works the same again for solos. Once you know the chords noodle around 
with the appropriate pentatonic scale until you get the general feel for the 
solo. Start with the root note (high or low) and proceed from there. If the 
guitarist uses scales more interesting than the pentatonic (hopefully) then try 
the major or minor scale for starters.

Don't get too hung up on scales though. There is nothing that says that the 
notes in the solo have to be in a particular scale...this is art and the rules 
are meant to be broken.

After a while of doing this with a number of different songs you will get to 
the point where you can play a chord progression and melody on your first or 
second try (really, you will). At first you may get a few of the notes wrong, 
but as you continue to play the tune you will make improvements to your 
transcription and to your ear in general.

Try picking out a song in your head. Play the Star Spangled Banner from memory, 
or Pomp and Circumstance, or Mary had a Little Lamb, or Little Drummer Boy. It 
is very useful to be able to play a melody that you hear in your head. Don't 
worry about what note to start on or what scale to use. If you are playing from 
memory it doesn't matter, just play the notes you hear in your head and fiddle 
around until you get the melody right.

Remember that, as in life, learning music is pyramidal. Everything builds on 
top of what has been previously learned. A solid foundation is essential to 
proper progress...and that takes time. Be patient, yet persistent. Push 
yourself, and reward yourself for all successes.

Figuring out tunes on your own is very rewarding. If you can't seem to get the 
tune down one day, try again another day. Keep working at it, and soon you will 
be posting tunes to this newsgroup.

			All comments welcome,

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