Being a self-taught guitarist in the pre-internet era was tough. Back in those days, you only had two choices if you wanted to learn a song: buy a tab book or learn it by ear (or buy a guitar magazine, if you were lucky enough to find one with the song you liked).
And even then, we had it relatively easy. We at least had those tab books, but they were expensive. If it was a favorite artist or album, I would save up to buy one, but most of the time I’d copy tabs from friends (thank you Xerox!).
Still, there were a lot of songs that I wanted to learn that weren’t easily available in tablature. So I was forced from the beginning to learn songs by ear, whether I liked it or not.
Today you can find tabs for just about any song…and even youtube tutorials. All for free. Having access to all that material is an amazing resource for any guitarist. But it also makes us lazy. Why bother learning a song on your own when you have all this material laying it all out for you?
I’ll tell you why, because nothing is more important to your musicianship than your hearing. And learning songs by ear is like a triathlon for your ears. Not only will you get better at recognizing notes and finding them at guitar…you’ll also develop your inner ear, which will be a big help when composing. You’ll learn to discern between different instruments and learn about arranging. It’ll help you become a better musician.
But where do you start if you haven’t done much of it before? Simple, just do it. Learning songs by ear is something you have to practice in order to get good at, so the first step to learning songs by ear is to force yourself to do it.
Don’t worry too much about getting every note right.That will come with time. The important thing is to exercise your hearing. Try figuring out a song by yourself as best you can, then compare it to tab to see how close you got. . The more you try, the better your hearing will get.
Eventually you’ll be able to pick up most songs in a matter of minutes. Of course it’s not something you’ll learn to do overnight, and there are definitely some tricks and techniques that will help you get there. But we’ll get to those in future articles. For now, the important thing is to get started.
Have you already tried to learn songs on your own? What difficulties have you had?