The importance of learning by ear
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
When I was young and trying my best to learn guitar, I was extremley naive in how I went about trying to decifer the riffs, chords and solos of my favourite guitar players, trying to replicate what I heard on the record. When I eventually managed to get any of these riffs down and played to a level where you could recognise them by ear, I excitedly felt like a little rock star. I would play the riff on repeat trying to maintain that feeling of excitement. I would show off to my friends who were also learning instruments, and they would do the same with what they had learn't that weekend.
Of course the method I would use to learn these parts was guitar tab. Whenever I wanted to learn that cool Metallica riff or Green Day chord progression I would literally google the tab, and there would be dozens of results, each with their own variation on how to play the song. When I started having guitar lessons, my guitar teacher would use printed off tab to help me remember the parts he just taught me. Even when I went BIMM in brighton later on, the tutors would often use tab as a resource. Obviously there is absolutely nothing wrong with tab. Instrument tabliture has been around for hundreds of years. It may not be as precise or inclusive as proper musical notation, but it is much easier to understand for someone who doesn't know music theory. You can hear the rhythm of the tune, and the tab would tell you what frets to put your fingers on in order to get the right pitch and you can quickly get the gist of what you're trying to play. However beware, many free tabs you find online are often wrong, as the parts have not being transcribed by a professional, which is why they are free. So that is one downside.
Now the biggest problem with an overeliance on tab is it conditions you to take the easy way every time, instead of using your ears to figure the song out. When you gain a solid understanding of music theory, from chord construction, to rhythm, to keys, scales and arpeggios it becomes at lot easier to figure things out by ear. This is because most western contemporary music is using the same set of musical guidlines and formulas when it is written. Of course these "rules" are always broken and some songs are more complicated than others. When you start trying to work things out by ear it can be extremely difficult and frustrating, but if you know some theory and you start with simple tunes you will start to find some sucess. You may make many mistakes and believe you have worked something out, when in fact you've got a couple of notes wrong (I still do this sometimes), but the more you do it, the the neural pathways in your brain become stronger making things easier over time.
When you think of great guitar and bass players like Jimi Hendrix or James Jameson, they definately didn't have the same access to tabs that we do today. Some of them may have been professionally trained and given good resources but the vast majority of them had to learn by listening. They would put their vinyl on and painstakingly listen to every note and every nuiance. This allowed them to develop strong listening skills that became unmatched.
When I was a teenager, my guitar tutor tried to teach me this lesson. He would say to sit there with headphones, listen carefully and repeat the part over and over. Did I listen? no. Did I wish I had? yes. I may have tried, but I stubbornly gave up early and took the easy route. As I got into my adult years I eventually gave in and started to employ this technique. Now I can learn a simple song on bass within minutes. It's massively improved my improv skills and riff writing as I am better at predicting what each combination of notes sound like, as well as easily finding the note I am expecting to hear next. It also saves me from a lot of embarrasing moments in the rehearsal room and other musicians I work with can clearly see I know my way around the fretboard without having to look things up online. I have seen the reverse of this in both extremes. I once knew a bassist that couldn't even tell he was out of tune, and I also encountered a drummer who informed a guitarist onstage, right in the middle of the set, that his B string was slightly flat. You could tell that guy had put in the work and learned to listen. So there you have it, that is why I think it is very rewarding to try to put the work in early on in your development and try this!
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