We’re not all going to be rock stars. Let’s face it; with jobs, families, friends and school, most of us just want to play our favorite bands songs, not spend all of our time searching for band members whom we will inevitably argue about insignificant things with.
But how is it that we see so many guitarists who can learn songs at the drop of a hat? It is because they trained their ear.
The ability to transcribe songs by ear is one that most musicians envy. All of us want to pick up the guitar and either rip some Van Halen licks or split our ear drums cranking our amps to play some Megadeth.
How can we, mere mortals, ever hope to learn songs on guitar, though?
We have to train our ears. By learning simpler songs note by note and singing along with the pitches, as taught in our lesson Identify Guitar Notes by Ear, we can obtain the ability to recognize pitches. This will help you understand what key signature the song is played in as well.
But that is only the first step down a bit of a longer road.
Once you have learned your notes, you have fought –and won—half the battle. Now, the second half of the battle must ensue, and this is a war of note values. Simply put, how can we identify note values by ear?
This can be done by listening to a riff and, from start to end, tapping your hand with a steady pulse. The resulting number is your time signature. It is important that you count by and’s (one and two and three and four and…) as this will assure that you are getting an accurate time signature reading.
The easiest way to establish a tempo is to buy a metronome, or use a free online metronome on your computer and time it with the instrumentation, moving up the tempo gradually until it matches. The other way is a lot more work. Using a piece of paper and a timer, count the beats that are being used within a minute. This method is far less accurate, as note values vary.
Once you have established a time signature and a tempo, figuring out the note values will be a piece of cake. While listening to the guitar riff, count out the notes. By doing this, you establish how many notes are in each bar.
Then with a piece of paper, jot down the spacing of the notes, keeping quicker notes closer together and slower notes spaced apart further. Using the time signature, establish the length of each note based on the value of the time signature (i.e. four beats per measure for 4/4). Counting the note values within the riff, you can then establish the notes given value.
Now that you have the ability to transcribe songs by ear, you can finally play all of the songs you want. Keep in mind that the most important part of transcribing is having a well trained ear.
Without the ability to identify guitar notes by ear, you will struggle to transcribe a song by ear even with a given time signature and tempo. Have fun, and no matter what, keep practicing!
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