Ear Training For Guitarists: The Very Basics

Ear training is an essential part of your development as a guitarist. For a well-rounded guitarist, it’s important to be able to learn and transcribe using a combination of your musical ear, tabs, tutorials, from friends, teachers and bandmates. Everything has its place.

Ear training is an essential part of your development as a guitarist. For a well-rounded guitarist, it’s important to be able to learn and transcribe using a combination of your musical ear, tabs, tutorials, from friends, teachers and bandmates. Everything has its place. Why ear training is so important is that your ear is the only thing on that list that it’s always possible to carry with you! It’s also, for the same reasons, something you often employ because you have to. Maybe there’s no tab for an obscure song you want to learn, or maybe you’re at a band audition and they expect you to copy a rhythm, or figure out the key. These things aren’t too tricky once you know how and have put it into practice. So this is all about making a start. Here are the very basics:

Chord Types

This means being able to recognise whether a chord is Major or minor. So the first step is to identify what it is you hear when a Major chord is played, and when a minor chord is played. I encourage you to make your own personal, relative associations here, but here are some fairly common ones:

Major Chords

- Sound Happy

- Sound Complete, Resolved

- Sound Bright

- Sound Upright

Minor

- Sound Sad

- Sound Darker

- Sound like they’re sagging/drooping.

I’m also going to give you 3 great ways to test yourself on this:

1) You and a friend can test each other, taking turns to play a chord, while the other tries to identify whether it’s Major or minor.  

2) There’s this great site which (at Level 1) will play a Major or minor chord and ask you to click which you think it is. Each subsequent level adds a new, additional chord, widening the list of possibilities.

3) The most applied option would be to take a recording of an acoustic song (or song in which the guitar is both playing chords and clearly audible) and set yourself the task of identifying which of the chords are Majors and which are minors. Then look up the song’s chords to check if you were right. And if not, return to more of options 1) and 2)!

Intervals 

First of all, don’t worry, you’re not supposed to be able to give note names by ear, to know whether a random note’s pitch is F or C#.  (Unless, that is, you have Perfect pitch.)  

A great skill that you can develop, is the ability to recognise melodic intervals.  A melodic interval means two notes played in sequence (as opposed to a harmonic interval - Two notes played together).  Doing this can help you to work out melodies or solos by ear, note by note, and deconstruct chords.

Again, this begins by creating a list of associations, tunes that you use to identify each interval. On the basis of - If you play a perfect 4th or Major 3rd, what tune does it remind you of?  As before, I encourage you to make your own associations, but here are a few ideas:

minor 2nd / b2 - Jaws Theme

Perfect 4th / P4 - “Here Comes The Bride” (Wedding March)

Perfect 5th / P5 - Twinkle Twinkle Little Star

You should make a sound association along these lines, and learn the shape of that interval on the guitar too. Just like with the Chord types, working with a friend, testing each other is a good way to practise this. And again, there’s also an online test too.

Rhythms 

The only thing left to cover in your Ear Training basics course is rhythm.  For this section, you will need to already know how the following notes (and their equivalent length rests) look:

- Whole Note (Semibreve)

- Half Note (Minim)

- Quarter Note (Crotchet)

- Eighth Note (Quaver)

- Sixteenth Note (Semiquaver)

If you don’t know these yet, go and get a grasp on them first.  Once you’ve done that, again you can either get together with a friend and test each other, or use an online game: When an example rhythm pops up, attempt to play it (using any note or chord) on your guitar or clap it, then use the playback to check you were right.

This is to create the association between a rhythm’s sound, and what it is / how it looks on the page. Now try it in reverse - Try to put the rhythms you hear in drum parts, strumming patterns and riffs down in paper.

Before you know it you’ll be improving at recognising chords, melodic intervals, and rhythms.  These are the tools you need for developing a great musical ear.  So get to grips with it and practise, practise, practise!

Alex Bruce

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About the Author
Alex Bruce

Alex Bruce runs Bruce Music -Guitar Lessons London.  Bruce Music provide expert, friendly Guitar Teachers to students all over London.

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