Today I’m going to talk about one something a lot of guitarists don’t think much about, but which is really one of the hallmarks of being a great musician. Heck, I’d go so far as to say that it’s the key difference between being a musician and being a guy who just messes around a bit on guitar.
Ear training isn’t just about being able to listen to a piece of music and figure out how to play it. It is the vital connection between your mind and your instrument. When you “hear” a sound in your head, do you know how to get your guitar to make it?
If not, how can you really create? Sure, you can put your fingers where some tab tells you to, but you’re just imitating someone else’s performance, not creating your own.
For the longest time, I thought “a good ear” was something you either had or didn’t. Maybe it came with years and years of practice, but even as I practiced, I felt like my ear wasn’t improving.
My fingers got faster and stronger, my playing subtler – but I was still lost as a newborn kitten trying to play something by ear. It was a lot of trial and error – maybe this note, maybe that one.
The internet wasn’t much help. But there’s no discussion of the process – if you don’t already have the chops, a lot of those drills feel like guesswork.
I did some more research, however, and discovered some tricks and drills that can help build your foundation. I’ll discuss more of these in later blog entries, but now I just want to get you started on some of the basics.
The Secret to Ear Training is Singing
It doesn’t matter if you don’t want to be a singer. It doesn’t matter if you sound like a strangled eel. You’re not going to have to sing for anyone other than yourself.
But something about the process of singing internalizes the music. You get your mind and body on the same note, and it all starts to click. I was skeptical, but I gave it a try and I’ve become a believer.
So start by playing a major scale from any comfortable tonic in the lower part of your register. The easiest way to remember the major scale is the following pattern on the lowest three strings on your guitar:
That sonic pattern should be pretty familiar to you. So play the scale, and sing along with it, matching every note. You can sing numbers or do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, if that’s easier for you.
Now use the guitar to set your tonic on the low-e string, and sing the scale without your instrument. Then check, when you reach the octave, to see if you got it right. Repeat this exercise checking other notes in the scale to see if you got them right. If you struggle, sing along with the instrument, moving the tonic around.
Now do the same thing, descending – starting from the octave, sing the scale down. Again, check to see that you’re getting the notes right. If not, sing the scale with your instrument. As you get good at this, start singing different riffs around the scale, and checking your accuracy against your instrument.
Add 5-10 minutes of this to your daily practice, and you’ll start to see some real improvement in your ear. And in future entries we’ll talk about more ways to improve your ears.