Posted by: worshipguitarguy | October 6, 2006

Playing By Ear

I love flipping through all those newsstand guitar magazines. 

In the back of them are those small four line guitar ads… you know, the ones that talk about getting you signed with a major record label, learning how to play like Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen… or my favorite, learning how to play by ear in 15 minutes. 

Well, I always wondered how in the world one could learn to play by ear that quickly… after all, for me playing by ear was a huge struggle for quite a long time.  But as I grew as a guitar player, I learned my own secret… and developed a one step program for learning to play by ear. 

Now…. sshhh… I won’t do this for every one, but for you my faithful readers of Worship Guitar Guy, I’ll give it to you for free.  (Usually, I charge the very low, low price of three monthly installments of $49.95 each.  And if you call in the next 15 minutes, I’ll throw in a…)

Ok, maybe I’m taking this a little too far.  But are you ready for the secret??? 

Well here it is…

PRACTICE!!!  (Hey, it’s worth at least 50 bucks, isn’t it?)

I’ve been around alot of musicians who pick up playing by ear easily.  I didn’t.  In fact, there are still times I struggle with figuring out songs.  But there are a couple of things I do when I hear a song for the first time that makes things easier.  (Before reading this section, you may want to go back and review Music Theory for Beginners 1 and 2.)

Find the Key the Song Is In:   The first step is determining what key a song is in.  Like I said in the second music theory lesson, most worship songs are simple… they’re usually centered around five possible chords.  (the 1, 2m, 4, 5, or 6m)  Once you determine what key the song is in, you often have a roadmap for discovering the other chords. 

Determining the key is often pretty easy… listen for the first chord played in the song, (or the first chord in the chorus.) 

When in Doubt, Listen to the Bassline:  If a guitarist is all over the place in a song, pay attention to what the bass player is doing.  Bass lines in many worship songs are pretty simple, and revolve around the chord changes.  If the bass note isn’t one of the five common chords in a key, see if you can match the bass note with common slash chords.  For example in the key of G, G/B and D/F# are common slash chords. 

(Also, some songs use a 2 major or a 7 flat major chord. in the key of G, these chords are A major and F major chords.)

Try Out Common Chord Progressions:  Many worship songs use common chord progressions in verses and choruses.  As you play more by ear, you become familiar with these transitions.  As your learning though, try some of these and see if they fit.




  1. Hey I really appreciate all the material that you offer here on your blog. Keep up the great work!

  2. Hey!
    Great article!
    Could We have something on drop tunings?

    Thanks for the great work!

  3. Good point Cross Rocker, I’ll put it in the list of stuff to do.

    Thanks for stopping by Scott! It’s great to have you here!

  4. Gerry,

    Nice article. I’d probably pay you *some* money at least!! The key for playing by ear is training your ear to recognise stuff. I used to use my pc to play a whole bunch of random notes, and then sit there and try and play them back exactly. It really helped as well.

    Totally agree with the use the common chords approach, and would add also to use common rock scales (like the pentatonic).

  5. one of the biggest keys for playing by ear for me is to be able to go from place to place and have different musicians play and keep up with what we’re playing.

    A lot of times I’ll go to an event and need to pickup a new bass, keys/organ or 2nd guitar player for the week or weekend, and it’s so comforting knowing that they will be able to pick up and play whatever.

    the other part of playing by ear is being able to change keys or transpose keys for a song. This is where a little more music knowledge comes into play. Let’s say I’m playing a song whose chords symbols and key is in Bb – I’m going to capo@3 and play in G (relative to the capo), but what’s on paper may be Bb, Eb, F, Gm … I’ve got to know that the musicians playing with me will be able to get it right, and frees me to focus more on leading.
    Now, if I’m a good leader, I will have music for each musician the way they need it best … but of course time and locations don’t always lend themselves to perfection.

  6. It’s funny I brought up this topic last week. Yesterday, I filled in at a church here in the area, so I was playing guitar with a bass player and drummer I hadn’t played with before.

    For the songs we did, we switched keys two or three times so that the vocalists would be comfortable. So knowing how to play by ear, (and knowing the CAGED chords) was huge for this weekend.

  7. Good post. I started playing music by ear when I was about three years old. And you’re right…there really is no “secret” and it’s really annoying how people market these learning programs that are going to totally train your ear in, like, three easy steps. Practice is what it’s all about, not quick-fix tactics.

    One of my favorite contemporary guitarists is Trey Anastasio of Phish phame, and he’s always being inundated with emails and letters from “heads” wanting to know: what’s your secret? How do I play by ear? How can I be like you, just pick up the guitar and play any old thing?

    And what he says is, play less and listen more. With emphasis on listening more. He recommends just sitting in front of the TV with your instrument, even. Just trying to emulate any and everything that you hear, whether or not it’s music that you’re truly interested in. As you recommend, the concept of key and of the function of the bass line is the best place to start with critical listening, definitely. And when I look back at my very early childhood when I was starting to develop an ear, I realize that’s very much true about the value of emulation. People want to be original before they have the tools to do so. I wasn’t consciously doing it; I was just obsessively interested as a kid in being able to reproduce at the piano what I heard through the speakers or off the television. It’s a lot like learning a language as an infant, you know, at first all you can do is imitate but in doing that you teach yourself the basic building blocks of the language so that later you can rearrange them to create your own meanings. I think playing music by ear works like that to a certain extent. No amount of theoretical knowledge will form a springboard for being a good aural player. Later that knowledge can drastically improve your abilities, but I think that trying to start with knowing what a +9 -13 chord is and how it works before you know it when you hear it only confuses things for most people.

  8. I’m also amazed at the expensive ear training courses that promise immediate results. Like any other worthwhile skill, ear training takes practice, and a lot of it, to master. But, I’ve found that regardless of somebody’s present skill level, they can improve their ability to play by ear as long as they’re determined to do so.

    Here are a couple of free online ear training tools that you might find helpful:

  9. Thanks for the link, Rick!

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