In the days before tablature transcriptions and YouTube video tutorials, guitarists had only their wits, ears, piano charts (!) and each other to count on to accurately learn their favorite tunes or material for paying gigs. Unless you were a sight-reading madman – I know a few, but never have been one – you were kinda on your own as a guitarist. There were a few audio tape lesson series available, and slowly instructional videos entered the market, though it was slim pickings early on.
But I found through developing my ears, listening intently to music I was interested in, that I was eventually able to pick up the relative key and tunings of a lot of what I heard, which made learning tunes for fun, jams, cover bands and whatnot far less painful. It actually becomes fun and challenging, particularly if you treat it like a fun, goofy exercise, depending on your learning material, and/or memory-training game too. These exercises are also great even if you can sight-read, since that only works if you have the sheet in front of you! Supposedly perfect-pitch hearing is born and not trained, but in my experience training can at least get you in (the parking lot of) the ballpark.
We’ve all seen ancient exercises involving an array of tuning forks (invented in 1711) and calling out the respective note when struck. But in the age of electronic tuners, I can’t say I know many people who have one tuning fork, much less a bunch of them kicking around. Or even a pitch-pipe. So one has to be a bit more industrious, but it can be done. Chances are you or someone you know has a TV and a radio. If you’re reading this one imagines you or someone you know has an Internet connection, so hey – once we’re done here you can find some music anywhere to try to start grabbing notes, chords and melodies by ear!
Sometimes I’ll hear something while I’m on the go without my guitar, and the game becomes latching on to the melody and chord progression and memorizing it as best I can. Then when I get home I pick my guitar and try to see if I got it right, or at least got enough of a framework to figure out the part that grabbed my attention. Even if you only take the root notes of a progression, you’re already in the neighborhood. If I’ve happened to pick up the name of the artist and/or song, I’ll try to find a reference track – much easier online today. Once I actually have the recording of something, I’ll replay it as many times as I have to. Sometimes dozens of times in order to pick a specific chord that’s baffling me apart, note-by-note until I get it (Warning: This WILL irritate roommates and significant others occasionally!). But if you’re determined, you can develop your pitch accuracy this way too. You can get so deep into it you can try to figure out specifically what string or position a chord or riff is played in if you’re trying to learn guitar parts. It can go as far as you want to take it.
Listen especially to things that challenge you, even if they’re not particularly your cup of tea or usual stylistic comfort zone. Genre-hop, as it were. If you’re a rock guy, learn a jazz or country song’s verse and chorus chord progression. Or try figuring out the odd chords to “Frame by Frame” by King Crimson. Then learn how to play them accurately and cleanly. With your guitar in standard tuning, channel-surf on TV and grab onto the chord progressions of the chase music in your favorite police drama, or rip a solo over the background music of a National Geographic Channel show. Whatever works! Anything that’s forcing your brain to find relative pitch (especially on the fly in a no-pressure situation) is a good thing, and can only mean you’ll keep getting better at it, and as a result it will become easier. A certain amount of music theory knowledge of course helps, as you can figure out relative major and minor keys to open up more chordal and soloing possibilities to adapt to what you’re hearing.
This will also be invaluable when you apply it playing with other musicians too – you’ll be able to hear the chord progressions and more intuitively know what they’re playing (verify it with them, of course), and what your options are in as far as augmenting, complimenting or improvising over. In short, it’ll make you a better musician.
What do you do to keep your ears in shape?