How to Play a Song by Ear on the Guitar

When I was a teenager I used to hang out with other kids in my school who also played an instrument. I remember one guy in particular, who was a guitar player, who I really looked up to. He had been taking lessons for a couple of years, and I had only just picked up a guitar several months earlier. I knew how to play simple chords, like E major, minor, and barred chords. This was in the early 90s and we were all listening to grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc. Now, this guy could play all these songs. During one music class he played `Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana and we all thought he was an amazing player. I wanted to be able to do that! How did he learn these songs?

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How to Play a Song by Ear on the GuitarI remember one particular instance in which he gave me this tip that completely transformed the way I approached things as a player. He said, “If you want to figure out how to play a song, just listen to what the bass does”. This is true, not only for simple chord songs like the one’s Nirvana were well known for, but for music in general. Next time you hear a song, listen to the chords, but in particular, listen to the notes the bass is playing. Start with a simple song, you will be able to pick it up quicker. Listen to the bass, play the notes on your guitar. Hum them first, if necessary. Pause the song if necessary, to focus on a specific part. The bass always plays the roots of the chords that make up the song. Figuring out what the bass does means you have figured out the roots of the chords that are played. Then, you fill it in by playing the chords.

Now, ofcourse I am slightly oversimplifying things here. First of all, the bass can play many `fill’ notes in addition to the chord roots. That’s why you start off with simple songs; music in which the bass doesn’t play a large role, for example rock music, or perhaps a pop ballad.

Secondly, there are many types of chord that one can play. There’s minor, major, dominant 7, and more esoteric ones, still. Again, you must start off with a simple song. I was listening to Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Metallica at the time. It wasn’t until later when I was more skilled that I approached more difficult songs this way.