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Playing by Ear for Beginning Guitarists

By Darrin Koltow

In this article you'll learn to play simple melodies by ear. There's a lot of mystique surrounding this ability, but almost anyone can learn how to do it, just as most everyone can learn how to speak. You want to know at least one pattern for playing the major scale before you start in. Check out the free Playing Guitar ebook on, or an article from to get this under your belt. The only other thing you need is a desire to learn. 

First of all, you may want to know how playing by ear helps you. What's the purpose of playing by ear? First and foremost, it just feels good when you can hear a piece of music and play it back. You feel like you are truly connecting with Music itself, and that time slips away. Also, playing by ear helps you correct mistakes and memory problems when you go to play a tune. For example, after playing through a new song a couple of times, your hands might not feel they totally understand the song. But your "ear" may understand it perfectly. When that happens, your playing smooths out the hitches and hesitations your hand has. 

Those are just some of the reasons to play by ear. Now, let's figure out what to play. Chances are, you know dozens and dozens of songs already. You know pop tunes from the radio and TV. You know nursery rhymes, and maybe some hymns from church or the synagogue. And you likely also know some tunes for certain holidays. Christmas songs are especially good for learning how to play by ear, because so many people know them so well. I want you to have the freedom to choose any song you want, but I also want to ensure you choose a song with an easy melody. For that reason, I recommend you choose one of the following Christmas songs: 

  • Silent night
  • O Christmas Tree
  • Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer
  • Jingle Bells
  • God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (Comfort and Joy)
  • The First Noel
  • Joy to the World

Also, Amazing Grace 

This list will give you a good start with some simple melodies. Choose one of the songs, and let's learn to play it by ear. 

There's a long version and short version to explain how to pick out the melody. I recommend starting with the short version first. It's lacking in the details of how to find the melody, but your determination will supply you with those details. The longer version is the same basic procedure, but contains more detail. If you have a hard time following either version, consult the resources listed at the end of this section.  

The short version 

Sing the melody, and search one of the major scale forms until you hit a correct note. Do this for all the notes in the song. 

The long version 

Once you've chosen a song and your guitar is in tune, the next thing to do is sing.  

  • Sing the song several times to get familiar with it. Sing it slowly.
  • Slow down your singing even further. But, make sure you can still detect the melody.
  • Choose a note that sounds like the most final or restful or stationary note. This may be a note that sustains for a moment, without other notes to follow it. Here's an example of the most restful note, from Joy to the World. I sing the first phrase slowly: "Joy to the World, the Lord is Come." I hear that last word, "Come," as the most restful note. I choose that as the root.
  • Find this root note on the guitar. Keep choosing notes until you find it.
  • Match up a major scale form with this note. This means you use the root note to find one of the major scale forms. See the figures below.
  • Next, sing the note that comes before the root note.
  • Is it higher or lower than the root? I play notes from the scale pattern until I find it.
  • Once I've found it, I now have two notes. I find the third from the last note in the same way. I ask, "Does it sound higher or lower than the second to last note?" I play notes from the scale pattern until I find it.
  • Continue this process until you've found all the notes in the melody
Locate note on fretboard
Locate the note on the fretboard: string 2, fret 6. Note is F. This is the root.

Find major scale pattern.
Find a major scale pattern that has a root note in the same place as the note you just found: string 2, fret 6 (F).

There are some variations and details on this process that may make things easier for you. Instead of working backward through the notes, you can work forward through the notes, one after the other. Also, you want to constantly be using your voice to test the notes you find. It's much easier to play by ear when you sing as well as listen. Last, constant repetition of the notes you learn is important. Play what you know over and over. 

Playing by ear not only makes you a better musician, it's also just plain, good fun. Make a list of melodies you want to learn to play by ear, and work through this list. Write down how long it takes you to learn each melody. You'll see how this time decreases with each tune. Before long, you may want to branch out into figuring out chords for the melody. Each step you take in playing by ear makes you a more complete musician, and builds your sense of fulfillment. 


Ken Davies talks about how to play by ear:

Figuring out songs by ear, by Ron Lukiv.


Did you enjoy this article? It came from the free ebook Playing Guitar: a Beginner's Guide, which you can download here.

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