I am a little worried/tired of learning guitar by, note-by-note, scale-by-scale learning process.

I have the basic figured out. Now, I was wondering if there is a way/process/resource to learn playing guitar using only sound/hearing skill.

5 Answers 5


First of all -- I'm sorry to say -- be prepared to learn that this simply isn't within your capability. Some people simply don't have the ability to discern relative pitch. I don't know for sure whether it's something you're born with, or something you learn as a child -- but there are people who can't answer the question "is the first note higher, lower or the same as the second note?".

Test yourself, or get a friend to test you. If you can hear whether a note is higher, lower or the same as another note, you're set to start learning to play by ear. Being able to hear how much higher or lower is something you can develop; and you will learn it by following the process below.

Start with a simple tune you know well. "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is a good example.

Pick a starting note arbitrarily, and play it. Now get a good idea in your head (or by singing) of what the next note should sound like. Find that note on the fretboard. Now you know where it is, play the first two notes of the tune from the beginning. Do the same to find the third note, and so on.

At the same time, find the notes on multiple strings, and think up ways to play the tune making the most efficient use of all the strings, and minimum hand movement. This will teach you to know the various ways you can play the same note.

By the time you've done this for a few tunes, you should begin being able to find the notes faster, because you will be learning what various intervals sound like, and how those intervals relate to relative finger positions on the fretboard.

Another thing you can do is, rather than pick a starting note arbitrarily, choose a key, strum the root chord of that key, hum the first note of the tune, find that note on the fretboard, and pick out the tune from there. Then try it in a different key, to see how you would (sometimes) finger it differently.

Stick to the common guitar keys such as E, A, G, C, D. At first, feel free to use open strings -- but later, challenge yourself to work out a tune using only fretted notes. A tune played in that way is "movable" - you can play it in a different key just by moving your hand up or down the fretboard.

If you get really stuck, it's possible you've chosen too difficult a tune. Shelve it, try something simpler, and come back to it when you've developed more skill.

  • My feeling on relative pitch is that it's learned ( unless you're born with perfect pitch ) .... There was a time that I listened to Guns n' Roses "Don't Cry" so much that I could always hear the "G A" ( in GnR downtuning of course .. so F# G# ) in my head...and 9 times out of ten if I sang it in my head and then grabbed my guitar and played it I was right. Very cool. Also, I had a bass student that on his first lesson after playing for a short while could not hear the difference between up/down/high/low..... and now years later he's teaching an ear-training course at a local college. cool Commented Dec 8, 2011 at 3:23
  • I would downvote this if I could. While there it is much easier to develop the fabled “perfect pitch” for people who started before 11 years of age, relative pitch is a skill that can be trained at any age.
    – Agos
    Commented Dec 12, 2011 at 20:47

When I started playing bass and guitar in '89 there was no internet/youtube/guitar learning websites, etc, or cheap tools to slow the music down and keep it at pitch... and I was dead broke ... I couldn't afford to go buy guitar/bass transcription books... I had a cheap electric bass...and an acoustic guitar... and a cassette player .. I used my ear.... and as Dr Mayhem says ... listen to a note or a passage ... play...adjust ... until you have it right...

I'm not going to lie..it CAN be terribly difficult and frustrating at first...you're training your ear to hear music... that's no small feat. Set yourself up for success...not failure... don't go try to learn a Stevie Ray Vaughan live guitar solo... try to learn something simple... start with a three chord tune "Mary Janes Last Dance" .. or Sweet Home Alabama .. or a simple country song ( Did I just say that out loud? ).

An artists first piece of work is not usually his masterpiece. Start with the basics and soon you'll be hearing songs on the radio, picking up the guitar 2 hours later and playing it from just what you heard. Seriously. The first time I saw someone do that I thought it was some black magic. But I'll never forget the first time I did the same thing - without thinking about it. Fantastic!

Good luck

  • it's a journey... I'm going to use bass as an example .. let's take a simple G chord that has three notes repeated in any order ( G, B, D ) ... and the bass player is playing a G note.... you're trying to find the right note that is being played...so you start playing random notes and you land on a D note.. to an untrained ear it might sound absolutely correct ( because it is part of the chord ) .. but as you get more experienced and your ear grows in its ability you'll be able to quickly hear that you're playing the "wrong" note. Commented Feb 29, 2012 at 17:11

This is pretty much a positive feedback exercise with yourself. There are tools that slow down music while keeping the pitch the same which can make it easier to identify notes in a rapid section, but it boils down to the following:

  • listen to the note
  • play a note
  • adjust until they sound the same

It's how a large majority of guitarists learn. Some never use formal techniques, but do it all by ear.

I would suggest that learning solely like this makes it harder for you to develop certain skills, or to gain an awareness of how different modes or musical themes could fit in with a song, but you should be able to gain a lot of experience anyway.


I would highly recommend taking some lessons and learning some theory - even if you do become an amazing musician simply by listening, once you begin playing with others, if you don't understand that a guitar is tuned to "E" but the people you are playing with are tuned down to "E flat" to accomodate a singer's low voice, for example, and are playing in the key of "C Sharp" on detuned instruments, with a key change at the chorus, the people you are playing with will have a harder time explaining what's going on to you, you'll have a harder time understanding them, and the disconnect could strain your ability to play effectively with said musicians, or others.

Think of scales as a series of patterns that show you where the right notes are in a certain key. Once you learn the patterns of these scales (there are 8 modes - learn them in one key and you can transpose them onto other keys by sliding your hands to the correct frets) and you'll be able to play any solo in any key. It's not as hard as you think, and the discoveries you'll make along the way ("hey, that scale looks exactly like this chord but with a few extra notes attached!") will make you a better musician.


Do you like improvising or improvisational music? Jazz/blues/prog fan?

I've been playing guitar for years by just improvising and it's helped me develop my ears a great deal.

If you practice like that all the time, like anything you'll get better at it. You can end up developing your ears and a sort of intuition about what to do on guitar to get the sounds you want.

You still need to spend some time learning theory and practising scales and whatnot so you don't forget what you've learned.

But if you also just spend a lot of time just "jamming", then you'll get better at that also. It depends on what your personality is, and taste in music, as to whether you like that sort of thing.

You just sound like me years ago, when I also grew tired of running scales and exercises all of the time.

When you've only got so much time in a day to practice, after a while it can be more enjoyable to just "jam" and not worry about more formal exercises.

You'll get better at improvising/jamming, but may not progress to the next skill level on guitar as quickly. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Practice_(learning_method)#Deliberate_practice )

So that's the tradeoff. But if you're already comfortable at where your skill level is at, then certainly, turn down the exercises and just do more jamming.

  • Do you like improvising or improvisational music? : Sorry I don't get it. What's the difference? If you practice like that all the time, like anything you'll get better at it. You can end up developing your ears and a sort of intuition about what to do on guitar to get the sounds you want. : This is what I want to do. How to achieve this? Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 9:40
  • it can be more enjoyable to just jam : But I don't understand what to jam. Its like whenever I am not trying new tab I am always going through scales. I don't like playing chords and doing simple things. I love to pluck and doing finger style stuff. (I can play both of this tracks) So where should I go from here? Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 9:41
  • 1
    First, those vids were not improvisational as such. They weren't playing by ear - they had learnt those songs beforehand ;) The thing about jamming, is that the inspiration comes from either within you, other people you're playing with, or music that you're listening to. You can jam over the top of other people's records, or get some backing tracks.
    – asgeo1
    Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 4:21
  • 1
    Or you can just go at it by yourself. Pick a key or a scale, or a chord progression. Then just experiment - play just random things within those boundaries. Some things will work, others wont. If something starts working, then build off that. The key is to listen to what you're playing, as you're playing it. You should have a goal in mind, like where you want the melody / harmony to go. With time, you'll get better at "guessing" which notes to play. Lastly, I would say - just listen to as many improv performances as you can.
    – asgeo1
    Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 4:26
  • One last tip: when I improv, I play dud notes all the time :) But the secret it to not dwell on it - a note not in key is not a bad thing. You can use it to your advantage - for example, the a note out of key will create dissonance/tension. If you can resolve that tension, it will sound OK, and probably kind of cool. The trick is that if you play an "outside" note, you just have to remember that the "correct" note was either one semitone above or one semitone below. I.e. just quickly move back one or forward one fret. Once you get used to this, you realise there is no such thing as a bad note
    – asgeo1
    Commented Feb 25, 2012 at 4:32

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