How To Figure Out Songs By Ear On Guitar

One of the most frequently asked questions my students have is how to figure out songs on their own. Here’s a few hints.

1) Follow the bass. If you figure out the bass, or lowest notes of the chords, you can build the chords from there. Look for notes that are around the first 3 frets first as they are the ones open chords are on. If you can find even one or two you are on your way.

2) After you have found a couple bass notes, think about which ones may go along with them based on your knowledge of open chords. I’m assuming here that you know a couple open chords if you are reading this. For example, if you’ve found a C and G but not much else, try putting a D or Emin. They will usually match up since they are often found along with those in songs. If the D doesn’t fit, try an A that’s pretty common, too. If you’ve found an E and A, try throwing in a B. I think you know where I’m going with this idea.

3) Majors and Minors: If you a certain you have the bass note right but the major chord isn’t quite sounding right, try a minor. Usually this happens with E and A. Also look for common chord relationships. For example, if you find C and A bass notes, chances are the A will be minor. The same is true with Gmaj and Emin. F and D min are also pretty common.

4) If you find the bass notes are not in the open position and tend to move around on the 5th and 6th string a lot, chances are you’re dealing with moveable chords, hopefully just power chords. I’m assuming here that you are familiar with them. Try building power chords over the bass notes and, if they fit, then you got it. If there still sounds like there’s something missing, proceed to the next step.

5) Now it’s time to see if the moveable chords are major or minor. Try both voicings. Keep in mind some common maj-minor chord progressions.

A) For example, if your bass notes are each 2 frets apart, chances are the highest one will be minor an the others major. “Stairway to Heaven,” “Dani California,” “All Along the Watchtower” are examples of this.

B) If one is 3 frets apart and another is two, chances are the lowest will be minor. “What it’s Like” or “Mr. Jones” are examples.

C) If you have 4 bass notes, two on each string, usually the highest will be minor and others major.

D) If you have 3 bass notes and two are on adjacent strings and one two frets below on the lowest string, the highest two will be minor.

6) If you’ve determined which are majors and minors and things still sound a bit off, like there is something missing, try using 7ths. Just substitute the majors with dom 7ths and minors with min 7ths. If things still don’t work out, try using 9ths, usually on the tonic chord, especially in the case of blues, funk or R&B.

That should do it. If you’ve made it this far, then you’re on your way to start figuring out songs on your own. Keep in mind that the more you figure out, the easier it gets. Success brings about more success in this case.

Have fun! -Bob