I, as much as the next practicing guitar player, will tell you that there’s no way I have time to break out the guitar EVERY weekend for a meaningful practice session. There are too many
reasons to count most of the time: The weather is going to be great! I’m traveling! The kids need (fill in the blank). I went through a season several years ago when I couldn’t actually
play my guitar at all due to an injury caused by playing guitar! ...Ha! Since that dark time in my life, I have learned that there are many things one can do, even if you can’t actually
have your guitar in hand, to practice.
I have found that in almost any situation, there is room for me develop a mental discipline that is focused around improving my MUSICAL EAR, and thereby improving my guitar playing.
Yep, I’m talking about critical listening and ear training! Once you know how to do it, it can be done anywhere, any time and will have a MASSIVE impact on your guitar playing. I divide up my critical listening into two different areas of discipline: Harmony and Rhythm.
Harmony and Ear Training
If you can sing a major scale up and down without the help of your guitar or a piano, you can already start using your ear to help you practice. If you can’t do this, practice it until you
can do it in your sleep. You don’t have to be able to sing well, you just have to be able to do it and make your ear hear it.
Practice singing the scale while assigning a number to each note: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7… ONE!!!
Once you are able to sing or ‘think’ the scale, it’s time to start training your brain to hear intervals. An interval is the distance between notes and it is how all melody and chords are created. You should be able to hear in your mind, or when you sing, the distance between the first note of the major scale and the fourth note of the major scale for example.
Targetting the Intervals
This concept really stayed with me when I was able to assign familiar songs (mainly from my childhood) where the first two notes of the melody represented one of the intervals in the major scale. You’ll want to develope your own list, but I’ll share mine with you so you have a head start:
Now there are many other intervals not covered when you stick to a strict major scale, but if you’ve never done this before, trust me! Sticking to major scale harmony alone will be fine for
this weekend and many weekends beyond. Think of your favorite nursery rhymes or favorite songs. What is the interval that begins the melody? Play it on the guitar or piano first to figure
it out, then sing it, then commit it to memory so you can use it while you’re away from your guitar.
Once you can isolate and identify a single interval in a song or melody, you can hit the road, put a song on repeat (that sounds mainly happy and is in a major key for now) and dial in your ear!
Flex Your Ear
Here’s a cool game I like to play: First of all, Country music works really well for beginners in this area. Even if you don’t like Country, give this a try as a way to enlighten
your ear! If not a Country song, just find one that’s mainly strummed and not too busy.
Put one song on repeat, focus in on the bass line or bass notes and try to hear the intervals. Don’t even worry about the chords yet. Just try to guess the basic intervals that the bass player is playing. Don’t even pay attention to every note. Just focus on the the notes where the other instruments change chords. Don’t focus on a whole song initially. Just keep hitting the track button and see if you can get the intro or the verse. Keep a pad of paper and a pencil next to you and write down what you are hearing. If you are driving just wait until you get to a stoplight! What did you hear? Did it go something like: 1, 5, 1, 5, 4, 6, 5… Repeat? You’re halfway to having learned part of a song without having ever picking up your guitar!
Next, go over that same section and make a note of whether the chord played over the bass line sounded like they are happy or sad (major or minor). Put a lowercase “m” next each chord you think is minor. Maybe it ends up being: 1, 5, 1, 5, 4, 6m, 5… Repeat! Once you’ve done this drill on part of the song, move on to the next section and do the same thing until you’re done with the whole song. Save your notes and then next time you have your guitar with you, figure out the key of the song. (Hint: It’s usually the first chord of the song, the last chord of the song, or possibly both). Try some of your basic root position chords over the first or last chord of the song to see if any of them sound right. Use a capo if necessary so you don’t have to use too many barre chords or think in a flat key for too long.
Remember, we’re mainly concerned about intervals. Once you’ve determined the key, try to play along with the song using your notes. How did you do? There were probably some trouble chords or a few things that didn’t translate but give yourself credit for the journey you just went on! Do this often and you’ll notice a HUGE improvement in your ability mostly figure out chord progressions before you even pick up your guitar!
Rhythm Ear Training
Now we’re going to do the same thing with rhythm. Remember… You don’t have your guitar with you. Pick a song with a great melody, maybe one you know pretty well. Let’s use “Somewhere Over
The Rainbow” as our loose example. With your left hand, establish a tempo on your left leg. This will be your metronome hand. Then sing or speak the first line or two of the tune while
keeping your metronome hand going. After you’ve done this a few times, take your right hand and tap along with your voice. Your right hand will be your ‘note value’ hand. Say the words
along with your right hand and feel the rhythm happening against your metronome hand. Next, you’re going to make mental notes (or write them down if you’d like) relating to what note values
your playing with your right hand.
If your metronome hand is playing quarter note values, then your right hand would have played 2 half notes, 1 quarter note, 2 eighth notes, and then 2 more quarter notes over the first line of our example. Do this section by section for a familiar melody. If you combine this rhythm idea with the technique we used in identifying intervals, you can be pretty dangerous without even touching your guitar! If you’ve mentally notated the rhythm and combined that with the intervals found in the first line of the melody, (1, 8, 7, 5, 6, 7, 8) you’ve done everything but play the melody on your guitar. Once you pick up your guitar, I’ll bet you’ll be able to play that first line without any trouble at all in almost any key!
If you can’t make a date with your guitar for this weekend but still have that hankering to improve your guitar playing, give these drills a solid try. If you want to dive deeper into the world of ear training and how it can transform your guitar playing, I have two content gems for you to cherish:
First, here is a lesson by Nick Kellie that goes into more detail on learning and memorizing intervals. He shares his own ‘interval song list’ and spends some time addressing intervals that are not strictly in the major scale. Check it out!
Basic Ear Training by Nick Kellie
Taught by Nick Kellie
In this lesson, Nick provides a primer course on ear training. By matching intervals with popular songs, you can help develop an ear for basic intervallic distances.
The second resource I’m sharing with you this weekend is an article I wrote for JamPlay a few years back on learning songs by ear. As you’ve read here, you can do a lot of learning without any playing at all. It might be more efficient learning at that. This article will take the concepts I’ve discussed here and finish the story when it comes to using your ear to figure out whole pieces of music! Article: Learning Songs by Ear Once you’ve conditioned your ear using these two exercises regularly for a few months, you’ll notice yourself picking out chord changes, rhythms or intervals randomly and without really trying. It’s kind of a fun way to irritate your friends during a conversation where there might be background music at a restaurant or playing in the car. You can just let your brain meander off for a second and start tapping your leg or saying “Ooo, that was a 1 to 6 minor chord change”. It’s fun… hehe! I hope this helps you practice well and more and that it truly enriches your musical life!
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Thanks for reading.
Thanks again for reading. I hope you now have the necessary tools to start improving your guitar skills without even having a guitar around!