Playing by ear is arguably the most joyful and expressive ways of playing the guitar. In its purest form a person can play anything they hear in their head instantly on the guitar. Whilst very few if any guitarists can actually play absolutely anything on the guitar immediately, there are some extremely skilled guitarists that come close. With consistent and appropriate practice, you can definitely expand your abilities to play by ear, moving closer and closer towards the goal of playing purely by ear. I can't do the practice for you, but I can show you some very useful methods to help you learn to tune in and play by ear.
Playing by ear is very useful for a musician for several reasons. If you wish to learn a piece of music, then with this ability you can do so very quickly. A person who can play by ear can simply listen to the piece several times, and then play it - easy! If you wish to write your own music, then you can play whatever sounds are in your mind, rather than fumbling around the fretboard trusting to luck. If you are playing live, then you are far less likely to forget the next note or chord because you can hear in your head what you are supposed to play next, and simply play it as you hear it. A person who has the ability to play by ear can also improvise much easier, and can spontaneously jam with other musicians, since they are far better positioned to think on their feet.
These abilities are the hallmark of great guitarists. Not how many exotic scales or chords you know, but how you can play with your soul. Playing by ear definitely unlocks your soul and allows it to wander into your playing, making it special and unique - just like you! You can relax and allow your powerful and creative subconscious mind to take over the playing, rather than play consciously and like a robot. How can you open up your soul if you don't know what sounds you are going to make until after you have made them?
Some people can play good solid improvised pieces without this ability. However if they don't know what sounds they are going to make until after they have made them, then they are relying on technical knowledge such as chords and scales, and some luck. There is little opportunity for opening up the soul this way. Here are some valuable tips to help you develop your skills in playing by ear.
1) Always make sure your guitar is tuned in concert pitch. It is very important that your guitar is accurately tuned at all times. If it is not, then your mind can become confused when the sounds it produces are different each time you play it. When you hit a low E on the 5th fret, it should always ring a true A - unless you are experimenting with alternative tunings.
2) Practice playing very simple tunes that you know the sound, but don't know how to play. Simple nursery songs like "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" are a great way to start. Take your time and relax, and work out how to play these simple songs without relying on musical notation or TAB. It will be slow at first, but keep persevering. As time goes by you will be able to gradually increase the complexity of these songs, and find them quicker and easier to work out.
3) Try and re-learn old songs you have forgotten without consulting the sheet music or TAB. This is great for developing your abilities to play by ear, as it forces your mind to work and fill in the gaps of your knowledge of the song.
4) When practicing scales or guitar melodies, sing or hum the note you are playing. Start simply and build up. After some practice you will be able to hum every note that you play at the same time you play it. This exercise seriously helps bridge the mind guitar connection.
5) Really listen to yourself when playing. This may seem obvious but it is not always. It took me many years of playing before I got into the habit of really listening to myself playing. I was too busy concentrating on what I was playing to really listen. You need to relax, let go, and listen to yourself. Your ears are the most important part of your playing. Jimi Hendrix once commented in an interview that he plays guitar "with my ears". What he meant by this was that he had the ability to play guitar by ear, and he really listened to his own playing in order to express himself.
If you follow these pieces of advice every day, then you will quickly notice an improvement in your abilities to play by ear. To play fully by ear may take years of practice like this, but you can move some way close to this in a relatively short period of time. As your abilities to play by ear improve, you will find your enjoyment and all round guitar abilities improve.
The best way to practice this is definitely little and often. If you practice these exercises for even 10-15 minutes, several times per day, you will see vast improvements in your playing in just a few weeks. Your confidence on the guitar will soar when you realise you are no longer faking it - you intimately know the guitar and you know what you are doing. Your playing will rapidly grow to new heights, and your passion and enjoyment will grow exponentially.
So put in that work and share in the joy of being able to play guitar by ear. Just a few minutes every day will help you make significant leaps. It's a wonderful world to live in, and you will be so grateful that you tuned in.
Jon Rhodes is a former professional musician and now a clinical hypnotherapist from the UK. Although the six string guitar is his main weapon of choice, he has gigged in a variety of other roles, including bass, keyboards, and occasional vocals.
Over the years he has played in a variety of different bands, from covers bands to playing his own compositions, and in a variety of styles. He loves the challenge of versatility, with a style of playing that ranges from punk to classical, and many styles in between.
He attributes his skills in playing many styles on many instruments to his ability to play by ear. He was not born with this ability, he worked very hard for many years to develop it.