As a musician of any kind, there’s a number of different ways to learn your instrument, and the general concepts of music as a whole. For many, you take lessons, learn the basics, and then start learning songs in one of a couple ways – sheet music, tablature, one-note-at-a-time from your teacher – or by ear.
For guitarists, tabs are the way most of us get started. Guitar teachers know it’s the fastest way to get a student up and running and playing so that it’s rewarding enough to continue and not get frustrated and quit. Pretty much the only guitarists who learn with standard notation from the beginning are classical guitarists, and classical musicians are a bit of a different breed.
But while tabs are a useful resource, they’re limiting and often wrong if you get fan-sourced ones from the internet. They’re the musical equivalent of giving a person a fish. They’re a crutch – you need to be able to trust yourself and your musical ear to know if what you’re playing is right, and then you’ll be free to learn and understand any music you hear.
So the best way to free yourself from tabs or notation is to develop the most important musical skill of all – learning by ear. This is the teaching a person to fish version – once you do it a couple times, you won’t be dependent on your fish market for music anymore (in this metaphor, the tabs are the fish seller) – you’ll be a fisherman on your own boat on your own musical journey, untethered from anyone else’s musical compass.
Learning a song by ear is something that seems hard at first, and the first few times you do it it will take you a long time. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll cut that time down by 95% or more – here’s my method:
1. Take a small bite
When learning songs by ear, especially in the beginning, you need to really do it a very small piece at a time. Just 2-4 notes at a time until your musical memory is built up to a level where you can retain larger chunks, which will come with time. Any piece of music is just lots of small pieces, and small pieces are easy to learn – don’t try to look at it as a long thing or you can get frustrated and give up. One small bite at a time will get the whole sandwich down your throat, bites too big will make you choke.
2. Slow it down
Any piece of music is the same notes and rhythms at any tempo, but high speeds make things sound very different and seem very difficult. So the first thing you’re gonna want to do is slow down the part you’re trying to learn. There’s a few ways to do this – if you’re using YouTube, their player has a built-in speed control that I use often. I’d also recommend the Vidami pedal for hands-free control of YouTube videos, I use it in the above video and for learning songs off of YouTube, it’s invaluable – you can use it to speed up and slow down videos and create loops of parts to learn. If you have a DAW you use, most recording software has speed control either inbuilt to the timeline natively or has plugins that will slow down tracks. Many mobile apps also have the ability to slow down songs, and the Spark amp from Positive Grid has a host of tools in addition to that.
The most important thing when slowing a part down is that you make sure that the pitch doesn’t change – just the speed. Pretty much every modern digital option for slowing music down will keep the pitch the same, so you probably won’t have to worry about it, but in the analog realm, the speed and pitch of a track were always tied together, like with tape – if you slowed the tape down, the pitch would drop along with it, which meant learning it in the wrong key. The quality of the signal will inevitably be worse the slower it gets, but there’s not really anything you can do about that.
You need to slow the part down enough that you can understand what you’re hearing – don’t feel bad if it’s 50% or it’s 10% of the speed of the original – you slow it down however much you need to, and make sure you get it right.
3. Listen and sing it back
The way that I connect with the notes I’m hearing is to do something that can be kind of weird and awkward feeling if you haven’t done it before – I sing the notes I hear out loud. I listen to the couple notes I’ve picked out to start, and then I sing them back. This helps to internalize the part and is important to connect you to the thing you’re hearing, and is crucial for the next step.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO SOUND GOOD. You don’t have to be a good singer, not even a little bit. It doesn’t matter, no one will hear you, it’s just for yourself. The important thing is that you’re able to match the pitch you hear. If you can do this, you can learn any piece of music.
4. Find the notes you sang
Next, you find the first note you sang on your instrument. This will probably take a lot of trial and error in the beginning – just hold the pitch with your voice and move the note around on your instrument until they are the same. Make sure they’re in the same octave – it’s easy to have the right pitch in the wrong register, so try playing the same note up and down an octave to check.
Also, many string instruments have a lot of redundancy – the same pitch exists in a few different places, so keep in mind that the player you’re trying to emulate might be playing the same pitch in a different spot on the neck. Another good reason to use a performance video or playthrough as a guide if possible.
Then, find the next note in the sequence, and play back the two notes you’ve found back to back. Check them against the slowed-down recording to make sure you got it right, play along with the recording and see if it sounds like the same thing. Do this with all the notes of the small bite of the song you’ve chosen. Play it a few times to get it under your fingers and begin the process of getting them into your muscle memory.
5. Rinse and repeat
Then once you’ve got all the notes for the bite you’ve selected and you can play them, you just start the process over with the next few notes. You’re going to do this over and over until you’ve gotten through the entire song or part you want to learn.
This might seem very tedious, but I can guarantee you this – doing it this way is WAY faster and more effective than trying and failing by trying to do it with larger chunks at full speed. If you try that way, you’ll never get there, and you’ll just wind up frustrated and no further along than you were. If you do it my way, it will take a long time the first couple songs you learn (the first time I did it it took me two weeks to learn a whole song), but each successive one will become faster and faster and eventually you’ll be knocking out a song in a couple of hours.
6. Getting up to speed
Once you’ve learned an amount of the song you’re happy with, it’s time to get it to a tempo you want. This is another process that takes time, but once again, your progress won’t be linear – you’ll be improving your skills as you go, so every time you do this it will take less time.
First, find the tempo you’re playing it at currently. I do this by using the tap tempo function in the metronome app I use (Pro Metronome) to figure about where I’m at, then adjust it up or down to get it exact. Play to that tempo a few times to see how well you’re able to do it at that speed – if it’s sloppy, take the tempo down until you can play it cleanly.
Next, you practice the part at that tempo until you can play it perfectly. Not pretty good, not fine – perfectly. Don’t increase the tempo until you can do that, because this method relies on really nailing it at each tempo, so that when you arrive at your target tempo, you’ll still be playing it perfectly.
Once you can play it flawlessly several times in a row at your current tempo, then it’s time to bump up the metronome – between 2-5 BPM. You need to do this in small increments like this to maintain the level of perfect performance that will carry you through your goal tempo and keep your playing consistent.
Now practice playing the part at our new tempo until you can play it perfectly at that speed. Once again, no going faster until you can nail it with no problem. Then you just repeat the process over and over again until you can play it 10-20 bpm faster than you need to. Don’t stop just because you hit the original tempo of the recording – get to where you can play it faster than you would ever need to so you can play it masterfully at full speed, with expression and feeling.
Using this method, you can learn any piece of music, any genre, any instrument at all. Learning this way will also teach you more about the piece of music and the player than simple tabs – you can emulate their performance style, expressions, vibrato, tone, techniques – things that you can incorporate into your own playing and will make you a better musician.
There aren’t really any shortcuts to doing it this way, with a few exceptions. If you study ear training, you’ll be able to recognize chords and intervals faster and it will speed up this whole process. I did this in college and it’s the most valuable musical training I ever received. I also offer a full course on learning every interval on the guitar, called RelationShapes 2: Intervals, and this helps a lot because if you know all the interval shapes, you can play pretty much anything, from anywhere.
If you plan on doing this a lot, I recommend the Vidami pedal for controlling YouTube with your feet so you can keep your hands free for playing your instrument – I demonstrate it in the video above and you can get yours for 10% off with this coupon link, which also supports the site at no extra cost to you.