Transcribing Music By Ear

by Matt on November 22, 2011

When I first started playing guitar my father told me about a friend of his who was a working guitar player who could listen to something once and almost immediately reproduce it on his guitar. He laughed and remembered that his friend remarked once that at any given time he could have up to seven different checks in his wallet and he was playing so much, he didn’t have time to cash them. To me, as a young player, that had a big impact. I started trying to pick up little phrases from a Chuck Berry tape my Dad had bought for me. My dad, in his infinite wisdom, explained to me that Chuck Berry was the first real Rock-n-Roll guitar player and that if I wanted to be good, I should learn how to play like him. I enjoyed trying to figure out how things were played. Soon I moved on to radio songs. I remember wearing the crap out of the Money For Nothing riff and that cool guitar break in Tina Turners and Bryan Adams hit It’s Only Love. I guess I got hooked on transcribing things right away. It became a literal obsession. If I couldn’t figure out how something was played it would really drive me nuts until I did.

The question I get asked the most in my lesson room is how did I learn to just hear something and repeat it. I never would have imagined the reaction I would get from people when they saw me do it right in front of them…astonished as if they had seen magic. That always struck me as funny because I didn’t think of it that way. To me, it was like reading a mystery novel and using what was obvious to fill in the grey area. It was a game. Kind of a “can you repeat what I’m doing?” thing. Much like the electronic game, Simon.

What I didn’t realize was that every time I tried to pick up songs from a recording, I was learning rhythms, song structure, technique, and most importantly, developing my ear. I’ve played and taught guitar for over twenty years now and I’ve honestly lost track of how many songs I’ve figured out. I’ve easily transcribed over a 1000 or more songs from various styles of music. Truthfully, I think what people see when they watch me figure something out (a skill, I might add, that is shared by many musicians) is really just someone who knows what to look for. There are seven sure fire techniques you can use to get started practicing something like this and I’m going to break them down for you this month in the hope that you can get some insight for yourself and maybe start growing as a player by figuring out some of your favorite riffs.

1. The hardest thing about figuring a song out is figuring out what tuning the song was recorded in. Look for the lowest note in the song first. Start in standard tuning and see if it’s possible first. If it’s not you need to see what tuning would allow you to play that note. Most of the time if you’re figuring out radio songs and the like you’re going to run into the four biggies…

Standard = (EADGBE)
Eb Standard = (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb)
Drop D = (DADGBE)
Eb/Drop Db = (Db Ab Db Gb Bb Eb)

Songs done with Slides usually require open tunings such as…

Open E (EBEG#BE)
Open D (DADF#AD)

2. Listen for open strings. Open strings have a very different flavor, if you will, than fretted notes. Sometimes a riff will seem almost impossible to play fretted but factor in the right open string and wham!;piece of cake. Or, maybe you come up with what’s going on chord wise and it seems like a bunch of strange barre chords…but you hear open strings being used. Consider the fact the song was recorded with the use of a capo.

3. Use headphones. “Panning” or moving different tracks to different locations in the stereo spectrum is a popular recording technique used by sound engineers to unclutter a final mix. When you use headphones it is sometimes much easier to discern one part from the next. Also, in times when you really struggle with a passage you can put the “cans” on backwards and let your ears trade duties and, a lot of the time, hear right away something that you could not hear when they were on properly.

4. When figuring out chords, listen to the lowest note in the chord and then listen to the highest. Try to fill in the blanks by asking yourself what common chord shapes would allow these two notes to exist in the same place on the neck. It’s true there are as many as 25,000 different chord shapes but, there are only about 35 to 40 that get used commonly and most of the time these days shapes don’t venture very far from plain old root/fifth power chords.

5. Read up on the players you’re trying to copy. I marvel at the amount of information available on the Internet. If the player you’re trying to copy does something idiosyncratic with their guitar or his/her tuning or has an unorthodox way of doing something, someone will almost always know about it and sometimes that’s all it takes to get over the hump.

6. Get a Phrase trainer. Phrase trainers or “slow down machines” as they are sometimes called are very cost effective and sensible way to study fast or slow music passages. These units are designed to repeat any section of any song infinitely at half-speed or sometimes even slower. When I started picking songs off of records I use to perform a delicate balancing act with my guitar on my knee while I would painstakingly pick up the needle of my record player hundreds of times to move it back to repeat a line from a song on the record. All the while holding a pencil in my mouth and a tab book on my other knee and God forbid if the phone rang…frustrating to say the very least. Then the first wave of phrase trainers came out. They would drop the song an octave, which could be a bit confusing, but they would slow things down nonetheless. A major improvement however you looked at it. A couple of years after that they figured out how to keep them in the right octave but, because of the processing, the slowed down version would have a very harsh comb-filter effect which would make you believe there was more going on in the part than actually was there…also very confusing. Now, thank God, we don’t have those problems anymore. Now you can buy a fifty-dollar program for your computer or even a variable speed cd player. A lot of units now have filtering devices to get rid of frequencies that confuse your ear. Long story longer…there’s no substitute for a slow down machine. You can hear any passage of music you like as many times as you need to hear it and as slow as you need it to go…very cool.

7. Lastly and most importantly, learn to isolate certain parts of the recording you are transcribing by listening without an instrument in your hands. Take your favorite song, for example and ask yourself as a guitar player, “Do I even know what the bass is doing in this song…how about the keyboard part?” I realized that I had heard certain songs for years and didn’t really listen to anything going on except for the guitar part…big mistake. When your trying to figure something out it helps to be aware of what is going on around you so that you can practice being unaffected by it. When you can sit down and listen to a song four different times and isolate and listen to only the bass line for example, then the rhythm guitar the next time, drums next etc. then your getting somewhere. Not only are you learning the subtle interplay between the instruments, but you’re training yourself to isolate parts and in essence, truly developing your ear.

Until next time…
Matt Venus

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

corde per chitarra acustica December 14, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Hi, this is a great post! Thanks..


Matt December 14, 2011 at 4:44 pm

You are most certainly welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate it. MV


strumenti musicali corno December 29, 2011 at 10:07 am

Hi! Great blog!


custodia per trombone December 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm

Hi! Great blog!


Matt December 30, 2011 at 12:06 am

Thank you!


Mitchell January 6, 2012 at 4:37 am

Gee wlilikres, that’s such a great post!


fender mustang v December 30, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Hi! Great post! 🙂


Matt December 30, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Thank you. I appreciate it.


Priest January 6, 2012 at 1:53 am

I came, I read this article, I conquered.


Estella January 5, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I watned to spend a minute to thank you for this.


Matt January 6, 2012 at 6:14 am

Thank you very much, Estella. I appreciate you taking the time.


ev zxa1 December 30, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Hi! Great post! 🙂


Matt December 30, 2011 at 4:38 pm



Daysia January 5, 2012 at 5:40 pm

IMHO you’ve got the right asnwer!


Geri January 6, 2012 at 6:17 am

Holy coincse data batman. Lol!


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