As a guitar player, your aural skills make all the difference between understanding the language of music and simply following instructions.
If you took a French class in high school, maybe you know what I’m talking about. Reading a menu in Paris? No problem. A simple conversation with the server? Disaster.
Guitar ear training unlocks a whole new level of guitar playing – the ability to play what you hear, jam freely, and hone your understanding of music.
So what’s stopping you?
Before you say it – ear training can come naturally for some, but for most, it doesn’t. That being said, it’s a skill that everyone can learn, and it can be taught.
Below I’ll show you a few fun and easy guitar ear training exercises that you can incorporate into your routine to make some pretty serious improvements to your guitar technique.
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1. Brush Up on Your Theory
I know we don’t like to talk about the “T” word that often, but knowing at least basic theory is going to lay the foundation for understanding what you’re playing and why it sounds the way it does.
In case you’re a bit rusty, I recommend rehashing some of the basics and familiarizing yourself with the nuts and bolts of guitar music.
It makes sense when you think about it – before you try to discern certain sounds, you first need to know what you’re listening for.
Have a quick read through some of these guides on the essentials:
2. Practice Your Scales
Scales are the foundation of ear training. Once you know your scales, you’ll find it easier to identify all other musical elements.
To help you memorize your scales, I recommend working your way through as many of them as possible.
Here’s a good little piece of advice to keep in mind – as you’re playing each note, sing the name of the note along with it. This helps your brain associate the note name with the pitch and will be very helpful in the long run.
3. Use Your Voice
Another important step for guitar ear training is using your voice.
Don’t be shy – you’re not trying to win American Idol. Rather this is an attempt to mimic the notes you’re hearing in order to drill them into your memory.
Here’s a little exercise you can practice:
- Play a note on the guitar – in this case, an A note
- Sing “A” while playing the note for the second time
- Repeat until you hit the right pitch
Being able to sing a note that you hear is called pitch memory and is very useful for guitar ear training.
If you want to make this exercise a bit more advanced. Simply wait a few seconds before starting the second step so that you have a longer time to remember the pitch.
4. Try Using a Pitch Pipe
If you’re really struggling to hit the right pitch, there’s no shame in using a pitch pipe.
Typically used for tuning your guitar, you can also use it for memorizing the various guitar notes.
For a simple ear training technique, play the pitch pipe, play your guitar, sing the same note, and then repeat these three steps a couple of times.
You’ll find that after a couple of rounds of this exercise, you’ll have a pretty good feel for what each note sounds like.
5. Focus on the Root Note
Root notes are the first notes of a chord, and they’re often the lowest note of that chord too.
When training your ear, this is the most important note of the chord to listen out for. Think of it as your reference point, as it automatically tells you what key the chord is in.
Here’s a simple exercise to improve identifying root notes:
- Listen to a couple of songs of your choice
- Try to identify the lowest note being played
- Pause the song, play that note on your guitar and sing the note as you play it
6. Unlock the Melody
Once you have a root note, you’re halfway to identifying the whole chord. Now let’s take it a step further and attempt to identify the melody that follows the root note.
This exercise involves a bit of trial and error, but it’s very rewarding. Try it out:
- Open up a couple of chord diagrams, so you have some common chords you can reference
- Playing the song from the previous exercise, navigate to where you identified the root note
- Next, try to guess the notes that come after the root note by listening to them, pausing the music, and playing them on the guitar
- Repeat this until you get each note right
Regardless of how many tries it took, pat yourself on the back because you just successfully identified a melody!
7. Interval Training
An interval is the pitch distance between two notes. Interval training will help you recognize intervals and hone your listening skills for pitches.
In Exercise 5 above, we actually already touched on intervals. While you were identifying chords and melodies, each note that you were identifying was broken up by an interval.
Here’s how to become more familiar with intervals:
- Listen to a song
- Identify as many root notes as possible
- Write down the note that follows each of your root notes above
- Examine how many frets (or semitones) are in this interval and identify what kind of interval it is
8. Experiment With Improvisation
You’ll need a partner for this one, so grab a buddy and then:
- Have one person play chords
- The other person improvises melodies or riffs over these chords
- Switch roles and do it again
The goal of this exercise is to really connect with your musical imagination. Forget the theory and practice for a minute, and just see where your fingers take you!
9. Chord Progressions
Now that you’ve learned how to identify notes, chords, melodies, and intervals, it’s time to train your ear to recognize chord progressions.
Start by working your way through some of these easy and popular chord progressions. You’ll find these in numerous songs, so being a bit more familiar with them will, of course, make identifying them a lot easier.
After working through a few of them, listen to your favorite song and see if you can identify the chord simply by listening to it. If it’s a little tricky, play some chords on your guitar and listen to see if they resonate with the chords of the song.
10. Transcribe Your Heart Out
Once you’ve worked through all the above ear training techniques, start transcribing some of your favorite songs.
Highlight the notes, chords, chord progressions, intervals, melodies – everything we’ve learned here today.
Start off with your guitar as an aid, and then to make things more complicated, start transcribing with just a pen and paper.
Back to Our Regular Programming: Leveling up Your Guitar Skills
The above ear training techniques are a great way to snap you out of your usual guitar routine.
As with all things, practice, keep going on a regular basis and revisit them from time to time. It’s a muscle you constantly need to flex!
And if you’re looking for other ways to change up your guitar routine, then I highly recommend you check out my guitar workshop – Tony’s Acoustic Challenge.
It’s full of exercises to help you learn new techniques swiftly and effectively – whether you’re a beginner or an advanced player. I designed it specifically to help guitar players of all levels see consistent, meaningful progress and have fun at the same time.
Watch this FREE guitar class for three secrets to learn guitar faster in just 10 minutes a day.