Learning the guitar by ear

Doesn’t it sound awesome to be one of those guitarists who can just show up and jam? No sheet music, no chord charts, no tutorials… It seems like magic how they can play every song – even such they hear for the very first time. But worry not – you don’t need any superpowers to be able to do that as well. What actually is going on is that their capable fingers are paired with well-trained ears. Keep on reading to discover why your ears are the key to that seemingly-magical ability and how to start training them.

What Is Learning By Ear?

Learning by ear is basically the process of learning a piece of music without any written music. It comes from the tradition of folk music, where melodies were rarely written down, and people would ‘pass them down via aural tradition’ – learn them by hearing, and then replicating the music.

Do you need perfect pitch to play by ear?

Perfect pitch is the ability to hear a pitch and immediately know which note it is. It seems to be something you’re born with. You either have perfect pitch or you don’t (though some people claim you can learn it). Whatever the case, having perfect pitch is pretty rare and you don’t need it to play by ear or make great music. 

Now that we have cleared that up, here are these four main ear training areas that will lead to you becoming the guitarist you always dreamed of being.

1. Pitch

Pitch ear training is all about hearing the notes and how they relate to one another. First, hone your core sense of the “highness” or “lowness” of sound. This is referred to simply as pitch ear training. Once you’ve mastered single note pitches, the basics of all ear training is learning to hear relative pitch. One common approach is interval ear training which teaches you how near or far notes are from each other.

2.  Rhythm

While many guitarists stop at pitch ear training, being able to identify rhythms and rhythmic patterns may be even more important. If you’re going to cover a song, or play within a certain style, matching the strum pattern, timing, and tempo matters a lot to your audience. With rhythm mastery you can even feel free to depart from it intentionally and the creativity will make your performance even more powerful. Furthermore, when jamming with a band, you’ll be able to better play around with the drummer and maybe ‘trade 4s’ – where you and the drummer take turns to solo over 4 bars.

3. FX and Tone

What? You can train your ears to do that? Yes, of course, and you should. Audio FX ear training will guide you through the world of sound effects available to today’s guitarist.

You will be able to tell what is going on in a piece of music much more precisely and then use it in your own playing and writing.

4. Song-Writing

Hear me out before you say that song writing isn’t an ear training exercise. A song is the structure that brings all of the previous points together. Learn that structure, and you’ll know what to do next—whether you’re writing your own song or learning someone else’s. 

Most songs are made up of certain parts (intro, verse, chorus, bridge, etc.) and built from some fundamental elements (notes, rhythms, harmonies, instrumentation, etc.). By learning the musical characteristics of song structures and what tends to follow what, you’ll instinctively know what to do next even if you’re jamming on a song you never heard before!


They may not strum, pick, run around the fretboard or stomp a pedal, but your ears are as important as your fingers if you’re aiming to become the best guitarist you can be. Start training them intentionally today, if you haven’t already!

If you want some further reading materials on the topic, check out also these articles here, here and here. For more guides, tips and tricks we invite you to join Neli’s Guitar Family and subscribe to her YouTube channel! If you are ready to dive into the world of guitar (or ukulele) you can sign up for a lesson HERE – the first one is 50% off!

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