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How to play songs “by Ear”


Imagine if you could show up to a jam, sit down and play along with every song…without knowing them!! Imagine if you didn’t need charts, but could listen for a few minutes and then jump in, hitting all the right chords…is this possible? Absolutely.

In fact all of our instructors here at JamAlong Music are expected to be able to do this, you can see an example of this with our instructor Brae teaching Wagon Wheel “by ear” on YouTube HERE. And yes, you too can be this quick!

This can be done when you know how to “play by ear”, when you’ve learned to follow along just by listening and you don’t need to worry about having any music, or pestering the guitar player to tell you the chords. And if you want to learn this awesome skill, we have some good news and some bad news… First, the bad news: learning to do this does take some time. Now don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be years, in fact if you follow our Backing Track Ear Workout it can take only months. Seriously. So, the bad news isn’t really all that bad. Now, ready for the good news?

The good news is this: You don’t have to go looking all over the interwebs for “ear learning methods”, or struggle to play along with YouTube videos and work yourself into state of psychosis anymore. No, those days are over. We have created a simple, fun and effective training method for you to learn how to play songs by ear, and by the end of this blog you will know all the Jedi secrets. But first, we need to understand some basics of how “playing by ear” works…

The first skill you need to play by ear is an understanding of the different parts of a “jam song”, because there are so many things going on that unless you know what to listen for, you will just get lost. In your average song there are chords flying by, a churning bass line, lyrics and melody, not to mention the out-of-tune ukulele player next to you, and all the enthusiastic singers who only know every other word. It’s a war zone, and being able to focus in on a particular target will mean the difference between sounding good, and making your ears wince.

So, let’s learn the Five Levels of a Jam. This is the system we use to break down any song into basic elements, so you can be aware of what is happening at what time, and more importantly, know what you are listening for!

In brief, the Five Levels are 1 – Rhythm (drumming, hand clapping, etc.), 2 – Root (the bass), 3 – The Chords (where we will be focusing on), 6 – Melody (the singers), and 5 – the “lead” (when players improvise and take turns in the spotlight).

Now, as you get better and better at jamming, of course you may want to romp around in several of these levels, and we encourage you to do so! (In fact, you can book a Live Video Lesson any time and we will show you the ropes).

But for now, since our goal is to be able to figure out the chords by ear, well then, we’ll be focusing on Level 3! And equally importantly, you will be “tuning out” all the other levels. Yes, you will need to ignore that flirty fiddle player, and don’t even think about singing. You have one purpose: to play the damn chords! Now, before we show you how to do this, in all fairness we should mention that there is another method for learning the chords to a song when you don’t have a chart, and that is “hand reading”. This means that (with some practice), you can learn to identify the chords by watching the guitar players hand, and usually do pretty well.

However there are many problems with this approach, including there not being a guitarist in view, or that they move up the neck and start using some crazy bar chords. Or, lots of times the they may not know the chords either, but in typical guitar player fashion, continue to valiantly fake it. So, although hand reading and carting around piles of charts will get you through the night, you will only gain true freedom by using your ears. So, let’s get started…

By far the most effective way of training your ear to recognize chord progressions is to utilize a “guessing game”. There are many ways to do this, but here are the three principles you need to play the game:

1 – Your instrument choice in your lap

2 – Audio tracks of various songs, that have prominent chords.

3 – Chord charts for the songs in question (but don’t look at them yet!)

So we’ll assume you have that first one covered (if not go get yer axe!). Now, as for finding the right kind of song, we have the perfect solution: our Backing Tracks! Yep, these are perfect because they are just bass, guitar and mandolin (sometimes drums), and you can hear the flow of chords perfectly. And, they all come with a chord chart! You can browse our library of Backing Tracks HERE, but we’re going to recommend some specific songs so don’t get to crazy.

(Yes, JamAlong Backing Tracks are $5 a peace, but they are all free to you when you decide to become a subscriber, along with every lesson on the website. Think about it)

So, you ready to play the Chord Guessing Game? Good, let’s get going 🙂

Song 1 – Bury me Beneath the Willow, key of G

Click HERE to access the chords, but don’t look at them too much!, then click HERE to listen to the chords. Have your instrument handy, and futz around playing different chords, while you try to match what you hear. Feel free to say chord names out loud, or stop and write your guesses down. This is all part of the process! Then when you have strummed along for as long as you can stand, look at the chord chart and see how close you came. Don’t be disappointed if you didn’t get any of them right!! This is a long process, and everyone has a hard time at first. You will need to do this over and over again, and then gradually you will start to hear what chords are being played. Trust us, you will get it, if you are patient and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Now, the catch here is once you figure out a song, then you have to move on because you need songs that you actually “don’t know” 🙂 Get it? So they only last for a bit. So let’s try another one…

Song 2 – Angeline the Baker

Click HERE to access the chords (don’t look, remember). Now click HERE and listen and strum. When you’ve had enough, go look at the chords and see how ya did.

So, that is the JamAlong Chord Guessing Game, and if you play it regularly, you will be able to follow along with any song by ear, before you know it! So how to continue? Well, just access as many of our Backing Tracks as you have time for, and follow the steps we just taught you. Remember, if you sign up as a JamAlong member, you can get access to all the backing Tracks and lessons on the site, as well as Live one-on-one video lessons, and custom tracks made for any song you request! it’s a pretty sweet deal, we hope you’ll give it a try.

Until next time, keep workin on your ears!



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