I’m going to let you in on a little secret, one that might even spoil your day—a lot of tablature out in the wild is wrong. Obviously you should look at anything you find on the internet with a healthy dose of suspicion, but even commercial tab books are often full of errors. Sometimes a publisher rushes to get a book out, or there are just simple mistakes in transcribing and printing.
While tablature is a great way to kick-start your guitar playing and learn some of your favorite songs, it keeps you from developing your listening skills. One of the best tools you can develop as a musician is the ability to pick things out by ear. It helps to think of this process like solving a puzzle. At first your skills will feel insufficient, but over time you’ll get enough experience picking things out that your brain will get better and better at pattern recognition.
Here are five tips to help you pick things out by ear and improve your transcribing skills:
1. Get Some Help
In this day of low-cost digital processing, do yourself a favor and get a good piece of tempo-adjusting software. Anytune, Capo and RiffStation are all great tools that let you adjust the tempo of any song without affecting the pitch. These tools also let you apply selective EQ to make particular parts stand out of a mix for easier analysis.
If the tool supports it, I suggest going through the song once and marking each major section (intro, verse, chorus, solo, etc.) For specific parts like a fill, riff or solo I’ll make separate markers for those. Once I have a tune marked I take a “top-down” approach and try to get a broad sense of how to play the song. Even if I don’t have every part figured out 100% correctly, I’ll take a couple of passes through the song to get the structure and then identify the parts that need more work.
Any good tool should also let you fine-tune the pitch of the song. If you’re guitar isn’t exactly in-tune with the recorded piece, it’s much easier to adjust the playback pitch than re-tune your guitar. Spend a little time getting the pitch right. If you aren’t in-tune with the recording it’s going to make your life more difficult when really digging into the tricky parts of a tune.
2. Loop It!
Most good tempo-adjustment tools will let you loop specific sections. Spend a little extra time getting your loops to fit musically into the rhythm of the tune. You should be able to fine-tune your loops so that they make musical sense when looped continuously. This will help you think about how the loop works musically and will make it a little easier to play along with the loop.
There are two ways to play along with a looped section. The first is when you are trying to figure out the loop. Play along and see if you can hit the “highlight” notes in-time. Once you have those figured out, you can start experimenting with different “in-between” notes. Focus your ears on finding the differences between what you play and what you hear from the loop. When you stop hearing differences, you’ve figured out the loop!
The second way to play along with loops is to practice and groove the loop. For technically challenging parts play along with it at a slow tempo—even as slow as ½-speed. Once you can play a loop at a slow speed, increase the tempo up a notch. Lather, rinse, repeat until you’ve got it.
3. Find The Simplest Answer
Once you get deep into figuring out a piece of music, it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of the bigger picture. The danger here is settling on a particular way to play a lick without thinking about the other possibilities, some of which might be a lot easier to play.
A lot of players will work open-strings into chords and licks that make some very unusual sounds. If you can identify those notes it provides a big clue as to how it was originally played. This is why it’s so important to get the recording and your guitar in-tune with each other.
Once you think you have a solution to playing something, try to figure out some other ways to play it. One of the unique things about the guitar is how its tuning allows you to play the same thing in multiple places. This blessing/curse means that your first solution might not be the easiest one. When you find an easier way to play it, you can be feel pretty safe that you’ve found the right answer.
As an example, for years the descending run into the verse from The Beatles’s Help! always mystified me. Many many years later I must have accidentally played something similar and realized that George Harrison was playing some kind of repeating figure with open 2nd and 3rd strings.
Once I had that figured out it was a matter of figuring out the part of the lick that changed. It turned out to be a simple minor-third shape moved chromatically down the neck. Once you put the two together you get the cool angular riff we all know and love.
4. Find Visual Clues
If possible, try to find a performance by the original artist on a video service like YouTube. Sometimes you get lucky with a camera angle that will help you figure out how a part is played. Even if you don’t get note-for-note details, just seeing what part of the neck they’re playing will give you some clues for how they play it.
Sometimes the live video will contradict the previous rule. I was trying to pick-out the opening of Eric Johnson’s Zap and started just with the audio recording. It sounded like it was in B♭, but that contravened rule #3. I chalked it up to a tuning difference or some artifact of recording and mastering. I thought to myself, it must be in A.
But then I found EJ’s performance on Austin City Limits and, sure enough, the damn thing is in B♭, not A. My eyes weren’t lying to me, so I had to adjust my transcription.
5. Fake It ‘Til You Make It
When you’re first trying to reverse-engineer your favorite music it can feel like an impossible task. At these early stages of development it’s very easy to get discouraged and just give up altogether. Be easy on yourself. Getting too wrapped up in getting it exactly right ignores all the great things you gain by figuring out any part of a tune.
Even if you don’t have it 100% correct, coming up with some approximation of the riff, lick or song is better than nothing. If you can identify which parts of your solution aren’t quite right you’re on your way to a better ear. Eventually you will solve it.
When I’m mystified by a certain part, I often stumble upon the answer several weeks or months latter while working on something else. If this happens to you, it’s a good sign that your ear is starting to develop good pattern-recognition skills.
Next time you decide to learn a new song or solo, fight the urge to look at the tab and see if you can start to figure some part of it out yourself. There’s nothing wrong with learning with tab, but by picking things out by ear you get a deeper sense of the structure of the music. The more you do it, the better you get at it and when you pull it off it is incredibly satisfying.