Understanding Ear Training for Guitar

  • September 18, 2013
  • 7 

Updated: December 6, 2020

Anyone with half decent hand-eye coordination could become a decent technical guitarist. Ready for a bombshell? Technique isn’t everything. Being a good musician means you have a well developed ear. Ear training for guitar is how you develop the ability to learn songs by ear, and write music on proven music theory principals. In an interview with GuitarWorld, Steve Vai stated,

I believe that developing a good “inner ear” — the art of being able to decipher musical components solely through listening — is the most important element in becoming a good musician.

Steve Vai

Ear Training for Guitar Basics

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Before understanding how ear training applies to guitar, it is important to first understand intervals in general. An interval is the distance between two musical notes. Some notes have what is called a “whole step” interval between them, other’s have a “half step” interval between them. 

The musical alphabet goes from A – G. Every note is a whole step apart, with the exception of B to C, and E and F. See the chart below.

On your guitar, a whole step is 2 frets, a half step 1. If you were on the 1st fret, Low E string, you would be playing an F note. G is a whole step above F. So to get from F you would move a whole step (2 frets) up the neck to the 3rd fret, Low E. You’re now playing a G note.

ear training for guitar

Notice- There is a whole step for each interval, except going from B to C and E to F.

These intervals are the foundation to every scale there is. Major, minor, lydian, dorian, mixolydian…all of ’em. Each scale is simply put together with a different combination of intervals. This order of intervals is known as the scale’s “formula”.

For example, the major scale is W-W-H-W-W-W-H.  We will use the C Major scale as an example because the key of C has no sharps or flats. This makes it easiest to learn.

Since this is a beginner lesson, I won’t get into Key Signatures. That will be covered in a later lesson. Just know the key of C has no sharps or flats. Therefor you start on the C (root) note, your 2nd note is a whole step up from C (D) and the following note is a whole step up from D (E), and so on.

Following this formula the C Major scale is C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Notice anything? You start on C and end right before C. When playing this on a guitar you can almost always play a scale through twice in one position. The following diagram shows the TAB for playing the C major scale:

ear training for guitar

Image courtesy of learn-guitar-asap.com

Now that you have a better understanding of Intervals and how scales work let’s dive deeper into ear training. Remember singing Do-Re-Mi as a kid? Do-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La-Ti-Do!! Well.. That is actually the major scale is sang correctly. (Sang? Sung? ..I honestly have no clue..). From Do to Re your voice should move up a whole step in pitch.

Want to test yourself? Well.. You can now play the major scale, and you know that Do-Re-Mi is the major scale so..? Any dots connecting? No?

Applying This Crap

  • Play first note of C major scale on guitar – LISTEN
  • Now, without playing, try to sing “Do” and match the pitch you just heard as closely as possible
  • Now play the note and sing Do at the same time until you have it fairly close
  • Repeat steps 1-3 for 2nd note in scale (D) instead singing “Mi”
  • Now Play and sing “Do” and “Re” trying to keep your voice accurate to the notes
  • Repeat process until you’ve got the whole scale down as well as solid intervals.

How Can This Help You?

Knowing how scales sound, and being able to subconsciously sing them, is a huge asset to any guitarist. This skill is also commonly known as dictation. Any guitar lead is nothing more than a scale with the notes rearranged, repeated, vibrato(ed), etc.

Being able to listen to any song and recognize what scale and key the song is using and then play it is invaluable. It is a skill invaluable not only to your guitar playing but your musicianship and creativity.

The development of your ear is the center point of your guitar playing. Without a well trained ear your musicianship will be crippled. Try listening to the major scale, singing it- then singing it out of order. Bet it’s pretty hard, huh? Keep practicing!

Training one’s ears to understand and recognize musical sounds and concepts is one of the most vital ways to fortify the connection between the musical ideas in one’s mind and the musical sounds created on one’s instrument.

Steve Vai

My suggestion to you is to practice the above exercise with the major scale throughout the neck. Be sure to also try different keys, this is important for–simply enough: key recognition. When first starting out stick with just the major scale. Different words in the Do-Re-Mi song are used for scales such as the natural minor, harmonic minor, etc because they are comprised of a different order or intervals. I will cover these scales in a later lesson if you guys are interested!

I understand music theory is a complex topic. If you have any questions you’d like answered or comments, leave them in the comment box below. I will get back to you within 24 hours (usually less!)

Want to Develop a Perfect Set of Ears?

I highly recommend my students include at least 15 minutes of ear training in their everyday practicing. The only way to really develop is to consistently work toward improvement everyday.

One hour today, 2 hours thursday and maybe once next week just won’t cut it. I also highly recommend to all my students checking out EarMaster ear training software.

You will learn keys, scales, chords- everything your ears need to be able to pick up on. The program also makes tracking your progress extremely simple.

No more second guessing your ears. You owe it to yourself to at least try the free trial. The link can be found on their site under Download > Trial Versions.

posted September 18, 2013

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  1. Someday soon I will motivate myself and have the time to pick up that guitar sitting in the corner and learn. I have been trying to kick myself in the pants about this over the last year or two now. I really like how you break things down here and while I may not have picked up the guitar yet, I am getting some good concepts in my head a while.

    1. Hi James, I hope that you can find that motivation soon! Come to the dark side, James! You know you want to…

      Thank you for the kind words, bud! I really appreciate the feedback. In all seriousness, I hope someday soon I can personally help you learn guitar. Good luck!

  2. This is one of the key factors in learning guitar. I haven’t actually learnt by transcribing yet!, so thanks for the help!!. Great post 🙂

    1. Hey Lawrence,
      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you found the lesson helpful. Ear training is very important in developing into a well rounded guitarist, so start learning!

      Good luck!

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