Ear Training for Musicians

Most musicians do not have perfect pitch and have practiced and employed several skills to improve their ears’ abilities. At the collegiate or academic level, a student is required to test through several levels of ear training to further their abilities and continue their musical study.

Someone that doesn’t attend a music program goes through a similar process by learning from others and listening to recordings, transcribing and figuring out parts by their favorite players and bands. Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles didn’t “know” what they were doing in the academic sense, but they knew EXACTLY what they were doing because they had developed a tremendous ability with their ear training. Depending upon a student’s goals, I  will often teach varying degrees of ear training skills to further the students musicianship and ability to relate the information to the guitar.
The basic areas covered in ear training are:
  • interval identification – the ability to identify the distance, the interval, between two pitches. In order for a musician to determine the notes of a melody or part, one has to be able to hear and discern intervals.
  • functional pitch identification – once you can identify the role or function of a single pitch as the tonic of any particular key, each additional pitch can be classified in relation to that starting pitch. This information informs you to what key you are in and what melodic notes are available to you…either as a guitarist improvising a solo or a songwriter creating a new melody. This ability and skill is complementary to chord recognition and basic harmony.
  • chord identification – the ability to discern chord quality;  major, minor, diminished and augmented and any extensions…7ths, suspensions, 9ths, etc.
  • chord progressions – once keys, triads and basic scale theory are covered (which isn’t as bad as it sounds, I promise!), we can begin talking about learning songs by ear. A guitar player’s understanding of playing over the chord changes and knowing which notes to target over which chords is crucial.
  • For songwriters, the ability to understand how chords function and work together within a tonal center, or key, will open up a new and exciting world of opportunity, creativity, inspiration and understanding. This is where you realize your heroes are working with the same harmonic source material as you, and what they are choosing to do with the material that makes them unique…you start too understand the inner workimgs of the style they have developed.
  • Rhythmic recognition – yep! every guitar player and singer’s NIGHTMARE…counting and staying in time! This skill entails learning how to subdivide the basic beat, know what time signature you are in and what part of the beat you are on.
  • This way when the drummer gives a count off and you are responsible for the guitar riff or lick, or the vocal pickup, you know EXACTLY what to do! Your bandmates will GREATLY appreciate this!!
  • Transcription: this is a really important skill and sure fire way to not only improve your ear, but to cement your knowledge of everything mentioned above. The ability and information gained from transcribing guitar solos, licks, progressions and melodies is really beneficial for guitarists.
  • The same is true for songwriters as well. The study of melody, harmony, form and structure found in the songs of others is of tremendous importance. The ability to transcribe and chart a piece of music is a thrill and opens the door to your favorite musicians, and your ability to effectively communicate with other musicians.

3 Questions to Consider Before You Begin Guitar Lessons

As a guitar instructor, I have 3 questions I ask when someone inquires about taking guitar lessons:

3 questions for finding a guitar instructor

Example of Frustrations With Learning Guitar

I recently had a student start lessons with me and he has been taking lessons from another teacher for a few years. He loves music and it is a really important part of his life. He contacted me because he was feeling some frustration with his current lessons. When I asked him my first question, I understood his frustration.

His previous teacher had never asked about his goals. Even worse, this student had come to believe that what he was experiencing in his guitar lessons and practice had to do with his own ability. This in turn was causing disappointment, self doubt, sadness, anxiety and some fear…and none of these are helpful when learning guitar.

I could tell he was shocked by the reality of this and, at the same time, was having a powerful realization. As we spoke further about the type of music he enjoyed and what he wanted to be able to do with his guitar playing, he started to get excited. I could hear how much music meant to him. His discipline and desire to play guitar were very obvious. For several years, he had been showing up and working hard. He respected his teacher and his teacher’s playing abilities. He just wasn’t getting what he wanted out of the guitar lessons and he felt stuck. There was a disconnect.

Setting Out To Learn With Clarity Of Purpose

After asking my three questions, I laid out a lesson plan for him, showing him exactly what we were going to do and why. He was noticeably relieved and enthusiastic about getting started.

So, ask yourself these 3 questions and set yourself up for success before you start guitar lessons, or begin with a new guitar instructor. You will experience success based upon your goals, studying the type of music you enjoy, that fits into the context of your life and schedule.

1. What are your goals?

2. What kind of music do you like?

3. How much time do you have, realistically, to practice each week?

Whether you are beginning to play guitar, or have been playing for a while, please feel free to leave your comments and experiences about this process below. I look forward to hearing from you. See you next time!

All the best, Shane

What to Look for in A Guitar Instructor

In my last post, I talked about what you need to know about yourself before looking for a guitar instructor. In this post I would like to share some thoughts on what to look for in your guitar instructor. This applies whether you are looking to study guitar in your home town or seek guitar instruction online.

  1. Does the guitar instructor teach the style of guitar you want to learn?
  2. Does the guitar instructor teach/accept your level of study; beginner intermediate or advanced?
  3. Is the guitar instructor passionate about teaching?

It’s A Matter Of Style

A professional guitar instructor is often quite versatile and proficient in many styles of music. It is worth asking which styles the instructor frequently teaches and performs. Remember, these are your lessons. Lessons will progress faster and be much more enjoyable if you are studying with a guitar instructor that is experienced and excited about style of music you wish to study.

A guitar instructor that is experienced and enthusiastic about meeting you at your level of study always makes for the best combination. Many instructors are great for the intermediate level. Students with some experience looking to improve can usually find several good instructors.

Considering Talent, Drive & Experience

A student teacher relationship is important in learning to play guitar

In my opinion, it is especially important to find the best instructor/­student match at the beginner and the advanced levels. Being a beginning guitar student requires more from a guitar instructor than someone that can play guitar well. It is also very important to find out if an instructor accepts children and teenagers, as well as, skilled and enthusiastic about working with that age group.

There are many great guitar players and instructors that may not be able to read music, teach classical guitar and/or music theory. A guitar student planning to audition for a collegiate program will be required to demonstrate such skills. It is important to seek an instructor who is capable of teaching guitar at this advanced level.

The same is true if a guitar student wants to play professionally. Finding a guitar instructor that is currently performing professionally in the pit for theater productions, at clubs and venues or as a studio musician is really important. A student can learn a lot by being in immediate contact with these skills and situations.

I have invited my own students to observe recording sessions, rehearsals and even play along with me in certain situations.

It’s Simple: Trust Your Instincts

Lastly, do you get the sense the guitar instructor wants to be teaching? Trust your instincts. When I was younger, I experienced guitar lessons with an instructor that would rather be performing, or doing just about anything else other than teaching. He didn’t really enjoy teaching beginners and he didn’t like the music I liked. He wasn’t a very good instructor, but he was a good guitar player. As soon as the 30 minutes were up, he grabbed the cash and hit the door as fast as possible.

After 5 months of learning bits and pieces of songs, music theory and scales, I didn’t enjoy playing and I quit guitar lessons. I was young and assumed it was about my inabilities, today, I know it wasn’t. That experience, along with some others I will get to down the road, caused a lot of unnecessary frustration, self doubt and unhappiness.

So, does the instructor not only have the knowledge and ability, but the energy, enthusiasm and the heart of a teacher?


When you commit to guitar lessons, you are beginning a journey and a relationship with the instructor. Ask yourself, “Is this the type of person I want to be with on a musical journey?”

Learning an instrument is a wonderful way to learn about yourself. A big part of the process is coming face to face with your strengths and weaknesses. You want to select someone that can not only present and demonstrate the information but also guide you through the process. You want a guitar instructor you believe has your learning and growth at heart.

A great instructor will have a linear plan for your progress, encourage you, celebrate your accomplishments, motivate you and be there when you are in a musical rut…and we all get in our ruts. It’s part of the process.

Learning to play guitar is much more than playing guitar. There are a lot of self realizations along the way. Why not find the best guitar instructor for you?