Even though I’ve been playing the guitar since 2003, I still rely heavily on tabs to learn guitar songs.
Using tabs to learn songs on the guitar isn’t necessarily bad.
In fact, it’s great if you’re beginner guitarist.
If you don’t have 10 or so songs you feel comfortable playing at any given time, I recommend continuing to learn songs using tabs.
If you’re still using tabs to learn songs, check out my post about how to learn songs on the guitar as quickly as possible.
But if you’re a more advanced guitar player or you simply want to take your guitar skills to the next level, read on.
Why Learn Songs by Ear
If you’re wondering why anyone would learn songs without using tabs at all, you’re thinking what I thought for several years.
For the first decade of my guitar playing I didn’t even consider trying to learn a song without a tab of some sort.
But since then and more recently, I’ve been challenged by articles I’ve read and other guitarists I know to learn songs without the crutch of using a tab.
Let’s start with the most obvious reason to not use tabs to learn a song.
Tabs aren’t available.
At some point in your life as a guitarist, you will most likely encounter a song you want to learn that simply doesn’t have any tabs available.
Most recently, I came across this video of Jon Rauhouse playing a nice tune that I wanted to learn:
But I couldn’t find the name of the tune anywhere and so I couldn’t look up a tab.
(I’m not even sure this tune is from an actual song. It may just be a riff that Rauhouse was playing.)
So I had no option but to learn this song without the tab.
Granted, I had the video above to help me learn it which is arguably easier than learning from a tab.
But I bring up this up to let you know that you will likely encounter a similar situation at some point where you can’t find a tab (or a video) for a song you want to learn.
(Side note: if at first you don’t find a tab and you’re intent on using a tab to learn the song, you can search YouTube for a cover of the song to learn from the video.)
Tabs are inaccurate.
Sometimes you can find tabs for a song you want to learn but none of them are accurate.
I’ve encountered this frustrating phenomenon when trying to learn more obscure songs.
Again, your only option in this case is to learn the song by ear.
You want to improve your guitar skills.
Learning a song by ear can definitely level up your guitar skills.
This process is difficult at first, but it’s certainly doable.
How do I know?
Countless guitarists throughout history have learned songs by ear because no other method was available.
And of course, those guitarists who make tabs had to learn songs by ear too.
There’s nothing standing between you and being a guitarist who can learn a song by ear except time, patience, and practice.
How to Learn Songs by Ear
Learning to play songs on the guitar without tabs boils down to your listening skills.
If you can listen to a song carefully enough to hear the notes and repeat them, you can learn a song without tabs.
Below, I’ll walk you through the steps to make this happen, even if you’ve never learned a song by ear in your life.
1. Find a good recording of the song you want to learn.
Ideally you find a version of your song that just features the track you want to learn to play.
For instance, if you’re trying to learn the guitar part of a song that has drums, bass, vocals, and more, ideally you find a recording that just features the guitar.
A solo track like this isn’t always available.
But sometimes you can find a more stripped down cover of the song on YouTube.
Of course you can learn a song by ear from a recording with several tracks.
It’s just more difficult.
2. Download the song.
It’s really helpful to have a copy of the audio file of the song you want to learn so that you can manipulate it. (I’ll explain the reason why in step 3.)
If you found the ideal version of your song on YouTube, you can use a free tool like this one to download the audio from the video.
3. Use Audacity to slow down the song.
Now that you have the audio file, you can edit it in a free program like Audacity to help you learn the song by ear.
Audacity is a free audio editing program with several cool features.
One of those features is that it can slow down a song without warping the pitch.
Usually slowed down audio sounds distorted and hardly anything like the original.
But with Audacity you can slow down a song without distorting the pitch to help you learn the song in record time.
All you need to do is import the audio file, select the portion whose tempo you want to change, then go to effects -> change tempo, and you’re set!
If you want to hear the change tempo feature in action, first listen to about 25 seconds of the clip below:
Now listen to that same clip slowed down by 20%:
If you listened to the difference in the clips, I’m sure you can tell how useful this tool can be to help you learn songs by ear.
4. Gradually increase the tempo until you can play at the song’s standard tempo.
Being able to slow the tempo of a song doesn’t automatically make it easy to learn by ear.
You may still have to deal with other instruments/vocals on the track or studio effects that make it difficult to learn the song.
But slowing it down is a great tool to have when you’re beginning to learn songs by ear.
Once you know the song at a reduced tempo and can play it slowly, gradually increase the tempo and resume step six in my 9 Tips to Learn a Guitar Song Quickly and Efficiently
Leveling Up Your Skill of Learning Guitar Songs by Ear
Some might consider using software to help you learn a song by ear “cheating.”
Of course, there are no rules when learning songs by ear.
But it does take more skill to learn a song by ear without slowing it down with software.
However, if you’ve read a few articles on this blog, you probably know that I’m a fan of gradually increasing the difficulty of any skill you’re pursuing.
In fact, I think a gradual increase in difficulty is key to successfully acquiring skills.
And likewise, attempting to learn a difficult skill from a beginner status can be unnecessarily difficult and demoralizing.
Thus, I recommend using software to help you learn songs by ear when you’re beginning to acquire this skill.
That said, you can certainly graduate from learning a song by ear with the assistance of software.
In fact, you may come to a point in your guitar education when you’ve learned several songs by ear with software assistance, and the next step is to learn songs by ear without slowing them down.
Continuing to Scale Up Your Skills
Just like “graduating” from using software to help with learning songs by ear, you can “graduate” to more difficult songs to learn as well.
You might start with a single-instrument recording of a rhythm guitar piece (a song consisting of chords only, no finger-picking).
Then you might try a simple finger-picking song, then a more complex finger-picking song, then one with several other supporting instruments.
The key to building this skill (like any other skill) is to scale up the difficulty so that each new song you learn is a bit of a stretch (but not too much of stretch) for your current skill.
How can I learn to play guitar by ear? “Learning to play guitar” is a non-specific term and means different things to different people. The reality is that learning guitar by any method is a life-long pursuit. And learning to play guitar by ear is simply a matter of applying the concepts mentioned in this post on a larger scale. In short, the way to learn to play guitar by ear is to learn several songs by ear and continue to advance your skills playing by ear,