Tuning Your Ear
The very first step in your quest to be able to work out the elements of a piece of music and be able to play them on your guitar is to ensure your ear knows what to do — what to hear, more specifically! This is where we tune our ear.
You need to be able to discern the different components of a song in order to differentiate and divide them into separate tracks in your brain. If your aim is to work out what the guitar is doing, then you need to be able to focus on it solely and in isolation to all of the other instruments that may be shrouding it. This is a tricky thing to accomplish and can even be almost impossible, depending on how a song is mixed. There is the risk that the vocal, keyboard or bass shares the same note or frequency, thus confusing your mind as to what it may or may not have heard.
But do it you should. As with the micro-muscles in your fingers and how they need to spend time getting used to the often unnatural positions playing guitar demands of them, your ear too needs to learn a new skill. We spend a large part of our lives focusing our attention to one thing within a mixture of others: One voice from a blend of chats, a face from a crowd of many, yet when we listen to music, we may well find ourselves absorbing it as the sum of its parts and not at its source level. We need to think of it as a group of components.
Once we have succeeded in doing this, we can pay attention to the one component we are looking to transcribe and learn to play.
The only way to improve this area is that same old simple truth for most things, and one that will be echoed in other articles on the site — practice. Sounds onerous? Well, it needn’t be, as in this instance, your practice is no worse than having to listen to a series of your favourite songs, picking out and listening to only one instrument as best you possibly can.
Focusing on guitar, begin by listening to how many independent guitar parts there may be present in a song. There can be a multitude, each being played in different ways: An acoustic strumming the principle chords, an acoustic picking the notes from a chord, an acoustic playing a single note melody………And on it goes for the electric too: A chordal, strumming guitar, an overdriven guitar doing the same, perhaps one picking notes from the chord, in unison with the acoustic, a single note melody guitar, the lead, solo guitar for that ripping middle section with the face-melting licks! Each can come and go in a song, so being able to spot the changes and what little differences occur within a song that may be as a result of what a guitar is doing is key.
Get Under the Hood
The long and short of this article is simply that you should spend some time getting underneath the hood of your chosen song to see what it is that’s making it what it is. You’re looking to hear what each component is bringing to the track in an effort to later be able to ignore it and hone-in on the guitar part you seek to understand and learn to play. You don’t need to be the earth’s most stellar singer, but it is a good habit to try to sing or hum the phrase you’re trying to figure out and learn, so that it becomes entrenched in your mind. By singing it in this way, you begin to train your mind to remember and recall it, making it so unforgettable that your fingers will ultimately find their way to the correct note themselves.
Okay, so that may be stretching it a little, but having this familiarity with the part you’re aiming to play does help in a big way to doing so quicker and with a heightened level of accuracy.
Now Go Play
Once you feel you may have achieved this separation of instruments and parts in a song, you can then move on to applying it with your guitar in hand.