If the King loves music, it is good with the land – Mencius
On the mellifluous musical journey to magnificent mastery of the guitar, everybody wants to learn uber-sweet songs on the way. I still remember the first time I tried to learn a song by ear. It was Black Dog by Led Zeppelin, and as you can imagine – I failed miserably. It’s not exactly the first song you want to try learning on the guitar, but I kept at it and eventually got it down, but not without a lot of pain and woe. The problem I had when starting out wasn’t so much the mechanics of the guitar (fingering, strumming, etc), it was figuring out the music theory. Beginners might not believe me, but fingers learn chords faster than brains understand theory. The notes on the fretboard were a kind of mystery to me. I always wondered why one sequence of notes sounded great, and a different one sounded awful. How come people were always using the same set of chords together? How do they know when to use this chord or that chord, and how do they know what notes sound good when played together? The mysteries of the music world didn’t reveal themselves instantly, but rather came through persistence. This article is designed to help you figure out that song that’s been plaguing you, and in doing so, gain a better understanding of music in general.
There is no 10 step method for figuring out songs, but I hope I can give some pointers that will hopefully point you in the right direction. This article is directed toward beginners and intermediate guitar players, but experts might still be able to gleen a few good ideas.
Some people might suggest learning easy songs when you start out, but I don’t like that idea. Why would you learn boring stuff so that you can get to the good stuff? That doesn’t make sense does it? So don’t worry about the songs you “should” be learning, or the songs that you “need” to learn in order to get to the fun ones – ’cause that’s just plain ridiculous. You’ll get tired of playing your guitar faster than you can say “Celebrity Marriage.”
Start with your ears. Listen to the song at least five or six times before you even start trying to figure it out. The goal is to be able to sing or hum the entire guitar part in your head. This is important because the next step is to go and check out the tabs, which are notorious for being dead wrong. If you can’t hum the song, don’t ever plan on figuring it out with an instrument.
The next step in stellar song p0wnage is getting the tabs. I have a love-hate, dualistic relationship with internet tabs, and anyone who’s ever used them can understand why. Tabs, like I said before, are often very wrong. But why? Why are they always so out-in-left-field-picking-the-daisies-and-otherwise-nonchalantly-soaking-up-the-sun? Because the people who write them are brought up by seedy looking parents who make them live in the basements of dirty houses where every day is Halloween.
Okay, to a large extent, I’m joking (can you tell?). But the truth is, the dictionary on my computer keeps wanting me to turn these “tabbers” into “stabbers”. Who knew? Anyway, moving back to serious, tabs can be very helpful in figuring out songs. This is because stabbers, though often wrong, will often be right, and this is to be highly praised. They have done much of the grunt work for us (for free!) in figuring out songs. This will especially true if the song is a popular one, because then more people have figured out the song. If more people have figured out the song, you have a better chance of finding a skilled stabber’s tab. This should be the platform from which you launch your song learning attack, but take care to use your ears. If something doesn’t sound quite right, then it most likely isn’t, and you’ll have to figure it out yourself.
Finding the key
The second step in figuring out a song is to find the key. This is sometimes called the root or tonic, and in a way, the note which everything in the song rotates around. So how do we find the center of the music universe? If you’ve got some experience under your belt (i.e. you know your scales), then this will be much easier. The first, and often easiest way to figure out the key is to look at the first note played in the song. 90% of the time this will be the root note. With tabs and the first note as a guide, you can find the root of 99% of the songs out there. Just as a rough guide, most songs are in one of the following keys: E, Emin, G, C, C#min, D, A, Amin, and F.
After finding the root note, you want to find the key to the song. Now, key and root are closely related, so try not to get them mixed up. The root note tells us only one thing: the note which acts as the center of gravity. The key however, tells us the root note and if the key is major or minor etc. I’ve included some charts and stuff below that might aid in understanding this stuff a little. Basically, you’ve got two keys: major and minor (there are others, but they aren’t used very often), and these keys define the notes in the scale. At the same time, they define the chords that are assigned to each of these notes. So what this means for us (once we figure out the key) is we have a kind of guide or basic structure for figuring out songs.
To find the key, start with your ears again, and decide if the song sounds happy or sad (nothing to do with the lyrics, everything to do with sound). Use this as a rough point of reference and start messing around in the major and minor scales below while the song is playing, using the root note as a reference. Happy songs are often major, and sad/dark sounding songs are often minor. Monkey around with notes in the minor and major keys until you can figure out which one it is. It will most likely be one of the two (major or minor), where one will sound good and one will sound bad. If not, search the internet for something called “modes”, which might help you out.
Finding the Chord Progressions
Now that we’ve got the key, we can begin figuring out the chord progressions. A chord progression is the sequential movement of chords in a song. Aside from a few simple-type songs, you’re going to find that songs are built up of different sections: Chorus, Verse, Bridge etc. – where each of these different sections have distinct chord progressions. Our goal is to define these sections, and then figure out the chord progression for each one.
It’s snowing outside. I mean, its stellar coming down out there. Like a thousand diamonds it is. I know this has nothing to do with figuring out songs, but Beethoven’s third piano concerto is blasting out of my computer, the snow is raging just outside the window, and I’ve got a cup of hot chocolate here next to me. Just wanted to share that with you. Life is good.
Play the song over a few times and try to pick out the bass line. Don’t worry about majors and minors and 7ths and 9ths and all that jazz just yet. Just the bass – avoiding all the flourishes. You’ll find that the notes are usually in the key of the song, which should really help in deciphering them.
Usually it’s not too hard to solve the bass part, but you might run into something called transposed chords, which can really throw you off. When you feel like you know what the chord is, but the bass note just doesn’t seem to match, then they’ve probably used a transposition. A very common example of this that I’ve seen is G/B. The guitar and other instruments will be playing the full G chord, but the bass sticks right to the B, thus making the G chord not so strong. Transposed chords make it tough to figure out what’s going on sometimes, but it really pays off when you do.
The next step is to work out the chords that are associated with the bass notes you just figured out. Like I said before, each of the notes in the scale has a chord assigned to it.
Use this as a rough guide to figure out what chords are played in the song. You’ll find that the more songs you figure out, the more intuitive you get about what chords are played. When I started, I was surprised by the amount of similarity between many of the songs I learned. I kept thinking “How unoriginal!”, but then later came to the realization that these chord progressions have been in use for hundreds of years by hundreds (or thousands) of people. I don’t feel so bad anymore about stealing someone’s progression. You can get away with it quite easily actually: just call them one of your influences.
Another thing you’ll find is that genre’s have their own special “flavor” of chords. Rock and metal use power chords heavily. Pop and folk stuff will often use full open chords utilizing 7ths to create tension. Then Jazz jumps out like a rebellious child and ignores all the rules using everything under the sun. Each of these styles of music have patterns and chords that they tend to stick to. Once you get accustomed to the style you develop a sixth sense about what’s going on under the hood, thus making you a more intuitive guitarist.
Some other hints for figuring out songs
An often overlooked tool for figuring out songs is video media. Things like music videos and recordings of live shows are a really good resource that I think many people overlook. A few days ago I was getting clobbered by this Mute Math riff in the song “Typical”; I just couldn’t figure it out, and I knew it wasn’t complex. The many tab renditions I found were close, but not one was perfect. Half an hour or so I sat down at this one lick. Then I decided to look it up in the good ‘ole me-tube, and watched real close, and figured it out right away! Don’t underestimate the value of pictures ladies and gentleman.
Another good tool is slow-mo. Audacity is a free tool that will do it, but I think you can figure that one out yourself.