My Musical Life: Learning to Play Guitar by Ear

I love playing guitar. I’ve always loved guitars, looking at them covetously like a starving waif looking at a loaf of hot bread. My first instrument was not a guitar though. That honor fell to a six-string, lap held steel guitar. My daddy called it a Hawaiian guitar. It was tuned in E. From that instrument, I moved to the mandolin, still an instrument I pick up occasionally. I also learned to play bass guitar somewhere along the way. Yes, my father did have all these instruments, and I played them all in public with him at one time or another. My father didn’t like to go to bars. He did like for us to play music at nursing homes and TB sanitariums, places like that. He was an extremely generous man who loved to share his music with the world.

Then I learned to play guitar. Dad made me practice every day. Even when blisters developed on my finger tips. “The blisters will turn to callous soon–if you keep practicing. If you want to be a guitar player, and if you want people to listen to you when you sing, you’ll have to learn to live with some pain.” I didn’t understand for a long time how many levels of meaning were in that statement about pain.
And so, I learned to play guitar. To make extra money (sometimes it was survival money) in my life, I’ve taught guitar lessons, and I’ve taught them successfully, just as my father taught me. I teach using country music. It gives good patterns to learn with. If you want to learn to play guitar by ear, here are the steps:

1. Buy yourself a chord book. Learn all the major chords until you can change one to another easily and quickly. One simple strum per chord will do until the chord fingers develop their muscle memory and flexibility.

2. Learn basic strumming/picking patterns. This depends upon what type of music you want to learn.

3. Learn the major chord groups of each key.

4. Learn one song in one key. Then change to another key, and then another, until you can play the same song in every key. Then move on to another song and do the same thing, then another song. After a while, your ear kicks in and you can figure out any song you want. The first song I learned in this fashion was “Little Brown Jug.” It uses the standard I-IV-V progression of many country songs.

Ha, ha, ha!

You and me,

Little brown jug,

I love thee!

Each of these points could be expanded, but I hope this gives you an idea. Today is Father’s Day, so there’ll be lots of activity. But as I think of my own father on this Father’s Day, I realize that one of the greatest gifts he gave me was his own love of music, and the ability to play guitar by ear. He so saturated my life with country music that to this day, I can still recite all the verses of hundreds of Country Music classics and gospel tunes. Some of them I can recite or sing along with even though I haven’t heard the tunes in years. The musical instruction my father gave me was a rich legacy.

The callouses formed on my finger tips as a young boy are still there, and yes, Daddy, I’ve finally become a working musician. And you were right—I’ve had to learn to live with all kinds of pain to do it.