Best way to really improve/train ears??

Mark C

I've got a question for the big guns on this board. Say you've got limited time in the day, and you want the best bang for the buck in your practice time. What things would you work on? I'm thinking I need to spend more time on picking out ideas by ear, rather than reading exercises, however I'd like input from anyone who cares to respond. I can read, I know my scales and arpeggios as well as chords and extensions. Actually, I know a ton of theory, but am having trouble getting my improvising chops to improve over more challenging changes when attempting jazz standards. My thinking is that I should be playing what I hear (I can pretty much do this over rock and blues), and by transcribing, I'll be learning lines that I like and hearing them instead of reading them. Am I nuts?;)

Member 995

I'm certainly not a "big gun on the board," but I thought I'd throw in my tenth of a cent. I think that being able to play what you hear in your head is a defining characteristic of a great musician. It combines imagination (to hear what you want to play) and skill (in being able to execute what you want to play). It sounds like you have the skill part down and you just need to connect your imagination to your hands.

A key step is to listen to a lot of the music to hear what other musicians are doing. After all, if you only listen to players using the blues or pentatonic scales, then that will limit your own imagination. If you aren't already listening to music with the "challenging changes," then you should start.

Another step is to break out of the patterns on the guitar, at least for the time being. Limit yourself to playing on a single string and focus on melodies and hitting the notes that you hear. This has two big effects: 1. You will begin to hear the "correct" notes to play over changes and anticipate them better. This is especially important when working over non-diatonic changes. 2. You'll be free from the box positions, which enables for more vocal playing and also allows you to drop back into the boxes/arpeggios in a new position. After working on a single string, add a second string to the mix. Ultimately, you'll be able to anticipate the chord changes and play a melody that will lead into it, which is what separates a great improviser from the rest.

If you are more cerebral, then there are plenty of books that teach how to play over more complex progressions. They lay out the "rules" for playing over different types of chords and teach you how to analyze how the chord is functioning within the song (secondary dominant, tritone substitution, whatever). This will at least give you a sense of what might be appropriate and will help you to break down a more complex tune.

Personally, I like to balance the cerebral with the playing. Being able to play the right notes over a set of changes is one thing, playing something melodic over those changes is another. I've always found that erring on the side of melody is the way to go.

One thing that I like to do is to play a chord change into a looping device and then improvise over it. Alternatively, you can improvise into a looping device and then play the changes to it to see how well you are doing.



Here is some good advice from pianist Bill Carrothers:

"What I did is that after I'd pick out pieces and listen to them a while -- I actually listen all the time. More philosophy -- Here's a benchmark for you: I listen about 80% of the time, and I play the other 20%. And that's probably not enough listening -- it should be 90%/10%. So I listen all the time. That is one thing I did all the time -- I didn't practice that much, even when I was coming up. I practiced what I needed to get my **** together, to get to the place where I needed to be -- but I listen constantly. My parents would attest to that. I would put on the same piece fifty times. One after another, after another. It's the same piece. My mom would come out and say, "What are you doing?" I'd be downstairs, working on a train set or something when I was fourteen or fifteen years old, and I'd have this thing on, and it would just be the same thing over and over. And then later on -- twenty -- whatever I was doing around the house, something was on most of the time. And at my place in Woodstock, the stereo is one of the first things I turn on in the morning, and one of the last things I turn off at night before I go to bed.

And it helps, you know. And you don't have to be like…. I don't believe in transcribing at all. I've done none of it. I did two of them -- both as school assignments at North Texas State. I hated it, and I don't think it's the way to do it. Plenty of guys do, though, and if it works for you, okay. David Leibman was a huge transcriber and he plays his ass off, so….

But I don't believe in it. I'd rather listen to the piece 50 times and sing it. Be able to sing the whole thing. And, again, it'll come out of your playing more organically, it'll just come out of you -- and when you don't expect it. All of a sudden you'll be playing on a gig and you'll surprise yourself at what just came out. But see, then it's organic. It comes into you and it becomes part of you, and it comes out as part of you, rather than reading it off a page or transcribing it. Then it's an overlay. It's, "Now I'm going to do my eight bars of my Herbie Hancock imitation, now I'm going to my eight bars of McCoy Tyner, now I'll do a chorus of Keith Jarrett…." And that's the way guys sound.

You know, to me, the whole transcribing thing -- this whole forcing of knowledge -- is like cramming for a test.

Ok, let's say you've got two students. One guy crams for a test the night before, and he aces them. But then, who would you rather be? That guy, or the guy who doesn't cram for the test, he loves his subject matter. He's really into ants, or biology, or whatever…. He's just totally into it. So for him, it's not a matter of cramming, it's an integral, organic part of his life. It's part of why he gets up in the morning. Now, later on in life, which biologist do you want working for you? The guy who has crammed for his tests and aced them all, and it's like a gig for him? And he may be pretty good at it. But you want the guy that lives, eats, and breathes it. And it's the very same thing with music. A lot of guys never get that very simple lesson. It's not about a "skill". It's about taking the stuff in…. I mean, inescapably, it's part of who you are. If you want to be an artist, and you really want to convey something to someone else, it has to come from this place inside of you that owns it.

For me, the listening part is how you learn to own it. When you're listening to something, a good exercise I'd you to try -- something I think you might be interested in -- is to pick a piece of music out that you really like, preferably a be-bop thing. Something that's clear and crisp and doesn't have a lot of nuance to it, just a nice straight-ahead blues. Maybe a Clifford Brown thing, or Bird or something. And learn to sing every note of it. Get to the point where you could, on demand, sing the entire record. I did that for a while. Like with Clifford Brown….

[Bill sings the head of a Clifford Brown tune]

…I don't care how you sing, that doesn't matter. We're not trying to make you a singer…

[Bill continues singing]

…get so you can hear the drum part, the bass part,….

[Bill continues singing]

…this is Clifford's solo…

[Bill sings the solo]

…it sounds really silly. You'll make your parents think that you've gone totally off the top…

Vince: They're already there.

Bill: …good, then you've already got them to document it… So that it's just inside of you. Then you don't need to transcribe it. It'll just start flowing out of you. But you have to own it. A couple times won't do it. You have to play it and play it and play it. And again, even there, not because you're trying to get some thing out of it -- I used to just play stuff because I wanted to hear it fifty times. It's like a drug. It's like tap the vein and stuff it in. Over and over and over. Same thing, fifty times. So that's….you kind of have to be obsessive. I never used to know that about myself…I know not everyone is like that [When I was a kid], I was like, "Mom, I gotta hear it again, and again, and again!" It would be the same tune over and over, and my mom was like, "Stop!! I can't hear this tune again! No, not Frank Sinatra again!" And my mom loves Frank, but I would play the same record fifty times. My mom would come down the spiral staircase: "Turn that **** off!" He's doing it again…"

link to the interview:



I certainly don't consider myself a heavy hitter, just a big mouth.

No you aren't crazy. There are lots of ways to train the ears. The best way is the method that keeps your interest and makes you excited and want to do it over and over.

Whether that is transcribing, just listening as Carrothers suggests, taking a course or any combination thereof just do what won't bore, intimidate or frustrate you.

Just like learning anything, the key is repetition. I discovered that the profs didn't really know how to teach ear-training and they just threw everything at us. It's best to start with simple stuff and work your way into the more difficult.

My ear is infinitely better than it was when I graduated. As you know I used the Burge Relative Pitch course.

One thing for certain, if you can sing it, then you've internalized it.

If you have any questions, feel free to email me and I'll do my best to answer.

Mark C

Thanks for the replies everyone. Definately some food for thought. Lance, I've tried Burge and other programs and they do work, but like you said, you have to keep at them. I guess I'm just thinking that by transcribing, I'll not only be training my ear, but I'll be learning great lines in the process.


I use something called the 'Amazing Slow Downer' which is software that slows the playing and keeps the pitch (as the name implies). No tool since I began in the sixties has helped me to understand the phrasing of some VERY different guitarists. Not to mention getting an understanding of how each one in particular views the fretboard realestate.

I slowly learn the breaks note by note until I understand all of the above as it relates to that particular artist. Once I understand that artist I move on to the next who has a wildly different style.

As I jam alone now I find I incorporate (not copy) an artists 'colors' and might use a phrasing I couldn't have even imagined a year ago. After all a painter will only use red, yellow and blue until he mixes some of his colors together and gets green. Then he uses green as well.

I listen to everyone from John Mayer's acoustic voicings to Eta James' voice runs and punctuations. All of what I listen to broadens my understanding of my guitar playing and what I want to hear. But I find the most helpful (and teidous) is getting it down note for note. Not close, but exactly. There is just no substitute.


Scales, scales, scales. Your ears will be come tune to those once you've learned them up and down the fretboard. Alot of stuff is based off the blues scales, so learn those first.

That was the big change for me some 10 years ago. Once I learn the scales, I-IV-V progressions, things just seemed to fall into place. The blues scales seemed to give me a good base. What I would do is find out what blues scale fit the song. Then I would know basically what key it was in and could figure out the chords based on the scale. Do this a few times and you should come around, unless your tone deaf.

Hope that helps.

Chris S.

1) For strictly ear training, here's a great link (and it's FREE!):

For improving your improvising, there are a couple of things you can do:

2) As a teacher of mine put it years ago, Listen. And imitate. In other words, transcribe. Pick some favorite solos and learn them note for note. As mentioned above, software like the Amazing Slow Downer can help:

But whatever tool(s) you use, like the Nike ads say, "Just do it." ;-)

3) Sing a solo into a recorder (tape or digital) and learn to play what you sang. You've probably heard the (excellent) advice somewhere along the way to sing along with your solos, i.e., play and sing at the same time. But what you're trying to do is teach your hands to play what's in your head (as opposed to learning to sing the fingering patterns you're already accustomed to playing). One nice advantage to this method is that you're singing and learning your OWN original melodies – it's coming from your heart – but it's still a good idea to transcribe from the masters, too. ;-)

Those should be enough to keep you busy for a period of a few months to a few years, but if you still want more to do, pick up a copy of Mick Goodrick's amazing book, "The Advancing Guitarist" – that should keep you busy for the rest of your life. ;-) Best of luck, CS


I've recently hit on something I think is going to work. What I do is play while muting the notes, and "hearing" and/or singing what I play in my head. It's best to use a repetitive backing track, so you can play things twice, first muted, then check to see if what your hands are doing match what you are hearing in your head.

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