Exercise and trust your ears!

Years ago, I jammed with an incredible pianist. Classically trained, he could play anything you put in front of him. Not only was he a great sight-reader, he would also put a lot of feeling into everything he played. His only problem was that without sheet music, he was lost. If we played a 12 bar blues, despite the fact that he had an exhaustive knowledge of scales, he had no idea how to improvise over it. It was very frustrating for him. In time, he learned to use and ‘trust’ his ears. This allowed him to become a very fine improviser!

I, on the other hand am a terrible sight-reader. When I was learning to play the guitar, I learned everything by ear. The internet was not even imagined at that point and tablature was just starting to show up in publications.

When I was 17, I was a huge Yes and Genesis fan. I loved their guitar players, Steve Howe & Steve Hackett. Both wrote and played some lovely solo acoustic pieces. My favorites were ‘Mood for A Day’ from the Yes album Fragile, ‘The Ancient’ from Yes’s Tales of Topographic Oceans, and ‘Horizons’ from the Genesis album Foxtrot.

It wasn’t easy, but I learned all three pieces, by ear. There are some great advantages to doing this:

  1. It forces you to use your ears and try things in different places on the neck of your instrument. It’s a great exercise. Not only will it develop your ears but it will also teach you to trust them.
  2. Each time you learn something by ear, your ears will improve at picking things out and subsequent pieces become much easier to learn.
  3. Ultimately, it will help with your improvisation skills. Imagine being able to play ‘what you hear’ as you improvise instead of relying on a repertoire of licks.
  4. It helps you to memorize the song. I found it easiest to memorize the song first so that I did not have to constantly hit play and rewind on a tape deck or worse, lift the needle from the record over and over and over. Memorizing the song will also cause you to pay more attention to the subtle nuances of the performance. I found that this gave me an even deeper appreciation of the musician.
  5. Often, the tablature you will find is not accurate. Your ears know that so you have to work it out for yourself anyway. For example, I want to add Paul Simon’s ‘Still Crazy After All These Years’ to my repertoire but the tabs I have found are not close enough to what I want. What I want is to replicate those great piano inversions, on guitar. I will learn it by ear. Maybe I will tab what I learn for you one day 😉

I am not suggesting that you stop using tablature or sheet music. If I felt that way, there would be no tablature at this site! What I am suggesting is that you pick a few songs you really like and learn them by ear.

A few years ago, I decided to re-visit and polish two of the songs I mentioned above. The Ancient, and Horizons. If you have come here looking for the tab for those songs, sorry, I am not tabbing them out, but, I did record them and have placed a link to each one below. These are not simple tunes so I hope they will inspire you to use your ears and learn some challenging pieces. If you do, you will realize a great sense of satisfaction and you will become far more confident in your musical abilities.


The Ancient

If you are stuck, try a combination of tablature and using your ears. Do what you can to use as little of the tab as possible. As well, seek the help of other guitar players. A very good friend of mine (hi Mark!) helped me learn some pieces and I helped him as well. I recall those learning sessions with a great deal of  fondness!

If you know these songs, and have a good (accurate) source for the tabs, feel free to leave them in a reply to this article.

Good luck with your playing and the development of your ears!



Visit Steve Howe’s Web Site

Visit Steve Hackett’s Web Site

Photo Credits

Steve Hacket Live © Jean-Luc

Steve Howe Live – public domain photo from Wikipedia


© Gil Namur, 2009


  1. Your post You should exercise and learn to trust your ears! | Synaptic Studios was very interesting when I found it over google on Friday by my search for free guitar lesson. I have your blog now in my bookmarks and I visit your blog again, soon. Take care.

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