Tip: Portable Music Maker

We’re continuing the series of lessons that gets us started playing guitar by ear. Last time, we started talking about why the guitar is not the best instrument to begin learning to play by ear with. And the point of illustrating that is to help you understand that, when you’re struggling to play guitar by ear, you’re not struggling because you can’t do it, but because you’re fighting the instrument.

What’s wrong with the guitar? Understand that it’s designed to be a portable music maker. When you think of something that is portable, that thing is probably more difficult to use than a stationary version that achieves the same thing. Laptops are harder to use than desktop PCs, cell phones are harder to use than regular phones, and “portable” homes like Winnebagos are generally not as comfortable as stationary homes.

Don’t get me wrong. If you try to replace my guitar by moving a baby grand into my living room, with Norah Jones to give me lessons, I will hurt you the second you put your hands on my frets. And I’m against violence and would hate to see Ms. Jones leave. But think about it: when you look at the guitar as you’re playing it, you can’t even see the notes you’re playing because you’re not viewing the fretboard head on, but at an angle. That would be like a painter trying to paint by turning his easel so he was looking along its edge instead of its face.

Everything you learn about playing by ear from spending just a bit of time at the piano will be info you can translate to playing the guitar. In fact, I can almost guarantee you’ll have new insights in your guitar playing from learning a bit of piano playing.

If you are just learning to pick out melodies and play them on a musical instrument, and if those melodies are confined just to C major, you will begin playing melodies on the piano so quickly it will make your head spin. Do you know why? Count out the number of different notes there are in C major (or any major key), within one octave. There are only seven different notes! How far off can you possibly be when trying out a note?

Forget teachers, forget books, forget theory. Just listen to one simple tune, say, a Christmas tune that you know for a fact is in C major. Sing along with it a few times. Then, get yourself a freebie piano keyboard program for your computer “” you don’t even need a real keyboard. Then, listen to the tune a few times, sing it a few times, and then get busy finding those notes on the keyboard.

Don’t worry about following these tips now, though. We’re going to expand on this brief procedure in upcoming issues of this newsletter.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright © 2008 Darrin Koltow

This first appeared in the Guitar Noise News – August 15, 2007 newsletter. Reprinted with permission.