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Figuring out the chords by ear

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Estimable Member
Joined: 16 years ago
Posts: 44
Topic starter  

I'm now trying to become a "tab poster" as opposed to being a tab reader.

Kudos to those come up with accurate tabs. HOw in the world do u do it?
In any given song, I am having trouble hearing the damn chords.

Could anyone name some “relatively” easy songs for me to use as training wheels?

the pathetic thing is, i'm aware of the steps.
1. find out what key the song's in
2. listen to the bass note - the thing is I'm not hearing them clearly ! ANy solutions?

I do have the necessary theory background to which chords to try plugging in.
(the 7 distinct chords to choose from in any given key from the I chord, IIm chord, III m chord, IV chord, V chord, VI m chord to the VII chord, and the 7's and major 7's etc )

But I'm having trouble picking the right chords.
Do I just have to hear closer? How do you hear closer?
And I'm having trouble hearing the transition points between chords.

Your insight is GREATLY appreciated.

Reputable Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 343

Start out simple, a song with a simple melody and not too much orchestration - most Led Zeppelin riffs would do. Then build from there. After figuring out the key and such, the finding the bass note is so you can figure out what chord. Usually the bass note is the root of the chord being played, then of course there is major/minor 7th and so on. Finding the chord changes is important. Most melodies are arppegiated versions of the chords. Strum the chords along to the song and see if they fit - even if there is no part that is just strumming the chords. That should give you enough of a jumping off point. I am sure others will have more of a help. It also may help to learn what your intervals sound.

It's not easy being green.... good thing I'm purple.

Estimable Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 174

A guy that I play with will just try a bunch of chords and see if they fit. He will play like E, A, D, G, C, or some variation thereof until he hits one that sounds right. Maybe not the "correct" way, but it works for him. Then he just tries the most common combinations for the next chords, like if the first chord is a G, he will try a C next, if that isn't it he will try D, etc.

Of course that is purely un-theoretical, hit and miss.

~Mike the Redneck Rocker.

"The only two things in life that make it worth living are guitars that tune good and firm feeling women" - Waylon

Wes Inman
Illustrious Member
Joined: 19 years ago
Posts: 5582

You are already doing the things I would recommend.

1) 90% of the time the first chord is the key
2) The other chords will usually be the Major or Relative Minor chords in that key
3) Follow the bass line

You are doing that already. :D

It also helps to know the music style you are playing. Rock music is mostly Major and Minor chords. Rock will often include the flatted 3rd and 7th. So a song in A will often include a C or G chord. Funk music is 9ths. Country is mostly Major and 7th chords. Blues is Majors, 7ths and 6ths. Jazz is Major 7ths and Minor 7ths and Dominant chords. There are many exceptions to these general rules, but overall it is true.

Sometimes a single note in a chord will give you problems. You hear a chord and try a C Major. It sounds close, but something is not quite right. Well, try a C7, or a C Maj7, or even a C Minor chord. Find that one note that is throwing you off, and try to determine what other chords it could belong to and try those.

Listen to slow easy songs with clean guitar. Distortion sounds great, but it also muddies the sound of individual strings.

Still, the things you already know help most. First chord is the key, you know the chords in that key, now match up with the bass line.

Chord changes usually occur on the 1st or 3rd beats. Sometimes a chord will change an eighth note before, a "lead in". So listen to the drums too. A drummer will often hit a cymbal on a chord change. Little clues like this help.

Just stay at it, it will get easier and easier. :wink:

If you know something better than Rock and Roll, I'd like to hear it - Jerry Lee Lewis

Honorable Member
Joined: 18 years ago
Posts: 418

To find the key instantly, listen to the song and play the low E string. Slide slowly up the string from the 1st fret to the 12th. With some practice you will be able to hear the "sweet spot" where you are sliding over the root note and it is coinciding with the root note being played in the song. Try it a couple more times until you are sure you have the right root note. Then you can work out the rest of the chords - for example if the "sweet spot" is at the 5th fret (A), it is likely the chords will be A, Bm, C#m, D, E, F#m etc as you know. To get 7ths and diminisheds and suchlike, you need a further level of refinement in your hearing.