Ear Training: Learning the Chords

October 30, 2017

Chords, Listening, Pedagogy

Your ear might be the most important thing when it comes to playing the guitar. Sure, technique is important, but if you can’t tell the difference between a wrong or right note, or an in-tune note and one not in-tune, then technique is pointless.

Over the years I have benefited from having a developed ear. Particularly in my ability to hear what chords are played on a recording. I don’t always have the ability or time to find the music—lead sheet or chord chart. Many times all I have is a recording and a few minutes to spare.

A technique every guitarist should have is the ability to pick out basic chords—major and minor—from a recording and to identify the root. This will give you all the information needed to play what you hear on a recording.

Here are two steps you can follow to learn this technique:

  1. Is the chord happy or sad?
    We tend to give music an emotion. With chords, we are taught that major chords are happy and minor chords are sad. Play a major chord and learn the quality, the “happiness”, of the sound. Play a minor chord and notice the quality, the “sadness”, of the sound. When trying to identify chords in a piece, the first step is to determine if the chord is happy or sad—major or minor.
  2. What is the lowest note sounding?
    Once you have dediced on the chords “emotional” state, you need to determine the lowest note sounding, most likely the root, the chord’s name. This is the second piece of the puzzle. Play the recording while doing a hunt-and-peck method on the sixth string. Try and find the note you hear on the sixth string. A hunt-and-peck method means you are going to just play a note and determine if the what you hear on the recording is higher or lower than the note you are playing. Repeat this until you hit the correct pitch. Once you have found the correct note you can determine the chord, an Amin for example.

If you don’t know the notes up the sixth string the following can assist you.


There will eventually come a point where you can hear what a G chord sounds like on the guitar, and so on. Learning this technique is a life and time saver.

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