From the March/April 2022 issue acoustic guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
For many guitarists these days, the first step to learning a song is to pick up the keyboard — and google the chords or tab. These huge online libraries of guitar charts are undoubtedly incredibly useful, but they also have real weaknesses. As with anything online, transcriptions can be riddled with errors, and displaying the same information across the web is Not an indication of its accuracy as many sites simply reflect the same content. Even for famous songs, important information such as capo positions and alternative tunings are often missing from online charts. To learn melodies more accurately and thoroughly, you have to dig deeper.
In my work for acoustic guitar and when teaching lessons and workshops, I spend a lot of time figuring out and sharing how songs are played. Here are some tips to help you through this process, many of which use the most important learning tool of all: your ears.
- Start with the bass
- Listen to open strings
- Find what’s up
- Listen to shapes
- Look for diatonic chords
- Try common tunings
- Check live videos
- Preview the grades
- Highlight the guitar part
- Slow it down
- loop sections
- Use an app
Start with the bass
First, get your bearings by picking out the bass notes of each chord and finding the tonic—the song’s harmonic base. In a band arrangement, listen not only to the guitar, but also to the actual bass player. Finding a matching bass line is a good start to establishing the chord progression. And when you hear a guitar bass tone lower than your sixth string, that’s a clear sign of alternative tuning.
Listen to open strings
Open strings have a distinctly different sound than fret notes. Identify pitches that sound open and find them on your guitar. If they’re only available fretted, there’s most likely a capo or alternate tuning (or both) at work—or maybe a partial capo.
Find what’s up
Pay attention not only to the bass, but also to the highest note in each chord. This will also help you find the position on the fretboard. Of course, the same notes can be played in multiple places—that’s one of the biggest complications of figuring out guitar music. So check out different locations. The one that’s easiest to grip is the most likely candidate (yes, guitarists are lazy… or smart).
Listen to shapes
Guitarists often rely on the same basic chord shapes. An open G or D, for example, has a distinctive sound based on its pitch and interval structure. By focusing on this sound, you can learn to identify a G or D shape even if it’s up the neck and sounds in a different key.
Look for diatonic chords
Knowing the naturally occurring chords in a key, also known as the diatonic chords, is a great asset. (You can learn about diatonic chords in my book – shameless plug Songwriting Basics for Guitarists.) If you know the key, you’ll have a good idea of what other chords might appear.
Try common tunings
If you think you’re dealing with an alternative tuning, check the most common ones first – dropped D, DADGAD, open D (DADF# AD), and open G (DGDGBD). Open strings and natural overtones often provide clues. And remember, many songs use capos in conjunction with non-standard tunings.
Also, keep in mind that dropped versions of standard tuning, in which all strings are tuned a half or full step down, are more common than many players realize. Generations of guitarists were taken aback by the fact that Paul McCartney played a guitar tuned down to D on “Yesterday,” for example, as did John Fogerty on “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son.”
Check live videos
A major source for hints on capos, tunings, and fretboard positions are performance videos on YouTube. Look for a capo and the general positions of the player’s gripping hand to see if you’re in the right zone. One caveat though: live and studio versions may not be the same. Players sometimes simplify or alter a studio guitar setup for the stage, and they can change the key as well. When researching a recent Mumford and Sons guitar workshop, I Will Wait, I even found live versions in multiple tunings. So there can be more than one right way to play it.
Preview the grades
Need a hint? Google the sheet music and check out the preview. In an authentic guitar tab release, you may be able to spot tuning and capo information at the top. And of course, if the transcription looks good, you can buy it.
Highlight the guitar part
If the track has a dense mix and you’re having trouble hearing the guitar, try panning or EQing to bring out the guitar more. Some transcription apps (see #12) have built-in tools for this.
Slow it down
On YouTube, you can slow playback down to quarter speed (by clicking the gear icon). The slower you go, the worse the sound quality gets, but the music stays in the same octave and it can help you understand a passage flying by.
oTranscribe is a free web tool that gives you better control over playback speed, rewind and more, and works with both YouTube videos and audio files. It was designed for transcribing words, but it’s also useful for music.
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Dedicated transcription apps provide better slowed down audio – see below.
Break a complicated song into bite-sized chunks. Also, focus on just one bar or chord change at a time, slowing down and looping as needed.
Use an app
Software like the Amazing Slow Downer, Transcribe! (Seventh String and up) and Capo (Mac/iOS only) allow you to change a track’s speed and pitch, loop regions, and more. Lately I’ve been using Capo, which also recognizes chords and beats, allows you to sketch out tabs, and has powerful tools for isolating and removing instruments – a very sophisticated app.
If you want to save a pitch- or tempo-matched track to work with, you can even do it with the free recording program Audacity. The built-in effects include plug-ins that make the job quick and easy.
Diving into songs in this active and detailed way has far more benefits than catching a specific guitar part. Even if you never manage to play it exactly like the record, you’ll take so much away from getting under the hood of a song you love. It’s one of the best learning methods with great songs as a guide.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of acoustic guitar Magazine.