Learning Guitar - Figuring Out Songs From CDs or MP3s

Hearing the Chords

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There are quite a few ways to tackle identifying chords in songs... some more helpful than others. Let's have a look at a few of them.

Using Bass Notes

Listening for bass notes is, to me, the easiest way to identify chords. Since the role of the bass in pop in rock music is generally to lay down the foundation of the music, and play the root (primary note) of most chords, all the information we need to identify chords can often be found in the bass part.

Try this:

  • pick a song that sounds relatively simple to play - one that doesn't move too quickly, and uses a basic strummed guitar part.
  • now, listen to the guitar part, and identify when the chords are changing in the song.
  • try to identify the bass part. The bass part in pop and rock music usually contains single notes, and is the lowest sounding instrument in the band.
  • using your guitar, try and identify what note the bassist plays when the guitar chord changes. Slide your finger up the sixth string of your guitar, and try every note, until you find one that sounds like the recording.
  • identify that note (eg. eighth fret on sixth string is a C)
  • try playing different types of C chords (Cmajor, Cminor, C7, etc) at that point in the song
  • when you find the right chord, move on to the next chord change

This is a pretty solid method of figuring out songs, although several problems arise. Sometimes, bass players don't play the root note of the chord... for example, they may play the note E, when the chord is actually Cmajor. In time, you'll learn to identify these sounds immediately, but in the beginning, these sort of situations will certainly cause you some anguish. Suck it up!

Identifying Open Strings

This technique is particularly handy when you have tried the bass note method of figuring out a chord, and failed miserably. Hope you've been honing your skills at hearing open strings ringing, because it comes in handy here too!

The concept is simple: listen for any open strings ringing in the recording, then find those same strings on your guitar. Now, rack your brain to remember all the chords you know that use those open strings, and try all of them, until you've found the proper chord. For example, if you were able to detect the open G and B strings ringing in the guitar part you were listening to, the chord could be an open G major chord, or an open E minor chord (actually, it could be a whole lot of chords, but we're keeping it simple here!) You would then try both chords, to see which one sounded correct.

Note by Note Method

This is admittedly a laborious method of figuring out chords, but sometimes, it's a necessary evil. The concept is simple... simply listen to the chord on the recording again and again, picking out any notes you can hear, and trying to replicate them on guitar. If you're lucky, after you get a couple notes, you'll recognize the chord. Sometimes, however, you just won't know the chord at all, so you have to put it together one note at a time. This can be extremely frustrating, but hey, no one promised this would be easy! And have faith that, while you're working, you're also training your ear, so next time, it will be a little easier.

With just a little bit of knowledge, we can also make it much easier to anticipate what the chord *could* be, without even picking up a guitar to try and figure it out. We'll finish up by using basic theory to help figure out songs.