How to learn guitar at home by ear
I wanted to learn to play guitar at home and as a beginner, didn’t know where to turn. I was 15 and wanted to learn guitar the correct way, whatever that means. Local guys in the neighborhood could only teach me so much, as they only played by ear. I needed more and sought out a teacher. Lessons were once a week from a small music store 10 minutes from home, Wednesday nights at 7pm. My mom drove me. I was 15. I wanted to play metal but Chuck insisted I learn the blues first, as rock and metal are derived from the blues.
Chuck was a middle – aged studio musician with short light brown hair. His weathered face reflected years under gig stage lights and Marlboro cigarettes, which he kept in plain sight in his guitar case.
Chuck’s road – worn starburst fender strat was beautifully – broken in. The warm melodic tones fell out of his amp easily and with grace. Between talks he would jot down scale patterns and chords on photocopied guitar fretboard paper for me to take home and practice. It was fun but very overwhelming.
Music theory is a science. For those not familiar, music is a lot of work figuring chord structures and scales out. It’s another language you must learn and learn well. There are those who simply play by ear, never knowing what they are doing and there is nothing wrong with this. I wrote most of my music that way. Some of the greats are the same, including the Beatles. Most, bands, at least 90%, you have seen at the local club (rock especially) play by ear. Ask them to play a B minor scale in 2nd position and they’ll freeze.
Lessons with Chuck didn’t last more than a few months, as I ran out of money, and wanted to pursue heavier music. I spent hours, daily, in my room, completely obsessed with guitar. My bedroom was wallpapered with inspirational photos of rock legends I listened to and read about, along with photos of guitars I could not afford.
Ralph Macchio is a classically-trained guitarist in the CROSSROADS film who battles against Jack Butler (sold his sold his soul to the devil.) If Ralph’s character wins, he keeps his soul, but if Jack wins, well, it’s not good for Ralph. Ralph Macchio never played guitar in this film but did a great job at pretending. Jack Butler is played by Steve Vai, one of the best guitar virtuosos there is. Steve has played with Frank Zappa, Whitesnake and a host of others, but mainly enjoys a successful career as a solo artist. Here are some of Steve’s many albums. He’s one of my favorite artists. It was a fun time, it was a great time, it was the 1980s.
Should you take lessons? Great question. For me, some guitar lessons with a teacher and through books on my own were good. A starting point was needed. Music theory was very overwhelming to me. I’m a perfectionist and I need to understand why things happen. There were many times where I came up with really cool chords or progressions and asked how they translated to theory. All the time, I got no answers. “It sounds great! But it doesn’t follow theory.” That’s what I heard. Or I would get something like, “it looks like an A minor but you add a 6th to it and then you go here….that doesn’t make sense but it’s really cool.” Those statements drove me crazy. If there was no theory behind it and if a name couldn’t be put to what I was doing, I didn’t want to play it. Maybe that’s stupid but it’s how I am. It drove me nuts that certain things couldn’t be explained.
I spent hours researching and trying to figure out patterns and reasons for the way music worked and hit a lot of dead ends. Music is not perfect, it’s more a feeling. I kept hearing that if it sounds good, then it is good. Although I agree, it still drove me nuts to not have answers in music theory. I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and knew it would one day truly drive me crazy. I stopped theory and played by ear only. The advantage to that is it’s more fun. I like being surprised by FINDING the cool chords instead of letting theory dictate that to me.
The good news is that today, in the cool technology era we live in, there is YouTube. Tons of videos online to teach anyone how to play any style of any instrument are available. We didn’t have that when we were kids. We had to drop $50 on ONE guitar instructional video on VHS made by REH video. Never could afford those.
If you want to learn but don’t want to travel anywhere and have limited funds or don’t want to commit to music lessons or their expense, there is AMAZON….or, as I said, YouTube.
Of course there are many people out there saying you need to know theory, while others will say no you don’t. The beatles knew no theory. Paul McCartney was quoted as saying “it’s all just flies on a sheet of paper to me.” That made me feel better. In the end, do what you feel is best. I think some form of lessons are good. I would say if you strive to be a studio musician or session player, you need to know theory. You’ll be playing other artists’ music and you need to know how and fast. In the studio, time is money. You need to learn how to site read and play with feel on the fly. I wasn’t going that route.
I still play guitar as time permits and record in my home studio but life gets in the way and I lost interest in trying to “make it” years ago.
I wish I knew where Chuck was. I can only imagine how good he is now.