Not all songs are available on line in playable form, sometimes you’ve got to figure it out yourself. When I transcribe a song for a student I have to start by ear. My knowledge of keys/scales, etc. does me no good because they never tell me what key the song is in! I always start with chords, because there are only 6 or so possible chords in a key (most popular songs are in 1 key) and the notes could be anywhere. Once I figure out the chords I know the key and the scale used and it’s much easier to figure the solo. The first part of my post will cover figuring out chords, while the second covers notes (solos/fills).
FIGURING CHORDS: Pick easy songs to start with, simple strumming songs that are mostly guitar. Singer/songwriters are good; Dylan, Jimmy Buffet, Taylor Swift. Bands include Green Day, Creedence, early AC/DC or Kiss, Misfits and Ramones, you get the idea. There are only 3 ways to figure out a song; luck, trial & error, or experience. Sometimes you can luck into a song, but mostly you have to go with trial & error and experience. The more you do, the less trial & error! Here is the basic process for 100% trial & error:
- Start at the first main part of the song (verse), skip any intro for now. Once you know the key it will be easier to come back and deal with any intro riffs. Focus on the first chord only, stop the song when the chord changes. The remaining 3 steps refer to the first chord only.
- Figure out the bass/root note of the chord. Play the notes from frets zero to twelve on the 6th string only (don’t skip around). Play the chord 12 or more times if you have to, and match the chord to the note. Several notes may sound OK, but one will be best. That’s the root.
- Figure the basic quality of the chord (major or minor). Play them both and pick the best match.
- Finally choose the best type of chord; type I, type II, or open (if possible).
For example, if the first chord was an A minor; you would locate the root on the 6th string, 5th fret. After determining that a minor chord sounded better than major, you might decide to play it open instead of a bar chord. Congratulations! You figured out your first chord by 100% trial & error. Now you have to repeat this process for 2 or 3 more chords before you can find this group of chords in a specific key. Once you know the key things get easier. You still have to use trial & error but you have a short list of 6-9 chords to work from. This means a few tries, not dozens. You also have a scale to work with, to figure out any riffs or intro sections. You can see why I suggest easy songs to start with! If you don’t know what a key is you will have to work out the entire song by trial & error. It will still get easier, because most simple songs contain 3-6 chords, you will keep coming back to the same chords you figured out before (sometimes). I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t plug my book, “Take Control: for guitar”, available on Amazon. In it, I explain keys and their applications and uses. I’ve played music both by ear 100% and with some understanding of keys and believe me, knowledge makes it easier. Next time I’ll cover riffs and solos.