This is a continuation of yesterday's post, Thoughts on Learning By Ear - Part 1.
For example: The first song I teach all my students is “Banjo In The Hollow.” When I sit down with a student, I turn on the tape recorder and first play the song through fast, then I play it through slowly. Then I go through each roll in the song and tell the student exactly which strings to play, which fingers to use, one lick at a time. After the first lick, we go on to the second. At the end of the second, we go back and put the first two together. Then we add the third lick, and then put all three together. We go through the whole song this way so by the end of the lesson, the student should be able to put the whole song together, a lick at a time. When the student leaves I expect that she will go home and listen to the song, as well as practice it—listen to it over and over so that she can hum it all the way through in her head, without the banjo in her hands. Much like the “think system” that Professor Hill touted in “The Music Man”: If you can think it you can play it.
The next day, when the student picks up her banjo again, she will probably have forgotten the entire song. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. She just needs to go back to the tape of the lesson and re-learn it and practice it for as long as she can. The day after that, she will have forgotten it again, but it will not take her as long to re-learn. Eventually it will stick in her head and she can congratulate herself for learning her first tune by ear!
Parallel to learning to play lead breaks this way is learning to hear chord changes. For some people this comes easily, for others it takes more work, but it is something that can be learned—it is not an innate ability you are (or aren’t) born with. To start learning how to hear chord changes, start with two-chord songs, like “Skip to My Lou” and “Polly Wolly Doodle.” When you strum the banjo open, it is a G chord. The second chord you need is a D, or simply the two-finger D7 chord. Strum along with the songs as you (or someone else) sing it. When your strum starts to not sound quite right, change to the other chord. Once you get comfortable with the two chords, add your C chord and play some three chord songs (almost all the songs in the standard bluegrass repertoire have just those three chords): “You are My Sunshine,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “I Saw The Light.” (This process is detailed on our Learning to Hear Chord Changes DVD.)
Being able to hear the chord changes while strumming leads to being able to vamp (using slightly harder four-finger vamp chords) and if you can vamp, you can jam. I should mention that in a jam, there will be always be a guitar player, and that looking at the guitar player’s chords is not cheating. It is a very helpful tool in learning the chords to songs. You just have to learn to recognize the guitar chord shapes, and you can read the guitar player’s hands. (Of course, if the guitar player doesn’t know what she’s doing, then you’re in trouble!)
At more advanced levels of learning by ear, when you have spent a good many years developing this skill, you can begin improvising by taking all the licks you already know, which you will by then associate with a chord (G licks, C licks, D licks), and using them to create your own breaks to songs. And at the most advanced level of ear training, you can study Earl’s breaks straight off albums by slowing them down and figuring out exactly what he is playing. And you can do none of this if you simply play breaks that are written down on paper.