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 Playing Advice: Bluegrass (Scruggs) Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Playing by ear

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

Grizzly - Posted - 08/10/2007:  09:56:09

I'm sure this subject has been dealt with on this forum before. However, I'm a 'newbie' on here, as I know you can easily see. So to go back through all the forum subjects would be quite time consuming.
Here's my problem:
I'm stuck on learning tunes by tabs, and really envy those of you who can 'play by ear'. I desperately want to be able to escape the tabs and do the same. So, I'm imploring my brothers, and sisters, here at the BHO to tell me your secrets. How do I develop this skill, so that I can stop coveting your talent?
I have learned a lot through these forums the past few days. And I've even put my 2 cents worth in a few times. Wish I had been on here a long time ago!
So......let me have it guys and gals! Tell me what I need to do.....and thanks!

~ Grizzly the Banjo Pickin' Bear

"We're all here.........cause we ain't all there!"

dcb - Posted - 08/10/2007:  10:10:52

same as listening to a recording.
By tab I break it down to measures 1 at a time play it until you cant play it wrong. then put the tab away and play. later compare what you are playing to the tab see if you droped a note or lost time.

Bob Miller - Posted - 08/10/2007:  10:30:04

My suggestion is that you should start single stringing the melody of any song that comes to mind. Try any song, even "Mary Had a Little Lamb". You will find that it will become easier the more you do it. When you put the melody ahead of "hot licks" your on the right track. When you can play the melody with ease, you are playing by ear. Wrapping rolls around the melody will not be that difficult.

Bob Miller

Texasbanjo - Posted - 08/10/2007:  10:35:49

If you really want to learn to play by ear, try this:

Listen to a song over and over and over until you can sing or hum it. AFTER you have the melody in your mind, figure out what key the song is in. To do that, listen to the recording and start strumming on the banjo -- start off with open G and if that doesn't sound right, try A then B and so on until the first chord sounds good -- that will probably the key the song is in. (Most songs start off with the key signature chord; i.e., if the song is in G, the first chord of the song will be G. -- NOTE: there are some songs that do NOT start off in the key signature chord, but they are few).

Now that you have the key signature, figure out the rest of the chords to the song by strumming the banjo. Hint: most bluegrass songs have 3 basic chords so if you know the I chord, you can usually figure out the IV and V chords (If you aren't familiar with the Nashville Numbering System, the main chords in a song are the 1st chord which in the key of G would be G, the IV chord which would be C and the V chord which would be D). So, strum an open G until it doesn't sound right, then try a D and if that doesn't sound right, try a C -- one will be correct then keep strumming until that one doesn't sound right. Keep doing this until you have the chord sequence of the song. At first, write it down so you can remember it; i.e., G, G, G, G, C, C, C, C, D, D, D, D, or whatever it is.

Now, you have the key signature and the chord sequence so now start picking out the melody, just the MELODY, don't worry about fill notes right now. Try a song you know and know well -- let's say Twinkle Twinkle Little Star -- that's an easy one. Pick out the mleody notes (hint: most will be open notes). Once you have the melody notes picked out, write them down in tab, being sure that each note is in the correct measure and on the correct beat.

After you have the melody down, the try and figure out a rol lthat will fit with the melody notes. After you have a few simple songs done like that, you can start usng slides, hammers and pulls to make the song sound more bluegrassy.

Is that enough information to get you started?

Let's Pick!
Texas Banjo

mrphysics55 - Posted - 08/10/2007:  10:59:17

Oh I would NEVER use "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

That song will mess you up!

I'd recommend "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". It's worked wonders for many of us around here.

Do you need a Fiddle Player to Practice With? One is Available 24/7. So Be Sure to Check-Out and Support Leo's Website:

Bob Miller - Posted - 08/10/2007:  11:14:53

I bet there are some banjo players that can't pick out the molody for either one.....<grin>....... They could do it with tab though.....

Originally posted by mrphysics55

Oh I would NEVER use "Mary Had a Little Lamb".

That song will mess you up!

I'd recommend "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star". It's worked wonders for many of us around here.

Do you need a Fiddle Player to Practice With? One is Available 24/7. So Be Sure to Check-Out and Support Leo's Website:

Bob Miller

kboone - Posted - 08/10/2007:  11:26:45

So I have been playing for about a year and a half now. I am dependent on tab to learn songs. I understand the concept of learning by ear but just recently I was able to pick out the melody notes to "Footprints of Jesus" on my own. And surprisingly it didn't take me but a few minutes. I could not have done this a year ago. Now that I have the melody notes picked out I have to sit down and figure out how i can incorporate them into rolls. I think I will still have to put it on paper for me to see the timing of the melody notes. But I think it is progress to at least be able to figure out the melody notes. The other thing that I have noticed is that I am starting to be able to figure out the chord patterns for songs and within a verse or two, I am starting to quickly feel when and were I can throw some basic licks in. I think the tab and learning methods I have used have become more comfortable to me, and I am getting to a point where I can start to apply them to songs I don't know. I am not where I want to be yet but I am progressing and having fun. Just the fact that I was able to pick out the melody to a song by ear thrills me because I never thought it possible. So keep working at it and give it time. Learn what you are learning well and soon the pieces will start to fall into place.
Good Luck!

SJL - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:15:20


Welcome to the Hangout. You can get some excellent advice here, the posts above are an example of this.

Ryan Herr put together an excellent tutorial on how to develop your own arrangements. There is tab in the lessons, but if you follow it I think that you will understand a lot about finding melody and incorporating rolls and banjo technique around melody. See this post.

"If the woman is alive at the end of the song, it ain't Bluegrass"

2007 Hatfield Custom

1976 (?) Aria Pro

ejimb0 - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:26:51

Dedicate a portion of your practice time to just playing the banjo.. Nothing in front of you. Plunk out the melodies to the multitude songs that are already in your head. Don't pay attention to the incorporation of a "roll" into the melody..... the roll thing will just sort of come to you with time. Try holding a full chord position and plunk different strings of it until a song you know just sort of falls out of it. Then finish the melody ...try to see what chord positions get most of the notes right..
..and most of all just keep after it. No matter how good you become you will always want more. The fun part is the whole part.

Hi Mom!

mrphysics55 - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:38:09

Go out of town for a week-end.

Take your banjo ... BUT LEAVE YOUR TAB AT HOME.

Do you need a Fiddle Player to Practice With? One is Available 24/7. So Be Sure to Check-Out and Support Leo's Website:

Rich Weill - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:46:44

Try this:

1. Pick a simple song you know well.
2. Strum the chords. Hopefully, it will be a G-C-D song and you can find the chords easily. If not, pick another song.
3. Play it through again using the following forward roll: IM TIM TI. In other words, begin the forward roll with your index finger (on either string 2 or 3), and insert a rest in place of the final note. [1-&-2-&-3-&-4-Rest.] What this roll allows you to do is (1) use your index finger on beats 1, 4, and 7 of an 8-beat roll; and (2) by dropping the last note, you can comfortably start the next measure with your index finger, too. The index finger will become your melody finger.
4. Pick out the melody -- using just your index finger -- on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings only. If a melody note falls on the 1st string, move it to the 2nd string (3 frets up).
5. Repeat step 4, and hold the chords as you play the melody notes. Some melody notes will fall on a chord tone (in which case your left hand just holds the chord), but for others you may have to adjust your left hand to hit a note not in the chord.
5. Now play the IM TIM TI roll again, inserting those melody notes whenever you're using your index finger. [Since there may be 4 melody notes in a measure, but you're using your index finger only 3 times per measure, it generally works if you drop the 2nd melody note. Play the first melody note on beat 1; the third melody note on beat 4; and the fourth melody note on beat 7.] Your index finger will move around to strings 2, 3, and 4 (while your middle finger stays on string 1, and your thumb on string 5).

This is a simply way to start playing by ear. By using only your index finger for the melody, you'll find it a lot easier to keep track of where melody notes go.

Have fun!

Grizzly - Posted - 08/10/2007:  12:51:53

Originally posted by Texasbanjo

If you really want to learn to play by ear, try this:

Is that enough information to get you started?

Let's Pick!
Texas Banjo

Yes, you've all definitely given me some good information and advice! I am familiar with the Nashville Numbering System, and I can pick out the melody notes to most tunes. I didn't realize that I was so close.
I guess I thought that there are some people who are just born with a 'play by ear' ability, and that I wasn't one of them. You have given me some great advice Texas Banjo, and all the rest of the respondents too!
If there's anyone else out there who has any 'secrets' to add to this, please feel free to post them. Sometimes we don't know when one little idea will flip the switch to turn the light on for us. I'm sure there are others out there who will benefit from your advice, so I'd like to hear your suggestions as well!

~ Grizzly the Banjo Pickin' Bear

"We're all here.........cause we ain't all there!"

Edited by - Grizzly on 08/10/2007 13:04:02

rstieg - Posted - 08/10/2007:  13:33:11

I've just recently gone through this process and happily discovered that it's not as difficult as I had thought. My goal was to be able to create a solo on the fly in jam sessions, so that may not be exactly what you're looking for, but if so, here's what I found:

First, you have to get the chord progression in your head, which of course is easier for some songs than others. So I'd suggest you start with songs that use common chord progressions, preferaby with no more than 3 or 4 standard chords (I, II, IV, and V).

When I'm in a jam, I will usually vamp through a song until I'm confident I pretty much have the progression down. That may be one time through or it may be 5 or 6. Then I just try to imagine banjo licks to fit the chords and melody and try to hear that in my head, and with all the various licks, rolls, and phrases that you already know, that's not as hard as it sounds. You can try out your improvised breaks quietly as part of your backup playing in a jam until your turn comes around, then give it a try. And it gets easier and easier the more you try it. At first you'll find some parts work and you'll stumble through others, but as you work on it you'll find phrases that you're particularly comfortable with for specific chords and it will start to click. Then you can consciously try different licks, adding melody phrases using rolls, etc. I think you'll find it comes to you more easily than you might imagine.

Also, like everything else, you can practice this skill at home with Band In A Box or a jam DVD or even CD's. I really think that once you have a good feel for Scruggs style, it's mostly a matter of working at it.

Pleasanton, CA

The truth is a moving target... perception is more important than reality... everything is relative...

Edited by - rstieg on 08/10/2007 14:12:40

Gibson Gangsta - Posted - 08/10/2007:  14:03:46

DVDs, CDs, sticking your head in a toaster all will help (well maybe 2 or the three) but to really know and hear chord changes and to be able to "adapt" to your playin is pretty honest answer is A: get back up of songs you know with bass and/or guitar...enticipate and say the chords your entering/exiting as your playing them.......listen for the chord changes and get rid of that tab......2) you gotta know all your chord progressions not just the majors (diminished, flats/sharps, augmented, 6th's 7th's and why and how they "work") so getting a good "music theory" book would help or scales or whatever C) go out and play with people and don't use your tab as a crutch.....just wing it...... and finally 3) knowing the melody or being able to "sing" or "hum" a song is a good way to start b/c thats what your doing there....your humming the chord progressions.....just gotta apply that to banjo.....(which is really just a bunch of rolls smashed into a bar of music)........hope this helps.......practice and playing along with stuff is really where you are gonna gain this "talent" some people can do it, others it takes awhile.....don't give up....jamming will really help, knowing the fingerboard will help, and understand that this might take awhile.......

pickin' aint easy.......or cheap! so hire me for all your art related needs!

BANJO MAFIA......this 5 string thing of ours......

Texasbanjo - Posted - 08/10/2007:  15:12:00

Grizzly, don't feel alone in not being able to play by ear. i used to be one of those who was "hookekd on tab" and couldn't play a note by ear. I had a good banjo player tell me that if I didn't learn to play by ear that I'd never be able to jam and/or be on stage. That got me started.

I did as I said above and started picking out melodies. I was lucky, I was able to take lessons from Steve Garner who at that time was teaching at South Plains College in Levelland, TX (where Camp Bluegrass is held). I drove up there twice a month for over a year (that's a 268 mile round trip twice a month) just to have Steve teach me how to do backup and how to create my own breaks. Was worth every mile and every $$$.

So no, you're definitely not alone. It took me a while to get the hang of doing my own breaks and doing backup but once the lightbulb came on, it was surprising how very easy it was.

Keep at it, you'll make it just fine.

Let's Pick!
Texas Banjo

dachshund - Posted - 08/10/2007:  15:19:32

Grizzly didn't specify backup or melody, so I'm sorry to hijack your thread.

I'm trying to hear the backup rolls on recorded songs. I can pick out the melody, and I can figure out the chords. This is strictly for playing backup, not the melody. Sometimes I can't hear the roll clearly because the vocals or other instruments are louder at that moment.

I'm not expecting anyone to fix this necessarily, since I think trial and error will eventually give me something that fits. I'm just saying that it can be difficult to hear the banjo on a recording, especially on the more recent CW recordings of bands that might have 12 different stringed instruments. I really like bluegrass, but it's not the music I play. On bluegrass the banjo is more prominent, with the CW music it gets burried sometimes. Being new at the banjo, it's a little frustrating.

Canuck Picker - Posted - 08/10/2007:  22:58:02

Dedicate a portion of your practice time to just playing the banjo.. Nothing in front of you. Plunk out the melodies to the multitude songs that are already in your head. Don't pay attention to the incorporation of a "roll" into the melody..... the roll thing will just sort of come to you with time.

I'm right in the middle of trying to do this too and the above is close to what I finally "discovered" after trying most of the above approaches. The key for me was to just start playing a song I know well(including the chord sequence) and then just playing the melody on whatever strings were necessary while holding the correct chord. But the key difference from others for me is to NOT THINK OF PLAYING ROLLS AT ALL. I just starting keeping a constant beat going and before long I was playing all sorts of "rolls" while more or less playing the melody. I say more or less because you don't need or want normally to play every melody note in Scruggs style. After I could do this fairly well I just starting using slides,hammers,pulloffs etc. where appropriate. You can then throw in a few licks whenever the mood suits. This is working for me where nothing else really was.
...hang in there it will get much easier!

Canuck Picker

rendesvous1840 - Posted - 08/11/2007:  00:29:53

Listen to a song, and try to hear th chords change. Try to identify the chords as they change. Start with simple songs, Jazz/R&B use more chords, often changing keys. Leave these until later on.Play along with songs, just playing the chord changes with simple roll patterns, and sing along with the recordings. Don't tell us you can't sing; at one time you couldn't type, either. It will come, if you help it a bit.After you can keep the chord changes in time, start adding melody notes. Usually, the first note in a measure is an important melody note. Some are less important, so add the necessary ones first. After you get that smooth, add a few more. You build on what you start with, until it suits your taste.

"A master banjo player isn't the person who can pick the most notes. It's the person who can touch the most hearts." Patrick Costello

Hopalong - Posted - 08/11/2007:  09:45:50

The good news is that if you have the patience and desire, You will learn how to play by ear, but it will take time, just like learning to walk and learning to talk. First of all, play songs and tunes that you know and you like. They don't have to be bluegrass songs. Listening to the music and then singing or humming helps a lot even if you are a bit off key. Melodies with lyrics are usually easier to play. Peter Wernick and Murphy Henry have some excellent DVDs for bluegrass musicians which concentrate on slow jamming for the beginner and advancing beginner. Murphy and Bill Keith also have nice DVDs dealing with Chord Changes and playing by ear.
Keep it simple till you get the melody. It is more fun and satisfying to play your own arrangements than memorizing tabs.

you will get it.
Hopalong Peter
PS Listen as often as you can. My favorites are the Stanley Brothers and the Osborne Brothers because they tend to play a bit slower.

Jody Hughes_Starcreek - Posted - 08/11/2007:  10:13:24

buy the transkriber software, pick a tune that sounds like its on your level...set the speed slower and slower until you can figure out what they are doing...Also, sing everything you play

Bojangles42 - Posted - 08/11/2007:  10:49:12

"Jack Hatfield " has a excellent book on playing by ear!

Grizzly - Posted - 08/12/2007:  03:29:54

Wow!!! You people are awesome. Where in the world have I been? I just joined BHO this past week, and wish I had known about this site from its very beginning. Some answers are very detailed and are helping me a lot. Others are short and to the point. But they all have one thing in common...they are all excellent in their content. I will be a BHO member for life and will recommend it to anyone I know who plays the banjo! I feel like I've just acquired a legion of new friends. Thank you all who have responded to this, my first post. And thank you also to anyone who would like to add their knowledge and suggestions. I'm sure that there are others out here who are gleaning the knowledge from it as well. Thanks again, and happy picking to you all!
And Texasbanjo, thank you for the email consultation on my wife's disability and her desire to play the fiddle. We are going to buy her one real soon! (Unless we're fortunate enough to win the one offered at the Fiddle Hangout site)

~ Grizzly, the Banjo Pickin' Bear

"We're all here.........cause we ain't all there!"

Edited by - Grizzly on 08/12/2007 03:32:05

steve davis - Posted - 08/12/2007:  08:27:28

When my dad was "teaching" me to play by ear there weren't a lot of words associated with the process.It was a learn by example thing with a nod or shake of the head and many repetitions of a few songs. A direct communication with my dad saying yes or no to my choice of note or chord.This took me quite some time to internalize,it wasn't a set lesson just something that got easier over time. Eventually he stopped shaking his head at my choices.Find someone who plays by ear and see if they will play with you and help you with your choices.

Sometimes I just gotta hear Butch Robins' "Dusty Miller"

Canuck Picker - Posted - 08/13/2007:  17:27:33

Jack Hatfield " has a excellent book on playing by ear!
I'd just like to second this idea. I just received a used copy of this book from E-bay and it is about the only systematic approach to playing by ear I have every seen. If you are on your own it might be worth picking up a copy. It's called: "You Can Teach Yourself Banjo By Ear" by Jack Hatfield.

Canuck Picker

Grizzly - Posted - 08/13/2007:  17:55:42

Thanks Canuck Picker, and everyone else too! I'm sure that I'm not the only one who will benefit from your ideas and suggestions.
I'm not familiar with Jack Hatfield's materials, but as soon as I send this reply I will do a search and look into it. Sounds like a real good book to have.

~ Grizzly, the Banjo Pickin' Bear

"We're all here.........cause we ain't all there!"

A.J. Taylor - Posted - 08/14/2007:  23:07:14

In my opinion bluegrass is the easiest music to play by hear because it all has basicly has the the same paterrn in a way. Once you learn the main licks and runs you'll be able to know what chord they are in by hearing a certain lick.Also if you find that they are in the key of g the c,d, will go with it.Plus youl lear the off chords and such and it will bacome easier.I think there is no other way to play then by ear.

Rich Weill - Posted - 08/14/2007:  23:18:30

Another suggestion: If you have the Scruggs book (with CD), try the picking exercises WITHOUT the book, using the CD only. See if you can duplicate the patterns in the exercises just by listening to Earl.

Grizzly - Posted - 08/15/2007:  13:45:10

I like that idea Rich! I do have the new book with the CD. I've actually taken the CD with me in the truck and listened to it. I was just excited to hear Earl's voice and his picking. I think I'm going to bring it on the road again and listen to it while I'm driving and see if I can visualize what he's doiing. Then I'll practice, like you suggested, when I'm back home. Thanks!

~ Grizzly, the Banjo Pickin' Bear

"We're all here.........cause we ain't all there!"

Edited by - Grizzly on 08/15/2007 13:46:21

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