For many guitarists these days, the first move for learning a song is to go to the keyboard—and Google the chords or tab. Those huge libraries of guitar charts online are incredibly useful, no doubt, but also have real weaknesses. As with everything online, transcriptions can be full of errors, and seeing the same info all over the web is not an indication of its accuracy, because lots of sites just mirror the same content. Even for famous songs, online charts are often missing critical info like capo positions and alternate tunings. Learning tunes more accurately and thoroughly requires digging deeper.
In my work for Acoustic Guitar and in teaching lessons and workshops, I spend a lot of time sussing out and sharing how songs are played. Here are some tips to help with the process, many of which employ the most important learning tool of all: your ears.
1. Start with the Bass
First, get oriented by picking out the bass notes of each chord and finding the tonic—the song’s harmonic home base. In a band arrangement, listen to not only the guitar but the actual bass player. Figuring out a bass line that fits is a great start for pinning down the chord progression. And if you hear a guitar bass note lower than your sixth string goes, that’s a clear sign of an alternate tuning.
2. Listen for Open Strings
Open strings have a distinctly different ring than fretted notes. Identify pitches that are ringing open and find them on your guitar. If they’re only available with fretting, most likely a capo or alternate tuning (or both) is at work—or maybe a partial capo.
3. Find What’s on Top
In addition to zeroing in on the bass, listen for the highest note in each chord. That will also help you locate the position on the fingerboard. Of course, the same notes can be played in multiple places—that’s one of the major complications of figuring out guitar music. So check out different locations. The one that’s easiest on the fretting hand is the most likely candidate (yes, guitarists are lazy . . . or smart).
4. Listen for Shapes
Guitarists often rely on the same basic chord shapes. An open G or D, for instance, has a distinctive sound based on its voicing and intervallic structure. If you focus on that sound, you can learn to identify a G or D shape even if it’s capoed up the neck and sounding in a different key.
5. Look for Diatonic Chords
Knowing the naturally occurring chords in a key, aka the diatonic chords, is a big advantage. (You can learn about diatonic chords—shameless plug—in my book Songwriting Basics for Guitarists.) If you know the key, you’ll have a good idea which other chords may pop up.
6. Try Common Tunings
If you think you’re dealing with an alternate tuning, first check the most common ones—dropped D, DADGAD, open D (D A D F# A D), and open G (D G D G B D). Open strings and natural harmonics often offer clues. And bear in mind that many songs use capos in conjunction with nonstandard tunings.
Consider, too, that lowered versions of standard tuning, with all the strings tuned down a half or whole step, are more prevalent than many players realize. Generations of guitarists have been thrown off by the fact that Paul McCartney played a guitar tuned down to D on “Yesterday,” for instance, as did John Fogerty on “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son.”
7. Check Live Videos
A prime source of clues about capos, tunings, and fretboard positions is performance videos on YouTube. Look for a capo and the player’s general fretting hand locations to see if you’re in the right zone. One caveat, though: live and studio versions may not be the same. Players sometimes simplify or alter a studio guitar setup for the stage, and they may change the key, too. Researching Mumford and Sons’ “I Will Wait” for a recent guitar workshop, I even found live versions in multiple tunings. So there may be more than one right way to play it.
8. Preview the Sheet Music
Need another clue? Google the sheet music and look at the preview. In an authentic guitar tab type of publication, you may be able to spot tuning and capo info at the top. And of course, if the transcription looks good, you can go ahead and buy it.
9. Spotlight the Guitar Part
If the track has a dense mix and you’re having trouble picking out the guitar, try using pan or EQ to bring out the guitar more. Some transcribing apps (see no. 12) have built-in tools for this.
10. Slow It Down
On YouTube, you can slow playback all the way down to quarter speed (by clicking on the gear icon). The slower you go, the worse the sound quality, but the music stays in the same octave, and it might help you grasp a passage that zips by.
oTranscribe is a free web tool that gives you better control over playback speed, rewind, and more, and works with both YouTube videos and audio files. It’s designed for transcribing words but useful for music too.
Specialized transcribing apps deliver better slowed-down sound—see below.
11. Loop Sections
Break down a complicated song into bite-sized pieces. Zero in on even one bar or one chord change at a time, slowed down as needed, and loop it.
12. Use an App
Software like the Amazing Slow Downer, Transcribe! (from Seventh String), and Capo (Mac/iOS only) allows you to change the speed and pitch of a track, loop regions, and more. Lately I’ve been using Capo, which also detects chords and beats, allows you to sketch out tab, and includes powerful tools for isolating and removing instruments—a very sophisticated app.
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If you’d like to save a pitch- or tempo-adjusted track to work with, you can even do so with the free recording program Audacity. The built-in effects include plug-ins that make the job quick and easy.
Digging into songs in this active and detailed way has benefits far beyond copping a specific guitar part. Even if you never manage to play it just like the record, you’ll pick up so much by going under the hood of a song you love. It’s one of the best ways to learn, with great songs as your guide.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.