Throughout 2022 I didn’t play much ukulele, this has happened a few times since I started playing. I lose interest from time to time and I just kind of stop.
There’s one skill that I’ve never fully got to grips with though and this year I’m determined to make some real progress. That skill is playing by ear.
I’ve written about playing by ear before and I can usually pick out melodies relatively quickly. Working out the chords though is quite a leap and I’ve never been great at it.
So the commitment this year is that I’m not going to look up the tab or music for anything. I’m not going to watch Youtube tutorials to learn songs, if I can’t work it out by myself I won’t play it.
It’s quite a severe approach, but I feel like it’s got some real potential. The limitations of not being able to play anything unless I can work it out myself will do me some good. And for a whole year too.
In truth I don’t have much of a plan for this. When I do things like this, I tend to get bogged down in what the best approach is, which songs I should try and work out – how should I do it, etc etc.
And before I know it, I haven’t done anything. So there really isn’t much of a plan, I’m just going for it. But I can tell you what I’ve done so far and whether it’s working or not.
Starting With Melodies
I’ve started in the easiest place, I’m warming up in January by exclusively working with melodies. This is definitely the part that I find the easiest when it comes to playing by ear so I’m building my confidence by taking some quick wins.
Here’s a list of songs that I’ve been working on the melodies to. Sometimes it’s just the intro, sometimes it’s a solo. I can’t always get all of it but I’ll have a good go, get what I can and move on.
- Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
- Walk Of Life – Dire Straits
- Apache – The Shadows
- One Day Like This – Elbow
- Seven Years Old – Lukas Graham
- Fields of Gold – Sting
- Beautiful Girl – INXS
- We Didn’t Start The Fire – Billy Joel
- Right Here Waiting – Richard Marx
Hopefully that song list will prove to be useful of someone else out there – it’s not always easy finding songs with melodies that are good to try.
I find myself listening to the radio in the hope that a song will play that has a great melody that will be good to try and learn.
My Approach To Working Out Songs
Generally what I do is play the song and listen to it for a while, I’ll then pretty much jump straight in and just play a few notes over the top – hopefully I will land on a note that I hear in the melody somewhere. Sometimes this happens pretty quickly and sometimes it’s really difficult.
What I’m aiming for is the first note, but I’ll take any note. After that it’s a bit of a process of elimination, there are only so many notes that the next note can be, Is it higher or lower than the previous note, is it the same.
Again sometimes this can come together pretty easily and for some reason I really get stuck on some songs. I do know that this will definitely improve over time though.
If a song is particularly difficult but I still really want to work it out, I might try and find someone playing a solo performance of it. It’s much easier to work out the song if there’s just a single instrument playing it. I try not to do this unless I really need to though.
And that’s pretty much it for now. As we approach February I’d like to start moving into working out the chords for the songs and then the entire song, intro, chords, solo, outro etc etc.
Towards the end of the year I’d like to be making better solo arrangements. That’s the ultimate goal.
Wish me luck.