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Last night I was working on Ear Listening Phrase # 3 - this was about 20 seconds of Bryan Sutton playing a very nice melody to a slow waltz. Normal thing, listening to it over and over, and eventually having a bash at playing from what I could hear in my head onto the guitar.


In this case I wasn't able to sing the melody very well which definitely had an impact on me being not able to successfully transcribe from memory. That said, I got the main target notes - the chord tones and main melody - pretty quick, but it was the little ornamentations and slides and twists and turns that I was struggling to recall in enough detail to figure out.


But I now have a workable, recognisable - and usable - version of these few bars of Margaret's Waltz. I know that in a thrice I could open up Transcribe! and figure out those bits that I didn't get. But here's my question - is there, in the context of this ear learning, any point?


Any style that I have a guitar player was pretty much formed by my inability to transcribe things correctly in my formative years. I failed so many times to get Chuck Berry or Jimi Hendrix licks right (or even close) that I ended up working hard to compensate for this lack of ear by creating riffs and licks of my own. A few years back I was playing a gig when an old drummer friend walked in off the street to say hello. He said "I heard the guitar playing and knew it was you." That's maybe the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me about my playing. Most of my picking friends are far better than I am, they were and are far more adept at figuring out solos than I; and I was, and am, jealous of their skill. But maybe, just maybe, my weakness becomes a strength, and because of it, I was forced to sound like me, rather than all those players that I longed to sound like.


Anyway, I'm being overly verbose again. I was just wondering if, having got this close to nailing Bryan Sutton's very simple phrasing there's any mileage in trying to nail it exactly? I'm sure that doing this activity daily is already enhancing my listening skill (after all, I'm now actively hearing all those ornamentations and slides) and over time I'm sure I will start to pick them up.


On a related point, I find this ear-transcribing really difficult when trying to do it on a tune I already know. My original plan for Exercise # 3 was to work out a few licks from Bryan's version of Big Sandy River, but as I know the melody inside out (from a Parking Lot Pickers book) not only was I having to listen and try and retain Bryan's version I was somehow having to keep the existing version away from the fore-front of my brain. And I couldn't do it. Every time I started to 'listen' and 'play' it was Kaufman's version not Bryan's that appeared. Grrrr!


Anyway, I still feel like I'm edging forward, and though at the moment I know there are easier ways for me to figure stuff out, I think there's mileage in this. Maybe next time I'll try and be more patient and listen to something for a couple of days instead of just a couple of hours and see if that changes the experience.


Apologies for writing so much!




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Replies to This Discussion

Phah! At the rate you are going, in another week you'll be able to chose whether you want mime Sutton's ornamentations or improvise your own.

Working on previously learned material - much more difficult. Like sports science, 10-20 times more difficult to relearn/correct an improperly learned move than to learn it 'correctly' (NOT saying that Kaufman is incorrect) in the first place.


ps ~ no need to apologize, I greatly enjoy you lucid and often entertaining posts. (#4 - an acoustic version of the 'break' from the long version of 'All Along the Watchtower'?)


But I now have a workable, recognisable - and usable - version of these few bars of Margaret's Waltz. I know that in a thrice I could open up Transcribe! and figure out those bits that I didn't get. But here's my question - is there, in the context of this ear learning, any point?




I was just wondering if, having got this close to nailing Bryan Sutton's very simple phrasing there's any mileage in trying to nail it exactly




I'll respond in more detail later... gots to go to work now. But the short answer is, what Bryan recorded is probably (it would be in my case, don't imagine now that I'm comparing myself to him) the result of knowing the waltz for a long time, and consciously (ok, maybe unconscious at this point) working to add things to it to make it interesting.

should be more specific: my NOT REALLY is the wrong answer if your goal is to learn Mr. Sutton's arrangement note for note, which is a fine goal.


"How close is close enough?"


 Well, what are you trying to achieve? And I ask that of ganon and Kathy, too. What's the endgame of this type of exercise? It seems like you are exploring a different path to rote memorization.


Kathy has mentioned at least a couple of times that improvisation can cover for imperfect memory. That statement is genius..it aligns with my thoughts exactly! :) So, I think that memory is a component of playing by ear, but probably no more important than understanding of scales, chords, technique, etc.


On the other hand, the name of this group is "Ear Learning," not "Playing by Ear." So if you are trying to learn how to play Brian Sutton's arrangement, you have a lot of work to do.


I think it's easier to hear and memorize the ornamental bits if one has a well-versed vocabulary of ornamental techniques. For instance, I can hear a G-run and instantly recognize it as such; I don't need to slow the playback and figure it out note-for-note. As such, I think "ear learning" has some value, but should be practiced in conjunction with other types of learning. 


Dan Miller's Flatpicking Essentials, Volume 2 an excellent resource for the type of learning I'm writing about. The downside is that the student must get his/her head out of the music for for a while to understand what Dan is teaching, as opposed to the total immersion of listening/mimicking. I don't think I could've understood crosspicking just by listening, but I'm beginning to pick it up through diligent study of Volume 2 and other resources. That should give you a sense of my expertise - I'm just looking for clues like you are.

I'm trying to learn the best way to become a better player - something that I haven't figured out yet. Clearly ear training, ear learning, playing by ear, or simply learning to listen (whatever . . .), is only one component of this, but one whose importance seems to be overlooked, or even rejected, by many. Since Kathy has some 40 years of experience both as a teacher and as a musician, and has tried it both ways, I am willing to follow her advice, and modify it with experimentation that will tell me what works best for me.

If you assume that the ear part will 'just come to you' while you work or the theory and TAB - well maybe it will for you and you are quite lucky. Derek's posts make it quite clear that this is not always the case, even for the very experienced.

The playing of Wayne Henderson (whether you like it or not) tells me that learning to play by ear is a sufficient condition, without the need of TAB or Theory, or for that matter, voice. I don't know, but I expect that the converse is not true, unless you are willing to limit yourself to a relatively small repertoire that you can learn by 'rote memorization'. Frankly, I don't believe proper development of the aural (and vocal) centers of the brain has much do with rote memorization.

ps ~ Specifically, what I am trying to achieve right now is coming up with my own arrangements of tunes rather that mimic other's arrangements. The Jerusalem Ridge that I posted yesterday, for better or worse, is an example of that - It probably contains components of K. Baker, K. Barwick, W. Henderson, B. Davis, and a little ganon (I listened to every source I could find, but settled on the definitive original - K.Baker - to learn from). One thing for sure, no one plays it the same way I do (again, for better or worse). Noted that early phases of playing by ear may seem a lot like mimicking, but that is not my goal. And, of course, there is some remote hope that coming up with my own arrangements will lead to improvisation some day. One way to get past mimicking another guitar player is to instead learn from different instrument, as I did with Norman Blake's mandolin 'Bright Days' and K.Baker's fiddle (granted, at the time I was mostly just tone matching and not really playing by ear, but the concept still applies).

best regards,


Hi Jim,

You raise a good question - and I've actually felt guilty that I'm heading off on some tangent that Ganon never originally intended when he started this group. I think my end game with the work that I'm doing here is to foster the ability to listen better, memorise more, and subsequently be able to replicate a higher percentage of what I'm then hearing inside my head than I've been able to in the past. To me, that's probably the old fashioned way of learning. At the moment I'm struggling with anything beyond very short and easy phrases so it remains to be seen if it's a viable trick to teach this old dog. Certainly you're right, at the moment learning an entire arrangement this way would be a major commitment.


So am I trying to learn Bryan Sutton's version? No, I don't think so. It's a beautiful piece and the slides and ornamentation and tone and timing all contribute to that and I don't think there would be any harm in learning it in order to get a better handle on what he's doing, but I've never been one to learn entire solos for the sake of it. I don't know if that's a good think or not. I suspect I'd be a better player were I to do this more - I also suspect there's a tipping point when if one learns enough solos note for note one suddenly finds a unique voice simply because of the masses of learning and influence one has absorbed. Perhaps I will do this - but it still seems odd to me that, unless it's for learning purposes, someone would want to play another person's exact arrangement of a tune.


I understand what you mean about the G run. I'd like to think I have a reasonable vocabulary of such things, too. There are plenty of standard licks, phrases, and chord sequences that I recognize when I hear them. Some ornamentations too - especially Django style ones.


I've read the advertising material on that Flatpicking Essentials series and I must admit I'm tempted. I must have a bit of autism about me for I'd definitely want to start at the beginning and work through so it could be an expensive game (especially right now)... but maybe I'll have a look at the one you suggest.


As a total aside, today's piece of flat-picking progress was a single Clarence White lick that I picked up from one of his versions of Sheik of Araby. Did I do it by ear? Not a chance in hell! I dialled it up in Transcribe! and had to slow it down to 66% just to hear the notes!


Kind regards,


Actually, I think the group is open almost anything related to Listening as part of learning how to play guitar, whether it be how to match a D-note vocally for the very first time and then transfer it to the fretboard, or how to listen at the same time you are interpreting lines of complex symbology (tab or dots), or the rather advanced material that you are addressing Derek. I hope that what you are discovering will someday be of use to me.

@Jim I would like to point out that the very first discussion in this group makes it quite clear that I believe this to be a multifaceted problem, I may not yet know what all the facets are, or their relative importance (if any) - If I knew, I probably wouldn't be here.



...the rather advanced material that you are addressing Derek.

In all seriousness, Ganon, the reason I've picked the pieces I've picked are because they are all a lot simpler than the Adam Granger fiddle tune samples in the other discussion.  Seriously. I listened to all of those sound files and thought no way would I be able to hum along, remember the notes, and then be able to play them. So instead, I took your methodology but chose some much simpler phrases and excerpts. I'm working my way towards that stuff by carefully selecting music that is a challenge but that is slow enough, clear enough, has plenty of long notes and pauses, and enough repetition that I'm in with a shout of doing this.



Derek, also in all seriousness. There is not really much difficulty to the Granger fiddle tunes, well most of them not, except perhaps their speed. That's why I provided them in downloadable form so that you could slow them, or chop them in to smaller phrases as needed. And, I am glad to do that for anyone who cannot do it for themselves.


Derek, RE Kathy below - by all means go to the lists and pick something that interests you. Those up so far are specific requests by group members, including mine for the 'No Title Reel' - it is just my current project - and no it is not even partially in my head.

Alternatively, I could put up another that (in my eternally misguided opinion) is easier both vocally and technically, as well as a copy at 2/3 speed.

Let me know,


I'd agree that there's nothing overly difficult once a phrase is split up and slowed down - indeed last night I cut Cumberland gap in half, slowed it down, and with some close listening was able to hear and remember it quite well. I suspect we all have (or will discover) our different strengths and weaknesses as we progress down this road. I seem to be poor at being able to hear and then articulate something that is anything above a slow tempo. In the case of Cumberland once I'd slowed it down (just the first half, and even then just a phrase at a time) enough to be able to hear the relationships between adjacent notes I was almost able to transcribe it in my head. What I'd like to be able to do is exactly that but without the slowing down bit. This is where, I think, the ear training comes in - somehow getting my ears up to speed. I suspect it's no different to a tennis player learning to return a serve - start off returning very slow single serves and gradually, over many years, working up to speed and being able to partake in full tempo rallies. 


Related - if one slows a piece of music down and cuts it so that there's just two notes sounding it becomes reasonably easy to sing those two notes, and then find them on the guitar. But it's also good to be able to recognize the interval. Again, I'm not too bad at this (not great, but I find this much easier than the other stuff we've been discussing here). Same with chords: I think it's important that one can recognize a major, minor, 7th chord (along with some of the others - diminished, for example. The associated scales, too - I've listened to so much gypsy jazz and can easily identify a diminished scale and a harmonic minor scale when I hear them; and hopefully we'd all recognize a major scale). Again, I'm not too bad at this... in isolation. There's still that issue that, at tempo and in context, I struggle to be able to extract and separate the music enough to be able to apply all this ear learning I've dabbled in over the years.


But two useful links that may be of use to someone:



combined with the type of thinking (not necessarily the song choices) used here:




is how I practice my interval recognition.




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