Q: I’ve been playing guitar now for about a year. I can play loads of chords and barre chords really well. I just don’t have the musical background to get any of the theory of how chords, scales, etc are made. I’d really really like to become a professional guitarist. I’m just wondering how I can achieve a level were I can listen to a song and workout by ear how to play different parts, and be able to improvise solos.
A: I hate to say it, but you should really take the time to learn basic theory. It isn’t as difficult as you think. There are plenty of great resources online. Just learning the very basics like notes, keys, intervals, chord formulas, basic scales, etc is all you really need to know to make money as a guitarist. It is a tremendous advantage to know this as it makes taking the music out of your head much easier to do. For example, you can hear a song on the radio and know what chord progression it is automatically. Maybe you then try to write something with similar chord movement.
That being said, learning to play by ear takes a long time. Personally speaking, this is by far the most valuable skill I’ve ever acquired. I make a living as a producer/song writer and having the ability to hear something in your head and immediately turn it into music is priceless. For example, pretend you are sitting in a restaurant eating and suddenly an amazing hook enters your head. You can immediately write it down without having a guitar to figure it out. This way you don’t forget it. Forgetting costs you big money sometimes. This is a skill honed with much practice.
The easiest way to learn is to simply start transcribing music you like. Start very simple. Here again, it helps to know how some rudimentary theory as it makes transcribing much easier. A good trick to use is to get a basic audio editor with a solo function. I use Cubase’s speaker tool. If you can’t figure out a note, you can just play it over and over again until you find it. Once you get the notes figured out, then try to come up with the best way to finger the notes so that it is easy to play. Once you get better at transcribing, work on trying to transcribe simple melodies you write in your head. This can be developed into being able to write full orchestrations with time, for example. Make it a priority to practice this everyday.
As for learning to solo without knowing theory, this is much more difficult. When I was learning guitar, learning a few scales was the key to the soloing mystery. Knowing basic scales is a huge time saver. I learned scales before soloing, so I’m not the best person to ask about developing this skill without them.