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The Ultra Zone: Steve Vai's Course in Ear Training, Part 3

The Ultra Zone: Steve Vai's Course in Ear Training, Part 3

GuitaWorld.com is revisiting Steve Vai's classic mag column, "The Ultra Zone," for this crash course in ear training.

My first two ear training columns (Part 1 and Part 2) outlined a variety of techniques intended to strengthen your note-recognition abilities, using the guitar as an ear training tool. This month, I’d like to turn you onto some ear training techniques that use chords.

Let’s begin by playing a series of random major and minor chords all over the neck, which we’ll record with a tape machine. First, play either a major or a minor chord in any key, anywhere on the neck, wait a moment and then identify on the tape either the chord type, i.e., major or minor, or, if you’re more ambitious, the chord name, i.e., G major, B minor, etc.

FIGURE 1 illustrates a short series of randomly chosen major and minor chords. Fill a 60-minute tape with random minor and major chords, and then listen to it, doing your best to identify each chord type or chord name before your voice on the tape is heard. No cheating by using the guitar to find these chords! Rely on your ears, make your best guess, and only then use the guitar to see if you are correct. If you’re only identifying “minor” or “major,” this exercise is still valuable in that you’re focusing on harmony and chord quality. If you take it a step further and identify the actual chord names, you’ll fortify your ability to identify root notes as well as harmony. This will get you started on the road to identifying the chord progressions you hear on records, when jamming, at a concert, etc.

You can expand this exercise by adding suspended chords to the mix. FIGURE 2a indicates a few different ways to play suspended chords: in the first three chords, the root notes are located on the sixth and fourth strings; in the second three chords, the roots are located on the fifth and third strings; in the last three chords, the roots are located on the fourth and second strings. Memorize all of these different suspended-chord voicings.

FIGURE 2b illustrates a sequence of randomly chosen major, minor and suspended chords. You can start by recording this example or, better yet, make up your own!

An important thing to remember is to not make these exercises too difficult for yourself. If you make them inordinately tricky or complex, you may only succeed in becoming discouraged. Start out with simple stuff, and gradually progress to chord changes that are more unusual or difficult.

Once you feel you’ve become accustomed to identifying major, minor and suspended chords, expand on the idea by including more complex chord qualities. A good place to start is by adding “tension” tones, such as major sevenths or dominant sevenths to major and minor chords. FIGURE 3 depicts an arbitrary sequence of major, minor, major seventh and minor seventh chords.

When you can correctly identify all of these chord names and chord types just from hearing them, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much the proverbial bar has been raised on your overall musicianship. Having this harmonic ear-training skill will positively affect your approach to composition, soloing and comping (rhythm guitar) and will give you a whole new appreciation of the structure of music.

To further enhance your ear training study, bring interval recognition into the equation: pick a chord and arpeggiate it (pick each note of the chord individually and in succession). Wait a moment, and then identify each interval in the chord. FIGURE 4 illustrates this type of exercise. The possibilities are endless; you can incorporate millions of chords, depending on how great a challenge you wish to give yourself.

All of the ear training exercises I’ve outlined in the last three columns are ones that I have spent hours and hours doing back when I was a teenager. There is no doubt that this is time-consuming hard work; you may find yourself becoming overloaded or frustrated. If this becomes the case, take a break and go do something else for a while. But the benefits to be reaped from this type of independent study are tremendous and will stay with you forever.

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