Kevin from Oneonta writes:

Dear Pete,

I’ve been having trouble hearing chord changes when trying to play along with CD’s. I need to refer to tab to get it right. Is this tone deafness, or inexperience. I’ve been playing/learning the banjo for about 3 years. I can remember, before I bought the banjo, I had trouble telling the banjo apart from the mix of instruments sometimes. Now I can pick out the banjo with no problem, except… I can’t hear the chord changes very well. Are there any tricks, hints, or training tips to solve this, or am I limited by my ears. Thank you for all the great music & dedication over the years. Pickin’ it up,

Kevin Davis

Oneonta, New York


Dear Kevin,

The skill is definitely based on experience, just like your ability to pick the banjo out of the mix. But there are ways to work on the skill to develop it more quickly.

It helps to start with two-chord songs and just listen for *when* the chord changes between G and D. An easy way to do that is to get my Get Rolling video ($20), which has near the beginning a cluster of ten 2-chord songs to play along with. Play along with the video, but don’t watch the screen (which clearly shows the chord changes). Listen for *when* the chords change. If you do that right when just using 2 chords, your chords will be right. If you have to peek at the screen, OK, but it’s best to do it by ear. Later in the video is a cluster of 13 3-chord songs, and it’s great training to do the same there. With 3-chord songs though, you’ll also need to guess *which* chord is the next chord. That means trial and error. First listen for when the chord changes happen, then try to guess which chord is right. Watch the video to see if you’re on track. Once you get the changes to a song right, see how quickly you can commit the changes to memory. Play along with the video without watching.

Another method is to take a bluegrass songbook where the songs with 2 or 3 chords (most of them) are noted. Go through the ones you can hum or sing, and without looking at the book, try to guess the chords by trial and error. After you guess, check the book.

This all can be frustrating, but if you start with 2-chord songs and then branch out to 3-chord ones, you’ll start hearing the similarities from song to song. For instance, virtually all songs in G start and end with G, and the next-to-last chord is D (or D7 can be used too).

At my basic banjo camp, and also at my bluegrass jam camps, we spend some time working on guessing and remembering chord changes. It’s a really helpful skill to develop, though it comes in time in any case. Of course, in a jam you can always keep your eye on the left hand of a guitar player who knows the chords. But it’s great not to *have* to look.

Stay with it!

Pete Wernick