I've never never had a great ear, when I was young I was told I couldn't play the violin because my ear for tone wasn't good enough. I can't play by ear so sheet music & tabs are my friends. More recently I've been trying to work on my live improv by playing around with scales a bit. Some of you out there will have no idea why this is difficult at all. Congratulations, you're a genetically superior human being. For those of us who can't instantly tell what note is being played just by listening to it, we have to come up with other systems to remember. I've had this idea for a while now & I finally got round to pulling out my old bass & doing this:
In case those cell phone pics aren't clear enough for you, I've just coloured in some little round stickers to colour-code all the whole notes.
I've yet to find out if it works for me, but hopefully it will help with using scales up & down the neck. Luckily I had an old bass lying around, I'd be a bit embarrassed performing with something that looks like a Guitar Hero controller, but not too embarrassed to share it on the interwebs. Maybe this might help you or someone you know who is as retarded as me.
I think it'd be easier just to learn basic music theory, (just to know how to find what key you're in, know how chords/scales are built, etc...) and memorize the scale shapes rather than putting stickers all over my guitar.
Just a note (ha! no pun intended): I've often noticed that people feel bad for not being able to instantly "recognize" a note they hear. But you should know that that ability, which is usually called "perfect pitch" or "absolute pitch", is rather rare and very difficult -- or even impossible -- to acquire as an adult. Whether it's nature (genetics) or nurture, it's just something you either have or haven't. It is also by no means a prerequisite to being a good musician -- although it is useful for playing instruments that have a continuous scale, like the violin, rather than discrete frets or keys. In short, it's no reason to feel frustrated and think you lack musical talent.
Most of us rely on "relative pitch", the ability to recognize intervals. It means that when we hear a single note, we can't directly name it, but when we hear two, we have a pretty good idea of how far they are apart. In practice, when I hear a melody, I often have to hunt for the starting note for a moment, but after that I can play the rest pretty much instantly.
Relative pitch is a skill that can vastly improve with practice, so if you want to get better, you should focus on that. Listen to a simple melody; try to find its starting note on your fretboard (and don't feel bad if you have to try every fret before you find it), or just pick any note to start with; then try to figure out the next few notes. Do they go up or down? Does the melody "jump" or are the notes right next to each other? In the latter case, do they move by two frets (a whole tone) or just one (a semitone)?
Larger intervals ("jumps") can be tricky to recognize at first. It helps if you use popular songs as mnemonics.
The jump at the beginning of Twinkle twinkle little star (between the two "twinkles"): that's a fifth. On your bass, you can play a fifth by moving two frets and one string up from your starting note (like a power chord).
The jump in the middle of the first word of Somewhere over the rainbow: an octave. Two frets and two strings up.
Going from "We" to "wish you a merry Christmas": that's a fourth, which occurs very often as an upbeat in the beginning of popular songs. It jumps up to the tonic, in this case the pitch of "wish", which is the tonal center of the whole song. Those two haunting, repeated notes in Smells like teen spirit (after the intro/chorus dies down) are a fourth apart as well. One string up, same fret.
In fact, these are some good melodies to practice on. I'm not a native English speaker so if anyone knows good examples of popular English songs that start with thirds or sixths, or with any of these intervals going down instead of up, feel free to add them!
Personally, I've had a few of years of formal training on the piano but when I picked up the guitar, I started with the intuitive approach described above. I can honestly say that just fumbling around on the fretboard like that, trying to get a feel for scales, melodies and intervals, taught me at least as much as I'd learned on music theory before. If you do it the other way around -- fumbling first, theory later -- it'll create a fertile base to give context and meaning to the theoretical concepts you'll eventually need to learn.
Yeah, even the relative pitch thing is a bit difficult for me. I memorised the major scale pattern quite some time back, but if I'm playing live & want to do a run up 2 octaves or something similar my knowledge of where the notes are on the fretboard falls apart. In practice or writing a song by myself I have all the time I want to play all the wrong notes before I play the right one, but I'm hoping the the colours will be enough to stick in my memory when I'm playing live.
I've actually been playing for close to 14 years now, so although my knowledge of scales is pretty embarrassing, when I know what notes I need to play I can do it pretty quickly. I know having perfect pitch is fairly rare, but even being able to tell what key a piece of music is in is something a lot of people take for granted.
I've found with learning or memorising other things in the past, that colour-coding things makes it easier to memorise & apparently there's some research that says colours help a lot of people, not just me.
When I was learning all this stuff it seemed really, really boring and slightly complicated. But the reality of it set in when I accepted that it was easy and understandable with some discipline and effort.
The reason I recommend 3 note per string scales is they are efficient and ergonomic and because of the dense clusters of notes, application of theory is obvious, rather than varying numbers of notes per string with changes for each note grouping.
Modes are easy, too, despite what some might say. Notes in key are called Diatonic (of the tonic), with the first note in the scale, from which the scale derives it's name, is called the root.
If you start the scale on any other diatonic note in the sequence you are playing a mode of the original root.
Play a C Major scale starting from D and ending on D and you have D Dorian mode.
Triads are made up of the root, 3rd (major or minor) and 5th. Anything additional to that changes the name of the chord, such as C major Add9, which adds a 2nd an octave above.
The thing to take from these observations is that it is important to number the notes as roman numerals or numbers as you ascend the scale ( I, II, IV, V,, VI, etc... 1(root), 2, 3, 4, etc.). Say it out loud as you practice the scales, so when someone says it's a "1, 4 & 5 in the key of G" you know what they mean.
If all of that means nothing to you, go buy a book or find a local guitar & bass tutor.
If your on bass, try higher up the neck where the frets are closer together. If you can't span out your hand very far, make sure your thumb is low on the back of the neck and you're holding the (bass) guitar properly for you.
Everyone holds guitars weird, so have a think how you should position it for efficiency of motion.