The Jazz Guitarist Who Couldn’t Play Happy Birthday


  1. C W

    Here's a question for anyone who does not already know how to play Happy Birthday. If asked to play it in the key of C major, what note does the melody start on? Even though you know the tune, can you identify the starting note in your head, without your instrument. Ask yourself that question for any tune you know in your head but have never learned to play on your instrument. It's really just asking what degree of the scale does the tune start on. Obviously, you need to know that note before you can start to play the tune, whatever key you choose. I can't identify that note in my head, and I'm not sure how to learn how to do it.
    If the band leader had said let's play Happy Birthday in C starting on the note G I'm sure the guitarist would have got it very quickly.

  2. Paris D Black

    I have been struggling with ear training for a number of years. I have purchased many different methods from David Lucas Burge to eMedia. I just purchased A New Approach to Ear Training Book & CDs by Leo Kraft and I am hoping I can truly learn something from this method. I understand the importance of ear training, and my goal is to be able to transcribe music. A lot of the music I listen to does not have sheet music available for it, so I have to learn it by ear. I am starting to be able to play some easy stuff such as Danny Boy and The Star Spangled Banner by ear.

  3. Tom Björkner

    Listning to your advise I remeber wath I once read on the back of an old Chuck Wayne record. He said;-" First, learn how to swing"-!

  4. Steve Lee

    Some tunes I refuse to play…happy birthday is one of them…i would make that clear to the pianist before the gig…like some drummers I know will refuse to do rim shots behind some emcee lame jokes…

  5. gagisha74

    Excellent session on a crucial subject. I belong to the category of those struggling with their ear training. I had been simply avoiding the topic for years, trying to compensate through theory, but in the end decided to get involved. I am doing the "formal" kind, i.e. trying to be methodical at the self-taught approach. It's tough, I am certainly not among those gifted in this regard, but result are noticeable, even if not great.

  6. Code Tech

    I don't know about jazz but this is a very common problem with anyone who has learned to play "by the book".

    They can play what is written, even if it is complicated, but cannot play anything without some written reference unless they have previously memorized it from a book.

    I remember one time where I played some songs on the guitar, and then someone asked me to accompany them on a song I had heard but did not know the chords, and there was no book. They said "just strum along" and I asked "Strum what chords"?

    The person got angry at me because they thought I was being uncooperative, sarcastic, etc, because they did not believe that, having see me play fancy stuff on the guitar, I was not able to "just strum along" that way.

  7. Guitar Hobby

    I literally grow several gray hairs while watching this video. So much wisdom so little time.

  8. Doug Eisenstark

    yep, after a few tries I could play Happy Bday… a free form out jazz version! Nice video…

  9. David Daley

    Happy Birthday is in the key of F……not C. The piano player should have known that. And as someone else pointed out it is in 3/4 time…..not 4/4. Something else the piano player should have known. If he is going to count it off he should count it correctly and should call it in the right key.

  10. El Mission

    This is stupid. Perhaps the cat didn't want to play the damn tune or he got caught off guard by the pianist or he just didn't hear the dude. Happy Birthday is a stupid song that maybe this guy just doesn't play it at the gigs that he does. It's not a big deal and it's not a topic that needed to be put on a freaking seventeen minute video. This is not a reflection on whether or not the cat can play — obviously as the talking head in the video says, he can play. For some reason this shitty vid was recommended to me on my channel list. I will ask youTube to add a block a motherfucker feature on the service so I don't have to suffer this again. Sheesh.

  11. Kenji Hiranabe

    Inspiring story ! thank you, i love your videos. I have never met/known/imagined “jazz“ guitarists who cannot do that. (but known many in other area of guitar)

  12. Ato Cox

    The fact that you loved Hendrix ,Led Zeppelin ,Eric Clapton and the Beatles just like I do learning guitar is enough for me to subscribe with you in order to learn jazz guitar!And yes it's my first time I'm hearing about your channel.

  13. Mark McCluney

    I've played guitar for maybe forty years but have never had a good link between ears and fingers the way some friends had. I started playing mandolin about five years ago and found it very much easier to find intervals, scales, modes and arpeggios. I joked that my brain in tuned in fifths rather than fourths. It was a joke but could there could there be some truth in this? Could some have a greater affinity for, say, fifths rather than fourths? Discuss.

  14. yzimsx

    So: stop watching Youtube videos and start playing songs! For every two hours of playing songs you are allowed to waste fifteen minutes on Youtube videos. I am inclined to think that the vast majority of minutes spend on watching tutorials and clinics and how-to videos helps nothing and is purely meta-level entertainment. I'm closing this video now.


    I am teaching language for 25 years now. Pedagogically and socially one thing is for sure: You don't just throw in an order like "now, you play happy birthday in c" – and start counting. I like your videos and I got the idea – but I think the situation you are telling is not typical for professionals who have mutual respect for each other. The piano player should be happy not to have me as the guitarist – I would have brushed up his face in such a situation or afterwards.
    Peace and thank you.

  16. ibji

    Hi. I recommend watching the videos of Dylan Beato and his demonstrations of his abilities with perfect pitch. He is amazing to watch, and has a truly gifted ear for notes. His dad Rick has made the point that if perfect pitch could be taught, then why doesn't every graduate from Julliard have perfect pitch? If it's not developed at an early age, the window for obtaining it is lost.

  17. davetbassbos

    If you know it, can sing it, you should be able to play it! That should be the goal for any instrument. I know it's easier said than done, but the good news is if you work out "Happy Birthday" the next similar melody might be easier and as you learn more, you have more to draw on to learn the next one to the point where you can trade off phrases with some goofy singer trying to stump you!. Also the filming makes the host look like a villain from the old Dr. Who series, just saying…

  18. Johnny Hansen

    Hi, I am a fairly new subscriber to your excellent jazz guitar site. I started playing guitar in the late '60's and bass too later and the only tool have been my ears. Blues, rock, symphonic rock and now sliding more and more into the fantastic world of jazz. Now I am struggling with reading the dots and chord sheets. I wouldn't have been able to play without using my hearing abilities. I tell you, that learning to read requires much more from me, as it is skills, that doesn't accumulate when just playing what I feel and hear. I had to start as an improviser.

  19. Diego Ortiz

    Great great video! Can you help us to make a daily routine to begin with the jazz ear training and how to apply it in our playing? Thanks master!!!

  20. Airton Filipeli

    Hello Richie, in this video you talk about my biggest challenge. I always played by ear and as you know I found in your Bebop courses a new way of thinking: theory and harmony. I have here a question that is: the melody should reveal harmony. In one of your responses you warned us about improvisation always revealing the chord changes. I look forward to seeing your next video revealing this junction between these two ways of improvising. Thank you very much.

  21. Joshua Marks

    Great video! It is fairly understandable that an otherwise talented player might struggle with Happy Birthday on a gig:
    It's originally in 3/4, and if the pianist quickly calls out "1234" not only is it confusing but without the 2 pickup notes the prospect of recovering the melody before the second chorus is fairly unlikely. This problem is what clear and unmistakable intros are designed to avoid.

  22. Richard Sorice

    Great video, Richie. Thanks! When I first started playing out 25 years ago, our whole band was pretty inexperienced and I had to create a lead sheet for Happy Birthday, haha. Yes, we could play Stella and Autumn Leaves and not Happy Birthday. A little related, fooling the audience…… playing Christmas tunes. We can slide thru wrong notes on All The Things You Are (Although it rarely happens, because we play it often), but we can't get away with wrong notes on Christmas tunes because the audience knows so well. Of course it's difficult, because we only play these tunes 3 to 4 weeks each year.

  23. Pierre Lemire

    I love your videos ! My english is bad (excuse me…) but you speak slowly and I have success to understand you. Thank you very much. You are a very good teacher. Sincerly !

  24. Thierry Verger

    Very Good Subject ! I myself had very hard times to "hear" when i started Guitar … But , It's so important ! I would recommend transcribing anything like "Happy Birthday" loll.. Whatever the time it takes , You will improve little by little for sure and it will take you to another level ! Great Vid Richie 😉

  25. Dino Wurtinger

    I take refuge the guitar player. I think it's a little bit nasty if you spell to someone "ok you play the melodie and starting to counting". Happy Birthday in C. So the first thing which this poor man has to realize that the starting note is the fifth. Sure thats not a big deal, but i think you have to set yourself in this situation. Maybe i had starting the melodie with a C and then struggling around and realized "Fuck, sure its starting on the fifth". Also when i sing, i have to figure out the first note where the melodie starts before i can sing it. And sure everyone should practice eartraining and try to getting better with it

  26. MrDotneck

    Just checked – I was able to play "Happy Birthday" right away but I'm still working hard on playing something worthwhile over standards…LOL! Anyway: Looking forward to Pt.2 – Thanks!

  27. Bill Billy

    thanks Richie. your regular contributions continue to be a great source of inspiration to me.

  28. Peter Lavelle

    I have always found ear training difficult because of the sheer tedium of doing repetitive execrcises. There are quite a few software programs that make it easier. The best one I found is developed in Holland and is called EarMaster, available for Windows and Mac and also IOS I pad. It took me so far about 3 years to work through the mutliple graded exercises on chord progression and interval recognition, rhythm and tempo and melody recognition. It made a big difference but I still struggle with being able pick and spontaneously play tunes. So I identify with the issues in this lesson! I look forward to the next one, thank you Richie Zellon.

  29. oldsyphilitic

    This is a very interesting area, and whilst I agree with your view on the importance of ear training, there is another factor that might have been at play. When I saw the title of your video, I wondered if I could play Happy Birthday impromptu. I picked up my guitar, strummed a C chord and played it. Would I have been able to on a gig if a pianist said, 'you play the melody' out of the blue? I'm not sure. For confidence has a great part to play in situations like that. Confidence or rather the lack of it dominates the playing experience of many musicians. Some musicians seem to enjoy putting others on the spot and would no doubt enjoy telling every musician they meet about the guitarist who couldn't play Happy Birthday, yet that guitarist could well have felt flustered at being put on the spot in such a manner. Many players would and would also relive their embarrassment for years to come.

    Performance anxiety is a massive issue and dogs the playing of even excellent players from time to time. Many tomes have been written on the subject but few players wish to openly discuss their own anxieties

  30. Shaun Bartone

    I would never tell anyone interested in music that they shouldn't play an instrument because they 'obviously' don't have talent, ear-training capacity, or proficiency in any number of musical skills. People should learn to play an instrument because they enjoy it, period. Some people acquire skills very slowly. Not everyone is going to be a George Benson and have professional-level guitar skills at age 16. Some people, myself included, learned how to play jazz guitar over a lifetime. The process was no less enjoyable for me than for the guy who had it all at age 20. Should slow learners attempt to play professional jazz guitar for money? Well, perhaps not, but tell me sir, who the hell is making money in music these days? Bands aren't making money, gig musicians barely get paid anything, certainly not what it cost them to acquire the skills, music companies are hemorrhaging cash and going bankrupt, record stores have all but disappeared, etc. So if the slow learner doesn't get paid to enjoy playing guitar, so what?

  31. guitarsurfer2010

    Funny, I always use Happy Birthday when I want to see if a player is a "Real Guitarist"
    They will always start singing, because 95% of "guitarists" can't play H.B. instrumentally.

  32. byronofcalgary

    SUBBED – we had a 1960's turntable with 16 vs 33 – never thought of the octave diff back then… I do recall playing Master of Reality LP at 45 + 78 rpm to see what on earth the difference was between the songs ! ! – but great video & topic – I would substitute the word "brain" for "ear" = "brain training"

  33. Xubuntu47

    I smiled at the description of the 16 rpm turntable…yes, that's how I learned the solos for "Stairway to Heaven" and "Bohemian Rhapshody" back in the day. I wonder if you have looked into music education researcher Dr. Edwin E. Gordon's approach to ear training? The so-called Gordon Music Learning Theory is quite a different kind of training than traditional intervalic work. It is also a bit controversial, and has both its detractors and its devotees.

  34. Charlex López

    Dear professor Richie: i´ve seen many classical music students who play beautiful sonatas and polyphonic pieces that are totally lost in a situation of "popular music" or playing through a chord changes by ear. Then when they get older, and keeping a high level of playing classical pieces turns almost impossible (for any reason), they consider to get into popular music, either a pop/rock band or a wedding band or any other style, and they find themselves very frustrated beacause they spent years doing classical technique repertoire and none of their teachers told´em nothing about this aspect. it´s actually kind a sad thing i guess.

  35. Robert Kahn

    Wow! I had no idea this is such a common problem. I’m definitely looking forward to your follow up video.

  36. Steve Moppert

    Very interesting! I can't wait for the next video. Rick Beato says perfect pitch is learned before the age of three it cannot be learned after that. His son has perfect pitch. Your thoughts? I just want to hear maj, min, and dom as they are passing by.

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