In a recent post entitled Your CW Experiences, we asked LIDS if they would share their stories of learning CW in order to help, encourage and inspire others to have a go (or keep going when the going gets tough). Here are their stories, completely unedited, and listed in the order they were submitted. Enjoy.
Chris N3MLB (LIDS #249) says:
If you think you can’t learn Morse Code, you’re wrong. If you think you’ll never pass the barrier of twenty words per minute, you’re wrong again. I learned CW from an early age. It was between the ages of seven and ten, when my father would sit me down on a winter night, turn on the desk lamp and tune in W1AW on a HeathKit 101. I would write out as best I as could, secret messages from some far-off land. Years later, about 1982, I took the Novice (KA3HLP) and eventually the Technician and General Class (N3ITQ) licenses. But by the time I was in my early twenties, I discovered personal computers, TNC’s, packet radio, BBS’s and so on and so on. Eventually, CW wasn’t needed. It was outdated. Nobody uses it, right? Text messaging and the Internet was starting to take over and eventually I left my license lapse. My father warned me, “You’ll regret letting it drop one day”. He was right. He was always right.
Fast forward to 2016, my wife and I were looking to downsize our house. We started looking at purchasing a home in the country, or out in the woods somewhere. Purely by accident, while I was surfing the internet for potential houses, I ran across a Technician study guide by KB6NU. I read through the PDF and it brought back a lot of memories. I realized I remember nearly everything. A few weeks later I retook my Technician exam and got back my General Class license (N3MLB). A few months later we moved into our new home and I was purchasing all sorts of ham gear. I was determined the digital modes would be my favorite mode. After a few months on the air, I was completely bored to death. A handful of QSO’s on PSK was satisfying, but there was something missing.
I started listening to CW QSO’s and then eventually, started hammering out code. It was great, but I was averaging ten words per minute. Within a few months, I found myself hitting that wall. Between eighteen and twenty words per minute, I would get frustrated. I couldn’t write that fast. How do these guys do it? Maybe my brain just couldn’t do it. Wrong!
I signed up for the CWOPS and they were a huge help. I can’t tell you how much they helped me. The problem for me was, I was on the East coast, and these gentlemen were in the mid-west and classes started between 8 PM and 9 PM EST. With my job, I was asleep by 9:30 PM. I eventually had to drop out of the class. However, they gave me the tools, tips and tricks and confidence to do this on my own.
I’m not proficient at twenty-five words per minute, but I’m darn close. If you have proper spacing, I can copy you just fine. It’s amazing what a good FIST can do to a QSO. Today, my QSO’s range from fifteen to twenty-two words per minute. I don’t care how slow you go, nothing beats a good conversation.
So what’s the trick? Here’s a hint. No two people learn the same way. Get that through your head. I used every tool possible and not one was the magic tool. If you’re trying to improve your speed, here are some things to remember and hopefully you’ll find it useful.
PUT DOWN THE PEN
During a comfortable QSO, stop writing down every letter. Start copying code in your head. Stop counting dits and dahs. It may take you some time to comprehend this, but you’ll know it when it happens. I’m not perfect at it, but I’m starting to really understand that you must go by the sound of the letter, instead of trying to count and then match the characters with the letter. Your brain doesn’t work like that. Once you start learning the sound, then you’ll start learning the combination of letters. Then you’ll start learning the sounds of the words. It’s really amazing.
MP3’s ARE KEY
There’s a program called eBook2CW. Google it and download it. It allows you to create your own study guide. You can copy text from news sites, or books and set your speed and spacing. Use these MP3’s to listen to in your car or while you’re jogging. Listen to them every day. I created many practice files that really helped me. I created several large mp3’s that contained common words like “it, the, then, them, why, where, who, rig, wx” at various speeds. I kept the spacing between the words long enough for me to recognize the sound and not the dits and dahs. Make sure your speed is twenty words per minute or more. Especially if you’re trying to improve your speed. If you’re just learning, try any speed you feel comfortable with but remember, the faster and more spacing there is, the faster you’ll beat the twenty wpm wall.
Practice sending at faster speeds. If you can only copy 10 words per minute, send at 15. If you can copy at 18, send at 22. Even if you’re not in a QSO, practice sending at faster speeds. I would read a news article and send several paragraphs in one practice session. The one practice phrase I used nearly every day, and still do today, is “THE QUICK BROWN FOX JUMPED OVER THE LAZY DOGS BACK”. Sounds too simple, but it contains every letter of the alphabet. It helps. It really helps!
Let the other ham know, you’re trying to improve your speed. They will spend time with you to have a rag chew. Hams love to talk about themselves. Let them! Get away from the typical RST, QTH and 73 QSO’s. The more you practice, the more comfortable you’ll be.
Lastly, remember there are good days and bad. I’m still improving. Some days I’m on top of the world and every character I send it perfect. Other days, I can’t copy or send. Some days are just that. Good and bad. Don’t let it discourage you.
Let me finish by saying, in the past twenty-four months, I’ve made about 1,600 QSO’s and the last year alone, all of them have been QRP and CW. It’s rare I use any other mode. It’s more than just a mode to me. CW has a long outstanding history. And it has a history with me. It’s tradition and a salute to my father in many ways. He has long passed but I regret that I cannot have a QSO with him via CW. Perhaps he is listening to my 1917 VibroPlex Blue Racer Bug, hammering out dits and dahs in the ether...
Daniel WB4RFQ has written a great blog of his learning from zero to hero, starting from scratch and attaining 20wpm head reading in under 18 months. Check out Daniel's journey at fine.business.
Marco IZ2LSO (LIDS #043) says:
I’ve been interested in radio communications since when I was very young: my SWL license is dated 1983. I listened mainly to shortwave: broadcasting, amateurs, utility, numbers stations, RTTY, FAX… but I had a total dislike for Morse code. All my SWL friends eventually evolved to licensed radio amateurs. Not me: I refused to waste my time to learn an obsolete form of communication. I almost forgot about radio, devoting my time to other hobbies, mainly hiking and paragliding. Years later the bug bit again: I joined the Italian Radio Amateurs Association and began to study what needed to pass the exam, Morse code included (the candidate had to copy and send CW at 5 WPM). Once a week a former Air Force radio man slowly pounded an enormous brass straight key teaching us to decode the infamous 5-character groups.
When the day of the exam came, being a sinner, I got my punishment: I was in the first batch of no-code hams licensed in Italy. Morse was not needed anymore to become a radio amateur. So, having been left with nothing to question, I became very interested in CW. First thing I discovered was I learned it the wrong way (5WPM) and was stuck to that speed, so I had to restart from scratch.
There is a debate about Morse, is it a code or a language? A dictionary definition of ‘language’ is “a systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols”. That’s it. In my opinion, Morse is a language and its study has to be approached in the same way someone would a foreign language. My target was, I had to learn to send and receive a minimum number of words/terms/numbers/prosigns at a reasonable speed, in order to be able to carry on a QSO. I was inspired by Voice of America “Special English” programs of my youth, where VoA on purpose used a dictionary limited to 2000 words to facilitate understanding by foreign listeners – it worked very well. My ‘CW as a language’ point of view included: learn the sound of a word in its entirety, not as the ‘sum’ of sounds of the single letters (you learn the sound of the word APPLE, not A+P+P+L+E); learn it at quite an high speed from the beginning, to avoid common mistakes – like counting dits and dahs – and to get the ‘right’ sound. (Consider this: even if you’re a beginner, you can read CQ and its variants CQ DX, CQ TEST… or TU 73 next to always, regardless of the speed, because you hear them all the time on the HF bands and you learned the sound pattern of those terms – just like you do with a foreign word).
Searching the internet I found the CW Operators’ Club (http://www.cwops.org/); they run the CW Academy (http://www.cwops.org/cwacademy.html), where you can enroll to learn Morse from the beginning or improve your ability. They use the ‘CW as a language’ approach, offering training and mentoring via the internet. Unfortunately all classes are filled: “All signups received now will be assigned to the January-February 2016 sessions”. Nevertheless, you can go on your own – as I did – supported by the information provided by the Academy: http://www.cwops.org/cwa-student-res.html. One of the instructors, Jack W0UCE offers additional material on his website: http://www.w0uce.net/Morsecode.html.
Based on the above material and with the help of many dedicated computer programs I’ll list later, I put together my own study course. I don’t know if it was better or more efficient than others, but it worked for me. One of the best thing you can do to improve the learning process of a foreign language is ‘full immersion’: so I did my best to fill my day with dits and dahs, while commuting or when at my desk, while hiking or sunbathing. I downloaded all the CW audio I could find, I put together my own files and I reproduced them on the car stereo or my portable MP3 player. I got a few PC programs designed to stimulate the learning process (it’s plenty out there) or to reproduce news, texts or entire books. In my opinion variety is important: get CW from many different sources, let it flood your life!
Start sending as soon as you learn your first letter. This is very helpful in getting the right rhythm and retaining the sound you just learned. Send to yourself, translate it to text with one of the many decoding software freely available and check how you are doing. To send CW use the instrument you prefer, but consider that a straight key is more difficult to master than a paddle connected to a keyer. You don’t really need to learn iambic sending: I bet most of CW ops just push the right paddle for dahs and the left for dits. You can as well operate like this with a single lever paddle. You don’t even need a pricey tool: look at those homemade keys of the QRP people, they do very well and usually are built with recycled parts. And, go on the air as soon as possible, find someone to QSO with, ask members of your radio club, arrange a sked with LIDS members, don’t be shy just do it!
A traditional approach is the Koch method; you learn one character at a time. Many good programs have been written and are freely downloadable; one of them – just to remember a good friend and passionate ham – is Morse Machine by Julian G4ILO (SK). But, as I suggest the ‘language’ approach, you’d better start with Morse Trainer, an online tool tailored on CW Academy Course lessons (8 weeks from beginner to QSO!); instructions to use it: http://www.cwops.org/cwa/Using%20Morse%20Trainer.pdf There is an offline version you can download.
- MorseGen by G4ILO (SK): it can generate random letter or number groups, common words, text from a file or pseudo-QSOs. It can also generate audio practice files.
- WinMorse by Mark Bellamy: a text to Morse Code conversion application, offering various output formats, fully configurable. You can make your own practice files.
- CWFreak by Satoshi Imaizumi JI0VWL to increase your copying speed
- MorseTest by G4ILO (SK) and Morse Runner by Alex VE3NEA if you want the thrill of a CW contest
- Morse News by Bob Denny: amazing software. From the help file: “ Morse News periodically reads one or more RSS (news or Facebook), Atom (news), and/or Twitter feeds and translates the received messages into International or American Morse Code, which is output as CW radio tones, old-fashioned spark-gap radio sounds, telegraph sounder click/clack sounds, or to a physical telegraph sounder connected to a serial port. The CW/spark-gap radio tones can be augmented by noise/QRN, static crashes, and realistic ionospheric fading”. Let it run on your PC and you’ll have that full immersion… It comes in bundle with a cute keyer.
- PCW Fistcheck by Ernst DJ7HS. The program will show you how you are keying, mark and space, dots and dashes. Useful to hone your straight key or sideswiping skills. It will even try to decode the Morse characters you have sent.
- ebook2cw by Fabian DJ1YFK, convert e-books to Morse MP3/OGG files (Fabian is also the dad of LCWO and QRQ, both CW related programs, and other great ham software).
This is my experience. It worked for me, it could work for you too so why don’t you give Morse a try? Be different!
« Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference »
(Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken)
72 GL ES CUL
Alex G7KSE (LIDS #036) says:
So why did I want to learn morse? I was given a straight key and K3NG keyer from Kevin, M0KHZ who helped me solder smd’s for the first time and design my own arduino hardware and software. So why not give it a go.
The problem is that I’d attempted a couple of years ago to learn it but work stopped me from having the consistent time needed to practice. One week I was in a hotel room in sunny Preston, the next it was sunny Warrington. So, not much progress made and eventually I gave up trying.
Now my work is more balanced and I have a fairly regular time to practice.
By now I was using LCWO in the browser and G4FON at home along with the pdf of Zen and the art of telegraphy I got from the link.
I used LCWO at lunchtime for anything from 5 mins to 30 mins either using the Koch trainer or morse machine all at 15 wpm with lots of space between characters to get to know the characters. Zen helped a lot as well as it builds up your vocabulary.
3 months on and I’m beginning to pick up speed and have made fewer mistakes sending and am more confident receiving. Still a long way to go before I am competent at 15wpm but I’ve got until Christmas to get there!
I have found that there are lots of tools to use and some are better than others but pretty much all of them get a look in depending on the mood I’m in. Variety (and LIDS) have helped a lot. Lastly, don’t be afraid about going on air. Who really cares if you make a massive balls up especially when those on the other end don’t really care either, just having a go is more important.
Michael G0POT (LIDS #027) says:
As a G-zero I must have passed my 12 wpm Morse test some-when around 1990. I was taught by a retired RAF chap who took me through the process in the popular method of the day; learn the alphabet at 5wpm then increase your speed hitting the inevitable walls at 8, 10 & 12 wpm until you were sending and receiving comfortably at 13 – 14wpm to ensure the 12wpm Post Office Morse test would be a walk in the park.
I learned to send on a straight key (no one seemed to use paddles then) and wasn’t allowed to touch it until I had learned the alphabet. The technique he taught for sending on a straight key was superb and naturally produced great sounding code.
In hind-sight I realise this approach to learning the code is flawed and effectively requires you to relearn the code multiple times as you acquire a new speed. In later years I’ve much preferred the Koch method for building speed but have clung to the importance of the motto, ‘Accuracy transcends speed’.
My first (insert large number here) years of trying to use CW resulted in a lot of sweating and feeling embarrassed and incompetent but I think, because my very first ad hoc CW QSO was with someone who was really supportive I persevered. Each QSO was 30 – 45 minutes of terror but the feeling of satisfaction and elation in having made it through is difficult to describe. In these early days I didn’t see what need there might be to move beyond 12wpm but now I can see how much more info you can squeeze into a typical 30 – 45 minute QSO the faster you go. I’ve struggled to advance much beyond 14 – 15wpm, not because I can’t learn the alphabet at this speed, but because, when rag-chewing, I struggle to write much faster than this!
For my early contacts (for quite a few years if I’m honest) I made a lot of template or ‘rubber-stamp’ QSOs and even had that template written out so I could simply follow it. That helped to take the pressure off and, as I built confidence, I felt more able to ‘go off piste’ and ad-lib a bit. It still struck fear into my heart every time I realised someone was asking a question and 9 times out of 10 I’d end up missing the vital bits. This was pure nerves…mind over matter and it took a long time for me to get over it. In hind-sight I wish I’d had more friends to practice with. Knowing you can cock-up, quit at a moment’s notice when you’re brain shuts down, miss-spell words, get lost in the middle of a sentence or get lost in the middle of a word that you realise you can’t spell makes the experience less stressful (well, a little less stressful).
I guess I’ve been motivated to keep at it because CW kit is easy to build, you can do a lot with very little (QRP), it can overcome language barriers and you can hear DX on CW that you just can’t find on SSB. I think I also love it because it has such a passionate following with some genuinely lovely people who go out of their way to help you succeed. You do sometimes get the odd idiot who hasn’t grasped the concept of sending at the slower stations speed…I just say 73s to these people and move on and no longer feel bad about that or inadequate in any way.
I also sometimes get the challenge of someone who sends erratically. This used to annoy me until a few years ago when I worked a chap who put gaps in all the wrong places meaning the end of one character might be joined to a dit or two of the next character. It was unbelievably difficult to copy but I kept at it and we managed a rubber stamp QSO. When I looked up the operator after the event it transpired he’d had a heart attack and was learning to send again (both learning to use his arms but also his brain). It made me more tolerant to poor sending but if I think the Op may just need some help and guidance I’m confident enough to give some private feedback to help them improve…I hope other Ops will do the same for me :o)
If you’re new to CW and fast or erratic code is going to throw you then simply answer other people’s calls rather than calling yourself. This puts you in control and you can search for a CQ which is at your speed and well sent. You can also cheat and listen to their previous QSO and gather all their info so when you have your QSO you have all their details already (or simply look them up on QRZ!). The other advantage to answering other people’s calls is that they get to go first sending their info so you can simply follow their lead and copy their content which saves you having to think about what to say next.
I’ve not quite mastered head copying yet but am working on it. What I have mastered though is feeling confident putting out a call in CW and being able to manage whatever comes back. Most importantly though, I never feel bad about cocking up or failing to copy anything. I just remember…I’m having FUN
David G7AGI (LIDS #003) says:
I remember having a go at learning Morse shortly after I got my Class B licence in the late 80’s, but it was always a bit half-hearted and I never got further than a handful of characters. Then I got into RTTY and AX25 in a big way and CW was the last thing on my mind. Obsolete, irrelevant, and a waste of time…
Fast-forward to 2012 and I’m back in the hobby after a break of nearly 20 years. VHF is still my main interest (I didn’t have much choice last time) and AX25 is on life-support so I’m now a phone-only operator and enjoying working 2m and 4m, especially on a Tuesday evening. One weekend I am trying to get a QSO with Ian MW0IAN (LIDS #002) on 4m and it’s not working out. He can hear me but I can’t hear him. Then he switches to CW, and there he is! I can hear him quite clearly and it’s a very powerful lesson in the advantages of CW over SSB. It would be a QSO…but I have no idea what he’s sending. Time to start learning all over again…
That was in 2013. Two years later and my CW is at ~15wpm, but it has been a very tough journey. To be honest if I’d known it would take me this long I doubt I would have started, but I will tell you one thing about CW – it’s addictive. As I learned it I fell in love with it. I love the sound of it, the efficiency of it, even the history of it. Somewhere on my Twitter timeline there is a photo of my first Morse key with the caption “My first Morse key, probably my last Morse key.” Oh, the naivety of that.
You’ll see lots of discussion on straight key vs. paddles for learners. I’m using both and I don’t really have a view; go with whichever you prefer. The challenge is not sending; that comes relatively quickly because your brain can think ahead to the next character and form the sound just before you need to send it. The challenge is receiving, when you don’t know what is coming until you’ve heard it. The key to learning is to train your brain to give you the character as soon as it is finished, in that one-dah gap before the next one starts. And for that the only solution is practise, practise, practise. It’s the bit that people don’t like to hear but there is no getting away from it.
I’ve used quite a few programs over the last couple of years and most of them with not much success. You’ve probably already heard of the Koch method? You start by learning only two characters at full speed, then add more characters gradually as your error rate declines. This didn’t work well for me. I’d get to about 10 characters and my thinking time would increase to the point where I’d start missing too many characters, and that’s a great way to get discouraged. A missed character teaches you nothing. And then I discovered Morse Machine on LWCO. Morse Machine is different because it plays a character and then it waits for you to type it back. Type the wrong character and it plays it again so you get a chance to correct your error. I came on leaps and bounds with this method; no missed characters and a strong reinforcement of the sound/character combination each time. Since then I have discovered a superb Morse Machine application from Andrea IU4APC (LIDS #045) that is available for Android devices today and iOS devices soon. I’m using this app on a daily basis as I try to reduce my error rate (‘G’ still throws me, every time) and reach my target of 18wpm by the end of 2015. I can’t rate it highly enough. If you are PC based then take a look at Morse Machine by Julian G4ILO (SK). Seriously, Morse machines are the best way to learn from scratch because you never need to look at dots and dashes (the worst way to learn), just learn the sound of each character at your own speed.
If conversational QSOs are your thing then I would suggest you concentrate on letters once you’ve got the code memorised but need to get your ‘thinking time’ down. I used the LCWO web site to make a 30-minute audio CD of random letter groups at 15wpm to play in the car on my way to work, just to get used to the sounds, the rhythm, and to decode as many as I could. Of course you need numbers too but they appear relatively infrequently in a CW QSO, usually in predictable places like callsigns and RST reports (and those are usually sent at least twice), but if you want to ragchew then get your letters up to speed first. Mixing letters and numbers in your training is fine, but with 10 numbers and 26 letters the numbers will be disproportionately frequent. You will also want to learn the basic prosigns that let you conduct a QSO.
There will be days when your brain refuses to co-operate and you feel like you’ve forgotten everything. Don’t try to fight it because you’ll only get discouraged. Go and watch TV instead. Come back to it tomorrow and you’ll be surprised what your brain has processed and tucked away in the meantime.
When it comes to going live on the air, find someone local who is prepared to hand-hold you through those few QSOs. The 2m band is great for this as you don’t have the pressure of knowing the world is listening. You don’t even need a multimode radio, you can plug the output of your practice oscillator into your FM rig. And don’t worry about it all going wrong. I’ve had quite a few QSOs that have turned into disasters on my part. Know when to take a deep breath, don’t send faster than you can receive, and laugh at your mistakes (before filing them away under ‘Stuff I learned today’). So what if it all falls apart? Call CQ at a speed you can manage and you will be rewarded with a QSO, probably from someone else as nervous as you, delighted that they have found someone they can copy.
Just as some people are musically gifted and others aren’t, I believe the same applies to learning Morse code. If you are like me then you can expect to go through some frustrating times and maybe even feel like giving up altogether, but I would encourage you to persevere. Morse is a universal language and you will find every QSO memorable. I spent a year reacquainting myself with data modes but now I look back through my log with no recollection of most of them – ‘macro’ QSOs with no soul and no sense that I was conversing with another human being. Of course you’ll have rubber-stamp CW QSOs too, but every pause and every error communicates something of the personality of the sender (especially if they are using a straight key). You’ve made an effort to talk to each other, and that will give you a good feeling when you’re signing off with a ‘dit dit’.
The rewards are great, and when you complete your first CW QSO at 5wpm you will be bouncing off the walls with excitement. That’s a promise!