CW Tips, Tricks, and my Journey to Learn the Morse Code

Here's a great site if you are just getting started with CW

A Beginner's Guide to Making CW Contacts


I got my "ticket" after they had already waved the requirement for morse code, and like most folks I thought CW was an outdated mode, something I would never have any interest in. I got my feet wet in Ham radio the same as most techs, I got a used 2 meter and built a ground plane and started checking into the local nets. Soon I had upgraded the "shack" antenna to a J-Pole that worked a little better than the ground plane, and got a mobile rig for the car. Next came an "HT" so I could be portable.

I joined several local ham clubs and read every book I could find on ham radio. I got the itch for HF, and wanted to get on the air but I didn't have patience to deal with the limitations of a technicians class license, so I studied for my general and extra. I passed both in one sitting, and thought I was ready for the world. I was originally granted the call "ki4zwz" but wanted a vanity call, so I upgraded to w4zwz. The "ZWZ" still seemed a bit much to me, so I decided to try to get as short a call as possible. I rushed in, and got "N6BX", since I knew that the regional portion of the call was no longer being adhered to. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but once I started making contacts I found that when folks heard the "Six Call" they assumed I was in California, and were often either disappointed or confused when I gave my QTH in the report. I decided to once again change my call, and wanted a 4 call which would represent my actual location accurately. I applied for, and received, the call "WR4U" and I hope to keep that call until I am SK.

The reason I give this background is to point out something that was not obvious to me when I first got into ham radio, and may not be obvious to anyone else just starting out and maybe someone will read this and it will help them from making some of the same mistakes I made.

I know there is a lot of controversy about it, and I understand why they have lowered the entry barriers to getting licensed as an amateur radio operator, but frankly in hindsight I wish it hadn't been quite so easy for me to get my license, and particularly to upgrade to Extra so quickly.

With my background in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, I found the technical portions of the ham exams to be easy, so all I had to do is learn about the legal issues surrounding operating and wham bam thank you ma'am I was an Extra Class ham, without having any experience whatsoever in how to actually operate a station, or having shown any competence whatsoever.

There is simply no substitute for time spent on the air to become a better operator. You simply can't learn from a book the things you need to know to bring together all the parts that are involved in being an efficient and courteous operator. Back in the day a novice had to learn to work with limited equipment on limited bands, He/she had to know code at 5 words per minute, and had to keep power within novice limits. Not so long ago novices were "rock bound", limited to the frequencies provided by crystals that fit into a holder on the transmitter. Above all, Novices were taught to listen, listen, and listen some more.

Ham operators are as varied a group of individuals as I have ever met, they represent the spectrum of humans from young to old, and have interests as varied as the colors of the rainbow. Some only want to talk locally on FM 2m repeaters, some only operate digitally with a computer based rig, some only AM on antique tube driven "boat anchors" ... And all are equally important to the hobby. But the hams I have the most respect for, and find myself gravitating towards, are the ones who "came up honest". They typically obtained their Novice license at 5wpm at an examiners office, and obtained their first HF radio from an Elmer or ordered a kit and "rolled their own".

Only after learning to operate as a novice until they were competent and knowledgeable regarding their craft did they upgrade from Novice to General, Advanced, and Extra. The hams I know that went thru that process tend to be humble, courteous, willing to help others, and in general the finest examples of what it means to be a ham radio operator.

My first HF rig was a boat anchor, a set of Yaesu twins. The FL-101 transmitter and FR-101 receiver became the heart of my first shack, and to say it was a steep learning curve would be an extreme understatement. That was many radios ago, but the truth is I never really became proficient with that radio. The twins still sit in my shack, and it's on my todo list to put them back on the air in the future, and this time hopefully be able to operate them in CW and enjoy some "real radio".

My first solid state rig was a yaesu 757gx, an excellent radio that my son, KJ4IKN still uses to this day. I got a digital interface for the 757, and was soon operating PSK and was amazed how easy it was to talk around the world with 20 watts and my lowly 5BTV vertical. One thing that becomes obvious the longer you are a ham, is that the antenna is the most important part of any rig. In hindsight I spent way too much time worrying about a new radio and not nearly enough time improving my antennas. Oh well antennas are a topic for another day, I'm trying to get around to a discussion of CW ....

With a computer and a solid state rig, I soon found out that I could send and receive CW without knowing any morse code at all. I remember being blown away to find out that most of the CW contest operators were using computers to send their CW, and many used decoders to receieve, altho most of the contesters could "read" in their heads at speeds from 35-45 words per minute. I'll never forget the thrill of sending out my first CW CQ and seeing my call sign come back to me on the decoder screen.

There's something terribly unsatisfying and hollow about using a computer to decypher CW. Before long, I started to feel almost guilty about it. For one thing, as good as programs like "CWGET" are at decoding computer generated CW (which accounts for most of what is transmitted during a contest) they are terrible at decoding code sent at slow speeds, or with a straight key or "bug". Although I was logging CW contacts on a regular basis, I was still more of a "NO CODE" ham than a "KNOW CODE" ham.

So long story short, I decided that I would ditch the computer based CW, and start all over, approaching the mode as if I was a novice, which for all practical purposes I was (and in many ways still am).

Upon deciding to get serious about learning to use CW I was overwhelmed by the many methods and all the advice I was given as to what the "correct way" to learn the code is. Seems like every ham I talked to who was proficient with CW had learned it a different way. Some learned it quickly and were on the air having conversational QSO's in days after starting, some studied and practiced for a year or more before they every got on the air with a key. Some used code tapes, some used computer programs, some used books....  and yet at the end they all wound up at the same destination... the ability to use the cw decoder between their ears to "hear" messages sent by other hams as a series of dits and dahs and respond in kind. A worthy and honorable goal.

I will attempt to write more on the subject as time allows, but for now let me close with the following things that ring true for me, and may be of some help to anyone who has decided the jouney towards becoming a cw operator:

  1. There are no two operators who are identical in any way. You will learn at your own pace, in your own way. Do not compare your progress or abilities to anyone else. You are unique, and your journey will be yours and yours alone.
  2. There is no "shortcut". There is simply no substitute for steady, regular practice.
  3. There is no substitute for one or more "elmers" who can help you and provide guidance along the way. Groups like "fists" and "skcc" are loaded with great hams who are very patient and willing to help those new to the code. Don't hesitate to ask questions and ask for help.
  4. You will get a lot of advice, and a lot of it will be in conflict. Some will say don't send with anything but a keyboard until you can read 13wpm in your head, some will say using a straight key to send will help you get to 5wpm faster than any other method... use what works for you, but have regular conversations with someone who is an experienced cw op to make sure you aren't learning bad habits.
  5. Learning letters, numbers, and punctuation is just the beginning. There are prosigns, "Q" codes, and operational procedures that aren't intuitive that take as much time or more to learn than the characters themselves.
  6. Listen, listen, and then listen some more. And listen to CW over the air on a receiver. While computer programs and code tapes/cd's are good learning tools, they are no substitute for listening to cw sent over the air. Fading, static, QRM ....  I highly recommend listening to the ARRL code broadcasts from W1AW.
  7. Have fun, and be confident. I have never met anyone who failed at learning the code if they stayed at it long enough. You CAN and WILL become proficient at CW if you want it bad enough.

Enough for now, I hope that as time passes I will be able to work on these pages to provide a resource for beginner CW ops and maybe even offer something for the old timers. Till our paths cross again,

73 de WR4U