The Most Important Skill That Most Guitar Players Don’t Have
by Tom Hess
So what is the most important skill that most guitar players do not have? Some would claim that it is thorough knowledge of music theory. Others would say that the most important skill is creativity. Of course there are whole legions of guitar players that believe having impeccable technique is the holy grail of guitar playing. Maybe you agree with one of the statements above, or maybe you think it is something else like songwriting, playing with others in a band or having a lot of perseverance as a musician.
All of the skills mentioned above are crucial to the development of any guitar player who really wants to become an excellent guitarist and musician. But the single most important skill that most guitar players don't have, and don't know how to practice, is Ear Training! (also known as aural skills). We are dealing with music here right?! How do most of us enjoy making music? By listening to it! So why is it that most guitarists have poor aural skills (an unskilled ear). Non classical guitarists have traditionally played by ear, but surprisingly most of these players' ears are still not as good as they could be and should be.
I'll use myself as a classic example of a guitar player that used to severely lack good aural skills. Before I began my formal music training in college, I thought my ear was pretty good. I could usually learn songs by ear quickly and my lead guitar improvising skills were ok for the time. But whenever I wanted to compose a guitar solo for a song or write my own songs I ran into problems. I always felt as if I couldn't get the music that I heard in my head to come out in the music I was playing. I usually had very good technique and my knowledge of basic music theory was not bad but my creativity was suffering greatly. Everything I improvised or wrote came from my hands and my knowledge of chords, scales, etc. I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more unique, more creative and most importantly, more self expressive. I was aware that a problem existed, but I did not know the specific root of the problem. I assumed that I was just not a very creative person and that my (assumed) lack of creativity was permanent and beyond my control. I believed that I was just not naturally gifted with creativity.
In the fall of 1994, I enrolled at Harper college as a music major. In addition to many other requirements, all music students are required to complete 2 years of Aural Skills classes. It was not long after I went to my first aural skills class that I realized how much my ear needed more training. Fortunately I had a very encouraging teacher who knew that guitarists often had problems with aural skills. After the first semester (1/2 year) I realized that my problems related to musical creativity (improvising, songwriting / composing, etc.) were improving and more importantly, I realized that my problems were not due to a lack of creativity. They were due to the fact that my ear had not been developed enough to release all of my creative potential! This realization was one of the most single greatest moments in my musical life. I felt liberated in knowing that I really do have creative talents. Then all I needed to do was train my ear further so that my creative ideas could then manifest themselves into my music.
There are lots of ways in which you can improve your aural skills. I've listed many of them below. The idea here is not to pick just one of these ideas from the list and expect miracles. Do as many of these things as you can, as often as you can.
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Activities to practice:
1. Transcribing (figuring out by ear) songs, chords, melodies, solos, etc. using your guitar.
Ear training is critical to any musician's development as musician. Remember to persevere and be patient with yourself as your ear develops. Expect progress to be like your physical guitar playing, slow but steadily moving forward each day. Your ear needs constant practicing just like your hands do, so don't neglect the most crucial tool that you have - your ears!
Learn how to accelerate your guitar playing progress.
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