The idea of developing or training one’s ears to achieve better results in your guitar playing and over all musicianship, isn’t a new concept. In fact, if I take you back to the early 80’s (when I was a boy, becoming a man), I can tell you that I would use my ears to figure out songs and guitar solos over 90% of the time. The only times I would ever look at and try to use tablature (tab), to help me with songs, licks & solos, were when they were being transcribed within an issue of ‘Guitar Player’ magazine, or similar.
I was a teenager and didn’t always have the $5.00 spare to shell out for the magazine, so needless to say, I didn’t buy them all the time. I did however, paw over every transcription in the magazines I had, trying to pick up on what was being taught as best I could.
To a 14-year-old hard rocking, mullet wearing wannabe ‘Rock God’ guitarist like me, trying to learn how to read music wasn’t going to cut it, because that real musical notation stuff with the little black dots that looked like a bat had shit all over the page, was only for the classical & jazz taught ‘music nerds’ and so very uncool. Guitar tablature, on the other hand was a lot more palatable, and became a great substitute, even though it has some serious limitations.
In the summer of 1983-84, the guitar world began to change rapidly. I remember there was this massive paradigm shift from Blues based Pentatonic riffing & soloing, giving way to a far more flamboyant, sophisticated, and ‘flashy’ classical approach to song writing in general, but especially in the virtuosity of guitar playing specifically.
Guitar sound effects were being widely utilised. Delays, phasing, and flanging were being used far more than just wah wah, and fuzz pedals. These FX pedals were being used to create big ambient soundscapes, and guitar players were writing beautiful melodies just as they did centuries before.
Institutes like GIT, or Berkeley in the U.S.A, saw their opportunity and took it. They were super quick to promote a more classical approach in a modern Rock & Blues based curriculum.
Where once the pentatonic lick reigned supreme, in 1984, I saw what I could only describe as the resurgence of the primo virtuoso violinists of the 17 th Century Baroque Period, reincarnated into these big haired, spandex wearing, axe wielding masters, repopularising a precise approach to great music and masterful playing.
For the rest of us that weren’t students at Berkeley etc, we had very little musical theory to source from, and so, we relied heavily on our ears as reference. We began to hear what seemed impossible to achieve with merely two hands on one guitar, and so the race was on to figure it all out. And if you could figure out and incorporate some of those tricks and licks into your own paying, then you achieved ‘GOD like’ status in your school or local area instantly. The sheer velocity and accuracy exhibited in these mesmerising ascending and cascading triplets, using new magician like trickery such as ‘finger tapping’, a technique made famous by Edward Van Halen, were enough for most to throw their hands up in defeat.
Seeing the burgeoning popularity of the movement, the guitar magazines jumped on board in a heart-beat. Popular music had just exploded into new and exciting directions. The advent of the synthesiser and growth of technology within the industry had helped to launch this exciting new time ahead.
Guitar Player magazine hired some young guy by the name of Steve Vai at the time to do the transcribing for the magazine’s new metal guitarist of the month section. Vai’s transcriptions were nothing I had ever seen before. I mean, there were symbols he would use in his transcriptions to convey some specific techniques being applied on the instrument that were anything but orthodox. Mind you, the genius guitar wizardry, and mayhem that guys such as Eddie (Van Halen), Randy Rhoads, and a young Yngwie Malmsteen brought to the table were also anything but orthodox.
These guys were literally melting our faces off with these new techniques, spiralling tapping sequences, pop harmonic melodies and classically inspired sweep picked arpeggios became all the rage and we had to learn them. The tabs helped but they only came out monthly, so we had to do most of the work ourselves and relied on our ears, by using anything at our disposal.
I remember slowing down vinyl records by placing my finger on it, and then lifting the needle and going back to the start of the passage. Over and over as many times as required until I could grab a hold of the phrase or melody. This approach would always most certainly result in scratching the vinyl beyond being listenable.
I would take a similar approach with the over dubbed cassette tape I made of the same song. Play, stop & rewind. again over and over till I would stretch the polyester coated magnetic tape of the cassette, until it literally snapped. These are exactly the same techniques that Vai used to transcribe for the magazines, but if you wanted to work it out there was no way around actually listening over & over to the music.
I wasn't entirely sure I was getting a solo exactly right, but neither was anyone else. In fact, even in the moments you thought you were absolutely nailing the hell out of a solo, only to find out months later, while watching a rare concert video clip that it was actually being played elsewhere on the fretboard or slightly differently. I remember feeling disappointed at first, but all the while, we were training and developing our ears.
Because working out a tune by ear is an imperfect science, it has become apparent to me now that what we were doing back then, went a long way in helping us to develop our own voices upon the instrument.
So, this is where I get to the ranting part of my blog post. Today, most guitar players don’t listen that well at all. They have been conditioned to use sight rather than hearing as their prime validation. We live in a world where we can literally call on an army of guitar players on Youtube, or online Guitar sites all fighting for air with a lesson showing exactly how your favourite song or solo is played note for note. This to me is replication without the critical thinking. You don’t rely on your ears so much because everything has already been worked out for you.
This approach (Yousician etc), can be a quick way to learn something, but can this approach to learning truly be beneficial for your overall playing goals or does it stunt your growth and only prolong the inevitable? I know I have had guitar students, who can learn a ripping solo note for note from tab that is predominantly in sixteenths or triplets at break neck tempos, and in a very short period, but that struggled to make any sense of a far simpler solo over a I-IV-V blues progression at 90 BPM. In that there is I believe where a big part of becoming a fantastic musician/ guitarist is getting lost in translation.
I can always tell when a student is playing purely from the memory of a tab sequence, because it lacks any true feel, because the subtle nuances of the melody are never paid the attention they deserve, and also because at some point, in their performance of what they learnt in the previous week, they will inevitably falter because they will become very conscious of where they are and fall off the tight-rope that is the sequence and crash and burn.
It’s at this point where I always reiterate the importance of listening to the song a million times and letting your ears tell you where to go. Studying the phrasing of a lick and how it affects us emotionally is a crucial element missed by most.
Sure, you can read the tab, and play it from that level alone, but it’s limited in its reach. It can’t tell you exactly how to shape the bend in a lick or represent the purr like sound only a floating tremolo can make. You have to listen to the nuance and context with which it’s represented, in order to really make a phrase sing
And it’s not a race either! Learning your favourite tune or solo should be a joy, not something that keeps you from playing with your X-Box. It doesn’t come easily either. It does get easier over time, and well worth your effort, but it definitely doesn’t come cheap.
I can sometimes listen to 4 bars of music for hours, just to try and get the phrasing of the melody to work under my fingers, and as close to what I hear in my head. But for me, that's not work, it’s pure joy!
Try it out for yourself. seek out a piece of music within your reach that you like and try to work it out without a tab sheet, or without referring to a Youtube lesson. See how far you get. My guess is that there are those of you reading this now that are thinking to yourselves, ‘it ain’t going to happen, because I’ve haven’t got time for that shit, I’ve got to learn five new songs for a gig on Saturday, and Google is my best friend.
There are also those of you that will give it a go but will struggle with the single pointed focus required to listen to a song or solo over and over with your own ears, instead of going to the video tape or tab sheet. This may potentially lead to an outburst of such frustration and using all of your will power to stop yourself from launching the guitar out the window.
But there are few of you though, that will surprise the shit out of yourselves, at how wonderfully easy and rewarding it can be to listen to and go as deep into the note, phrase, rhythm etc and execute that which you hear with your ears, and perhaps achieving the Nirvana like state of feeling ONE with the music.
Go on! Use your ears, they’re free.