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The 3 Most Important Skills: Ear, Rhythm & Tone.
The 3 most important skills and assets to develop for top-level musicianship are: ear, rhythm and tone. If you have a good ear and you have good rhythm, you can have a lifetime of professional success as a musician.
In addition: if one would allocate some of the time learning scales to developing the ear instead, the ear after a while automatically would start guiding the fingers to the right locations, which makes learning scales all the more efficient and reduces the time to learn new scales significantly.
As such, a great deal of your practice time should be dedicated to developing and improving your rhythm and your ear.
Training Your Ear
More than anything: this should be top priority in every musician’s training. Unfortunately, this is not the most pleasing and enjoyable thing to work on. Ear training surely is not as much fun as learning your favorite song. I am guilty of that too as a private guitar instructor. Being that you want your students to have fun and you want to fire up their passion for music and guitar so they fall in love with music on deeper levels, you hold off on introducing ear-training exercises while they would really benefit from starting those exercises early on in their training.
The better your ability is developed to recognize intervals, chords, scales and rhythms by ear, the easier it is to learn and remember any musical idea, to improvise, to compose and to musically interact with other musicians. Here are some exercises to train your ear.
1. Ear Training CDs and Online Resources
There are tons of CDs, apps, software and websites available to help you train your ear. Many of those are free resources. Here’s a website with great exercises that I always liked: http://www.musictheory.net/
2. Identify What’s Playing Around You
The best way to give your ear a workout is to just listen to music playing around you! Put on music and start practicing. See if you can identify what key the song is in (major or minor). Can you guess the tempo of the song? (Which you can double check with a metronome while the song is playing). Can you identify specific tempo changes? While listening to a simple melody on a commercial jingle on TV, see if you can pick out the intervallic distances between the notes in the melody. Try to tell by ear what the chords are. Does the song start on the I chord? Where does the harmony go from there? There’s music all around you and once you tune in to it, exercising your ear will become a natural, daily habit!
3. Transcribing Music.
Pick a familiar tune and sit down with your guitar. If, for example, you choose “Happy Birthday,” start on a random note and figure out the rest of the melody from there. Once you have mastered “Happy Birthday” in that key, try to figure out the melody again starting from another starting note. Identify what the names of the intervals are that make up the melody. Listen very closely to the sound of each specific interval that makes up that melody. Do this with a couple of familiar songs every day. Also: try to figure out by ear what the chords are that would go with that melody. At a later stage, as you get better at this, start transcribing guitar solos by ear. Progressively keep transcribing more challenging material. There is no better way to become a master musician, than learning from the masters transcribing their music by ear.
Developing Your Tone
Your tone can be simply defined as the sound you produce when playing guitar. This is a result of your guitar, equipment, amplifier, cables, string gauges, and the thickness of your pick. However: your tone and sound are also the result of your personality, your energy, your life experiences, how hard or soft you attack, your timing, your mood, your physical built, etc. Your tone is ultimately your personality and the way you feel at the moment. You can tell a guitar player by the very first note he plays. If for example an insecure guitarist begins to play, the tone will be timid and lack energy. Here are some simple ways to get in touch with your uniqueness as a guitarist and translate it into a better tone.
1. What Do You Want to Make People Feel?
Getting in tune with what you want to project and how you want to make people feel is an important step in developing your tone. By looking into your individual experiences, you will be able to tap into them and improve your tone. While playing a song, imagine how it relates to you. If it has lyrics, can you relate to them? How can your experiences, thoughts and interests affect what you’re playing? Tap into how you feel while playing guitar and you will transmit it through your playing. The more you loose yourself into the music, and the deeper you feel the music you play, the more genuine and unique your tone is going to be.
2. Experiment With Your Imagination, Mindset & Emotions.
Try playing the same song or guitar solo transporting your mind into different moods, emotions or imaginary situations. You might for example try playing one song while thinking of something that is provoking anger. Or play the same song after you imagined yourself being a super hectic Wall Street exec that leads a very hectic, stressful life. While feeling this, your tone probably would be more sharp, defined and staccato. Your phrasing, timing and note placement would also be on or ahead of the beat. That too is part of your tone and sound. However, if you play the same song while focusing on a different feeling or experience, such as sadness or loneliness, your tone would be softer, more legato and calmer if you feel those feelings while playing. Your phrases and timing would also be more laid back, and your melodic feel more lyrical.
3. Tune into Your Experiences
Every musician’s individual tone is developed by everything they have ever experienced, felt and learned in their lifetime. Master musicians lived a lot, learned a lot, know a lot and have acquired tons of life experience. Their art and sound is not only the product of practicing relentlessly, but also the product of their beliefs, travels and their interests in history, art history and painting, architecture, nature, science, religion, politics, economics, psychology, spirituality, etc. The more different avenues you can draw inspiration from, the more rich, full, intricate and personal your sound is going to be.
Improving your Rhythm
Rhythm is what builds a connection between your music and the people around you. If your time feel and placement is shaky, you loose your listeners. Their attention is gone instantly because your inability to create rhythmic flow is distracting from the music. Once you establish the rhythm of a piece, you feel more connected to it. Rhythm is what makes or breaks a band. The better your time feel, the more you will be able to draw people into your music, the more your band name and reputation will be established as a band to be reckoned with. This is what you will be doing most of the time when playing with bands or as a hired gun: “playing rhythm guitar”. It then goes without saying that this is one of the most important skills to have.
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Do you want to learn how to play the guitar or improve your guitar playing? Are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced guitar player that is looking to improve your technique, knowledge or musicianship?