If you are like most people, you likely assume that "listening" to your own guitar playing is something you do naturally and can do well. However, the reality is completely the opposite: most guitarists do NOT truly "listen" to their playing and the proof of that is in their inability to accurately identify and fix their own guitar playing challenges. Think about the last time you had trouble playing something on guitar and, after spending a lot of time trying to fix the problem walked away not having made any progress. If this describes many of your practice sessions, then you MUST get better at listening to your own playing.
Why Do Your Ears Play Such a Critical Role in Your Guitar Playing Progress?
The answer is simple: Unless you are able to recognize the exact cause of every mistake you make in your guitar playing, your musical skills will not improve. You must know "what" must be fixed before you can fix it. If your own ears aren't good enough to detect the root of the problem and you don't have another more experienced player to analyze your mistakes, you will continue to be frustrated with your slow progress on guitar.
How Can You Assess Your Listening Skills While Practicing Guitar?
There is a simple test I will take you through (below) that will measure your listening ability as it applies to practicing a broad range of musical skills. Your goal will be to get a positive ("Yes") answer to every question you will see below. If you answer any question with a "No" or Maybe" or "Not sure," then your listening ability is not complete with that element of guitar playing. Here are the questions:
How Well Do You Listen for Guitar Technique Problems?
When your guitar playing sounds sloppy on the music you are practicing, can you accurately detect the SPECIFIC notes that aren't 100% clean?
When your playing breaks down at higher tempos, can you detect if the cause is due to hands getting out of sync, not articulating the notes clearly, notes bleeding together, vibration from other strings or some combination of these areas?
If/when your picking and fretting hands don't play in sync, can you always know which note of the music this occurs on?
If you did not answer with a confident "Yes" to every question above, you must refine your skills of listening to your guitar technique flaws.
Solution: Playing slower will make it easier for your ears (and mind) to pinpoint specific flaws in your guitar technique (which is why you often get the advice to "practice slowly"). Another idea is to make the current problem even worse on purpose (by making what you are practicing much "harder" to play for yourself)). This will exaggerate the technical issue, making it easier to pick up by ear. This is a great strategy to use for when certain problems only appear during faster playing and cannot be "slowed down."
How Good Are Your Ears at Tracking Progress With Vibrato?
Can you determine (simply by listening) how vibrato sounds when done in different note values (triplets vs. sixteenth notes vs. eighth notes etc.)
Can you tell if your vibrato is tight (in time) rhythmically with the drums or the chords you are soloing over?
Do you know if the intonation of your vibrato is perfect at any given moment of playing?
If you didn't nod a confident "yes" to the questions above, then your vibrato need a lot of improvement.
Solution: I wrote an article in the past where I addressed the topic of practicing vibrato and the main thing I described is how to use your ears to track your progress with this technique. To save you time of having to read the article, simply watch the video below where I illustrate the process in great detail:
How Well Can Your Ears Detect Problems in Your Improvising?
Are you able to pinpoint which of the notes you are playing sound awesome over the chords you are soloing and which ones sound only "average" (or downright "bad")?
Can you notice (while playing) if the phrase you are playing goes smoothly with the licks you played before it?
If you answered negatively to either question, here is what you should do next:
Solution: In order to be free to really listen to your improvising in real time, you must stop having to "think" about where the notes are on the fretboard for the key you are soloing in and what the notes are in the chords you are playing over. To achieve this, you need to first master playing scales all over the fretboard, improve your fretboard visualization and become familiar with basic music theory. This will leave your ears free to observe the points mentioned above and give you real-time feedback about your improvising.
How Good Are Your Ears at Noticing Flaws in Your Rhythm Guitar Playing?
Are you able to notice if your playing is perfectly locked in with the drums/metronome vs. when it is NOT?
Can you determine when your palm muting technique starts to become harder or softer during playing?
Can your ears pick up when your picking articulation softens (without you intending to do so) on challenging guitar parts?
Did you ace all 3 of the above questions? If not, here is what to do:
Solution: You will improve your listening skills for rhythm guitar playing when you first practice your timing by clapping your hands along to a drum beat or metronome. Your goal is to first be able to clap exactly "in the pocket" (on top op of) the drums or metronome click and for your ears to be able to hear whether you are clapping in time or not. In addition to doing this, spend regular time playing rhythm parts with a variety of articulation (and palm muting) styles - from very soft and light to hard and forceful. This will make your ears more sensitive to the differences between the sounds.
After having seen the ways to assess several areas of your guitar playing, you know a lot more about how to become a better guitarist by making your listening during practice sessions more effective.. Of course your guitar playing challenges will always change the longer you play guitar, but the more refined your ears become at "detailed listening" to the sound of your guitar playing, the easier and faster it will be for you to consistently make progress.
About The Author:
Mike Philippov is a guitar instructional author, professional guitar player and composer. He writes articles about the best ways to practice guitar that are studied by many musicians worldwide. To get more help with becoming a better guitar player, visit his instructional website PracticeGuitarNow.com.