Why You Might Be Deaf When You Practice Guitar

Most people practice guitar as if they had ear plugs in. Find out why this is devastating to your guitar playing progress.

Ultimate Guitar
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:
    YouTube preview picture

    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.
  • 28 comments sorted by best / new / date

      My Last Words
      This lesson reeks of Tom Hess..
      Note the difference - each section ends with a paragraph that starts 'Solution: [...]'. The solution in this case provides some advice, rather than a link to sign up to a newsletter.
      My Last Words
      Funny thing is, I looked him up and turns out Mr. Phillipov did a clinc tour with a certain Mr. Hess among some other guys.
      So, in other words, we can skip everything Mr. Phillipov says? No, really, he does make some good points, and his solution tends to be okay. Even so, the tone of the article is just...douchey...
      This is solid advice. I see way too many guitarists who have no ear for their own playing and while they might play lightning fast they sound terrible. Vibrato is the easiest thing to make your playing go from a random youtube guitarist to Nuno Bettencourt.
      For me, like when I write an assignment for Uni, I like to get someone to proof read it, I like to have someone to proof listen to my recording, especially someone who can also play. A second set of ear will always pick up bit's your own ears don't.
      it's good advice for beginners, though the title is a bit confusing hahaha for me noticing problems is the easiest. fixing them requires more thought in my case
      I agree, besides people hear music in their own way and what sounds like a masterpiece to one sounds like that fart app to someone else. If you'd make 2 random world class guitarists write a solo they'd still argue about this kind of stuff. That's why you write your own stuff and develop your own style. A lot about music is dictated by rules, but I feel pretty free.
      Our band's rythm guitarist has little ear for his own playing. It makes it hard to try and tell him how to play a riff some times..
      My Last Words
      Record him and point the stuff out.
      good advice. ive listened to recordings my bassists shows me and he'll point out my sloppy riffs. Its nice to know where im messing up in a song so I can go and fix it.
      As usual it's back to speed playing and to many players see speed as the test bed. It's kind of "hey if you can play so fast that all your eyes see is a blur" kind of mentality. I remember someone putting in the context of "Yengyang Malmastien can slay 10 people with 100000 notes and BB King can slay 100000 people with one note" it's all in phrasing and having some meaning behind the notes. Stop using speed as the measuring tool and players will stop and listen to what they are doing and put some feeling behind their music. IT's all guitar aerobics at this point. Ask your girlfriend if speed is what its about or does she like a good slow grind.... Of course I am talking music right? 8)
      Amen.... I admit my desire to play fast stuff .. but speed should be a tool to use rather than the ultimate goal to achieve..
      Blind In 1 Ear
      good advice, already do it but still good. the biggest problem most musicians have is knowing their faults and correcting them.
      This is a good article overall. A couple of points, though: I don't consciously sync my vibrato with drums, nor would I want to. Vibrato is about self-expression, not aping another instrument. Secondly, what's wrong with changing the degree of palm muting? I regularly do that to add contour to the rhythm guitar.
      Guitar is definitely different than drums. If I didn't use ear protection, I'd be deaf by now from playing drums.
      This was, by far, the most pretentious article i've ever read. It pretends to be helpful, but it actually isn't.
      Good advice, I guess, if you want to sound like a computer playing a guitar. But then again, isn't that what metal lead guitar is all about.
      My Last Words
      You don't want to hear it, but just so you know, there's more "feel" to guitar than just vibrato and bending.
      From the point I started paying, over 20 years ago, I have recorded myself (not all the time, just here and there) in order to try to get a rough idea of what I sounded like. I heard mistakes. I still do from time to time and have managed to either "correct" them or adapt them to become something that is unique to my style of playing and prevent me from being some copyist who simply regurgitates everyone else.
      This article makes a good point. I had a look at a previous recording of my practice and noticed a lot of very trivial issues in my playing, but now I have something to work on when I practice, although the problems may seem small, collectively they make a huge impact on your improvisational sound.