Billy Sheehan: Why Are Ears More Important Than Scales

"I don't know much about scales - I just know what I hear."

Ultimate Guitar
Billy Sheehan: Why Are Ears More Important Than Scales

Bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan explained why proper ear training is more important that knowledge of scales in his book, telling Bass Guitar:

"I don't know much about scales - I just know what I hear.

"Thankfully, through listening to a lot of genres, I've probably learned all of the modes.

"So I do know the systems and how they sound, but I don't know which is which or the Greek names for them. When I hear something, I know where to go with it - in more of a visceral, ingrained way than anything too scholarly!

"I wish I knew more, and I’m always studying to self-educate, but mainly for me it's just ears.

"I go with what I hear, so when I hear Steve Vai play, I know where he's going to go. I can anticipate that stuff enough to hold a note at the back or jump in there and deliver whatever he wants.

"When I play with Steve, I want it to be Steve's thing! I'm a sideman; I'm there for the guy whose name is on the ticket. He is like a brother to me, so I want to nail it even more.

"Playing with Richie Kotzen [in The Winery Dogs], there's a lot of blues and jazz notes in there - I always think he plays lines that sax players like Eddie Harris or Sonny Rollins would have.

"On the first Winery Dogs record, he played a solo on one of the songs and I swear I could hear the valves of a saxophone clicking! It's part of the sax tone… I don't know how he does it!"

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10 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Billy Sheehan: Why Are Ears More Important Than Scales
    Is this a rhetorical question?
    I agree with Billy. Until now, im using pentatonic scales. WHich is the basic, and the core of my playing.
    Agree - I know basic scales but for the most part I base the bass on what I hear from the guitar and where it takes the song. I firmly believe being self taught allows me to sound a little more unique. Not that theory isn't necessary or makes people sound the same, I just have so much more to learn on theory to be able to use it well.
    I totally agree. I play guitar and by far the most value asset I have as a guitarist is my ear. I was fortunate enough to have been enrolled in the Suzuka program for violin when I was 3 or 4 years old. Suzuka emphasizes improvisation and the importance of developing a good musical ear, or musical intuition, at an early age. I only played violin for a few years, til I was 6 or so, but I could sight read music (which I can no longer do ), but the intuition/ear stayed with me and for a long time I just thought it was something everyone has. It wasn't until I started playing in bands and jamming with other musicians that I realized that a lot of musicians- and a lot of talented musicians- don't have the intuition.
    Oops. I accidentally posted before I was done. But my point was that I've never taken a guitar lesson in my life. I don't blow anyone away with blistering fast shredding, or anything technical. Not that technique isn't important, but I think a lot of beginner guitar players focus too much on what they can't do and become frustrated and often times give it up. To me, the real reward is in finding the melody or the chord or often just a single note, that adds a new dimension and depth to a basic idea. For me, it's almost always end up being something that's technically simple, but I'm always sifting through dozens of spontaneous ideas to find the one that works best. I've played with guitar players who are technically amazing, but they struggle to come up with any melody at all on the spot. It made me realize that technical prowess isn't what I need to be chasing... that will always continue to develop as you continue to play. For me, engaging in any kind of musical experience every chance I get, especially listening to music, and listening to it in different ways (sometimes I'll be disecting each part and hearing what theyre doing individually, and then studying how those parts come together rhytmically and melodically, etc. And sometimes I'll block all that out and just "feel" the song. ) And more than anything, its the listening that comes back to make me a better guitar player.