Hilary plays at Student Concert

You Can’t Hear What You Can’t Hear: Making Progress on the Guitar

As a guitarist, it’s good to think that you’re good at what you do.  If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have the courage to face all the obstacles that come your way when it comes to performing, recording, writing and all the other things musicians do.  It’s also good that you work on strengthening your weaknesses.  But what about the areas you are weak in that you don’t even know you’re weak in?


I. Avoiding Future Cringing

Have you ever had the experience of watching or listening to yourself play from years ago, and cringed at the things you heard?  Undoubtedly you heard way more than you heard then, and that’s of course good.  But how can you improve now on the things you might not hear until years from now?

How do you really know what weaknesses you have if you can’t fully hear them?  Of course if they are obvious, you will know what they are.  If not, your friends will tell you, or your teacher will tell you.

Regardless whether you’re actively taking lessons, here is an easy way to assess what you need to work on by yourself:  analyze your heroes.

What exactly do you love about your favorite musicians?  Write them out specifically, using the following guide.


II. Guide to Analyzing Your Heroes

A. Melody (Are the melodies catchy, compelling, emotionally engaging? What exactly do you like about them?)

The study of melody is a fascinating one, because every artist has their own way of wielding a melody that they may not even be conscious of.  The key to emulating this and all the other aspects that follow, is to try and break down in specific terms how the melodies are constructed.

B. Harmony (Do the compositions use interesting chord changes or unusual modalities or harmonic backdrops?)

Even if you play a ‘melody instrument’ such as flute or trumpet, you should still be interested in harmony.  Most of the great jazz saxophonists, for example, play at least some piano.

C. Rhythm (How does your hero use phrasing, syncopation, variety, etc.?)

Rhythm, while listed separately from melody and harmony, is really embedded in the other two, because you can’t have music without rhythm.  Because it is a time-art, as opposed to painting or sculpture for example, any music has rhythm.  Even ‘free’ music or rhythms that are totally amorphous are still rhythmic because they take place in time.  The study of rhythm is vastly deep subject.

Rhythm, harmony & melody are the big 3 when it comes to musical elements.  The lesser known musical elements beside the big 3 are taken in turn below.

D. Dynamics (Does my musical hero use changes in volume to help convey emotion?)

This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s really not.  Rock / pop music has so over-compressed for so long, we don’t even know what dynamics are anymore.  Don’t get me wrong, I like compression, since it helps even out the music so the quiet bits don’t get drowned out when I’m listening in the car for example.  Classical music is filled with dynamics.  If you haven’t done so in a while, go to the symphony; you’ll hear amazing use of dynamics.  Since I’m a guitarist, two guitarists that come to mind who used dynamics effectively, not just in their playing but in their band, are Stevie Ray Vaughan and Larry Carlton.

E. Timbre (Does my hero have a great tone? How would I describe that tone and how can I get something similar?)

I can’t profess to specialize in this area, but I found what worked for me years ago by simply buying the same amp my teacher had because I wanted to sound like him.  Nowadays, that amp is no longer manufactured, so I bought a used one on ebay as a backup.  I’m not advocating this strategy except to say that if you’re not sure where to start, imitate your heroes by exploring the kind of gear they use.  Also remember that good tone is in your hands.  Ever hear the same piano sound completely different when played by a master?

F. Form (Does my hero use conventional song forms, or do they ignore them? Do they use certain conventional elements faithfully yet twist around others?

I once had a student who earned considerable songwriting success using only one song form for all of his compositions.  (It was ABABCBB where A is the verse, B is chorus, and C is bridge.)  It is wise to spend time learning familiar song forms.  There is a saying that goes like this: something would never have become cliché if it weren’t any good.  Even if your favorite artists are completely unconventional, remember that extremely innovate and influential artists who broke the rules such as Richard Wagner or Beethoven also spent considerable time learning and composing in common, structured song forms.

G. Texture (What is the instrumentation of my hero’s band? Does it change from song to song? Does the amount of instruments playing at any one time change frequently or is it relatively consistent?)

For simplicity, we’ll define texture as how ‘thick’ or ‘thin’ the music is at any given moment.  ‘Thick’ means there are a lot of instruments playing at the same time, whereas ‘thin’ would be when very few, or even only one is playing.  Once again, classical music is generally miles ahead in this area, although skilled producers of modern pop know how to strip down or add instruments at just the right moment to greatly enhance the emotional impact.

How about you?  Have you ever considered things like having certain instruments double-up on a recording, or certain musicians lay out for certain sections on a gig?  Sometimes musicians need to be reminded that they don’t have to play continuously on every song, every second.

Sometimes just changing the instrumentation easily changes the texture. My friend who does a weekly piano trio gig occasionally busts out the accordion, and it’s quite refreshing on the ears.  Guitarists can simply choose different guitars for different songs or become more familiar with effects pedals, etc.

H. Technique (What specific ways of playing does my hero employ that I can’t do, or don’t do as well?)

This is certainly not left until last because it is an element of lesser importance.  The study of specific techniques that your hero does could be single most important ingredient in being able to deliver music as good as that which you really love.


III.  Get Help

If don’t know an answer, or don’t know how to develop in any of the areas above, of course it makes sense to seek help from a pro musician who is familiar with the genre you want to play and take lessons

If you need to work on multiple areas, start with the area that is most compelling for you.  The one that your hero does so well, that you would just love to be able to do above all else.  You can come back to the rest later.

Good luck and have fun; drop me a line and let me know your progress. 🙂

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