Find Your Unique Musical Voice on Guitar, part 2

In part 1, we discussed how, in order to develop your own unique voice on guitar, it’s actually good to imitate your heroes.  This is because, in the process of copying them, you will inevitably come across nuances of rhythm and technique that you have to study more deeply.  What are some of the other aspects that are required so that you can let your own unique musical voice shine through your music?  Let’s make a list and define some terms:

Skills for Basic Musicianship on Any Instrument 

Ear Training:  The ability to identify and recognize pitches, intervals, chords, and melodies by ear is crucial for any musician.  Ear training helps with playing by ear, improvisation, and understanding music more deeply.

Rhythm and Timing:  A strong sense of rhythm is essential for playing in sync with others, keeping a steady tempo, and creating engaging musical performances.

Technique: Mastering the technical aspects of your instrument is fundamental for expressing musical ideas fluently and accurately.  This includes finger dexterity, bowing (for string players), breath control (for wind players), etc.

Music Theory:  Understanding music theory provides a framework for comprehending how music is structured and allows musicians to make informed choices in their playing, composing, or improvising.

Sight-Reading: The ability to read music notation is valuable for quickly learning new pieces and collaborating with other musicians.

Emotional Expression:  Developing the ability to convey emotions and tell a story through your playing or singing is essential for captivating audiences.

Collaboration and Ensemble Skills: Musicians often play with others in bands, orchestras, or ensembles. Effective communication, listening, and the ability to adapt to different musical contexts are vital in these settings.

Performance Skills: Confidence and stage presence are necessary for delivering compelling live performances.

Creativity:  Embracing creativity and being open to new musical ideas allows musicians to explore different genres and expand their artistic horizons.

Since we have covered rhythm/timing and technique already, let’s jump in to the rest of the list.

Ear Training

Let me tell you a little story about the importance of ear training.   Last year I booked a gig with a sax player and myself to play instrumental jazz for a couple’s wedding reception.  It was over 3 hours away, so I quoted an additional travel fee which the client agreed to no problem.  Then I discovered that the gig wasn’t far from one of my sisters whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and my wife agreed to take the trip with me.  I called the local saxophone repair shop in that town and asked the owner for his 3 top recommendations for a sax player for the gig.  The very first guy he recommended said he could do it (pro tip: it pays to book musicians well in advance if you can.)  So now the stage is set: good money, good players, and lots of great family time all in one weekend!

Then, of course, this to-good-to-be-true scenario got turned on it’s ear (pun intended lol).  The bride got involved two weeks prior to the event, and wanted to hear some of her favorite pop tunes and went through my repertoire list and made many requests.  The problem was, she made them from my rock cover band’s list, not the jazz list!  Because I am eager to please with clients in general and because everything else about this gig was looking so sweet, I didn’t challenge the groom on this new plot twist.  I mean, he had already sent the deposit and signed the contract, so what was he going to do, tell his wife “no the band can’t do that.”  There was no way I was going to put him in that situation.

But now here we are expected to play instrumental rock/pop tunes that I don’t have the music for (usually I just transcribe the chords and have the lyrics handy, I don’t buy the actual sheet music for each song.)   So I explain what happened to the sax player and send him the rock/pop repertoire list.  I explain that I would play the melody on any tunes he didn’t know and he could just do the soloing.

The sax player looked at the list and wrote back that he didn’t know any of the songs and that he felt out of his element, so he was cancelling.  At this point, with only 2 weeks before the gig, I started to panic and reached out to as many other players as I could find in that area, and, as you would expect with such short notice, had a hard time finding someone.  Finally after several texts that he hadn’t replied to, I called the original sax player and said “I’m very easy to work with and there is no pressure on this gig.  You can play the melodies to the jazz tunes, and I will play them for the rock tunes.  On the rock tunes, I will give you chord charts in your key that you can use to solo on: piece of cake.”

He agreed to do it, and it was a bit more work on my part since I now had to make sure I could play both chords and melody for tunes that I normally sing, and I also had to write out chord charts transposed for his type of saxophone, but overall it turned out to be a great gig.  The groom was super happy and tipped nicely, making it my highest paid gig to date.

During the break I asked about the musician’s background and he said that he gotten a music degree at a local college.  I casually asked him how much ear training was included in that program and he said “not much.”  I didn’t say this out loud but I certainly thought “obviously.”

Now here is the point of the whole story:  It’s understood on gigs like that, that the bandleader is responsible for either calling tunes the sax player would be reasonably expected to know or provide the sheet music (with the melody in their key).  It’s also understood that, if the sax player was not responsible for playing the melody, that he/she would be able to solo on any tune by ear!

The fact that this musician, who had lots of vocabulary and could play well, had very little ear training had meant a ton of extra stress and preparation for me.  I had been used to playing with guys and gals in New York City who would have just shown up to a gig like that without even questioning what we were going to play, much less cancelling!

It is imperative that you learn to play by ear.  When I used to work for Hank Lane back in the day, I would sometimes have to play songs I had never even heard before!  How do you do that.  Well, years later I made this short video on how to play by ear on a gig.  I have also made 19 (yes 19) 60 to 80 minute audio files on ear training for my students to listen to.

Here are some essential ear training skills that guitarists should develop:

Ear training is a vital skill for guitarists, as it enables them to play by ear, improvise, and understand music more deeply. Here are essential ear training skills for guitarists:

Interval Recognition: Identifying intervals (the distance between two notes) by ear helps guitarists recognize melodies, harmonies, and chord progressions. This skill is essential for playing melodies, solos, and creating harmonies. (Read my article “Music by Numbers.”)

Chord Quality Identification: Being able to distinguish between major, minor, augmented, and diminished chords by ear allows guitarists to quickly identify and play chords in different musical contexts.

Chord Progression Recognition: Ear training enables guitarists to recognize common chord progressions, such as I-IV-V or ii-V-I, which are the foundation of many songs in various genres.

Melodic Dictation: Being able to transcribe melodies and solos by ear helps guitarists learn songs accurately without relying solely on sheet music or tablature.

Transposing Music: Although this also is in the category of theory, being able to transpose songs to different keys by ear enables guitarists to accommodate vocalists or adapt songs to suit their playing preferences.

Harmonizing Melodies: Ear training helps guitarists harmonize melodies and create harmonies that complement the main melody.

Practicing ear training regularly will lead to improved musicality, a deeper connection to the instrument, and greater confidence in playing by ear. There are various ear training exercises and resources available, including online apps, software, and dedicated courses, to help guitarists develop these essential skills.

Ear training is a deep, fascinating subject, and getting a teacher to help you is undoubtedly the fastest way to do develop your ear.  Either way, just get started!  The nicest thing about practicing ear training is that you can do it anywhere: waiting in a queue, while walking, or while driving (just don’t miss your exit!)

In part 3, we’ll address Music Theory, Sight-Reading, Emotional Expression, Collaboration and Ensemble Skills, Performance Skills, and Creativity

If you want to set up a free trial lesson either in person or online, simply fill out this form and we’ll get back to you within 24 hours.  You’ve got nothing to lose and an amazing musical world to gain. 🙂