Guitar/Playing What You Hear

The ultimate goal for many guitarists is to be able to create with the guitar – that is, to be able to conceive of a melody or a chord sequence, "hear" it in one's head, and then translate it onto the fretboard. Ideally, guitarists should be able to do so with the minimum possible latency and with as few errors as possible, and they should fail gracefully – that is, when they play an unintended note, they should be able to recover from the mistake. The best improvising guitarists, from blues players like Eric Clapton and Freddie King to jazz players like Wes Montgomery and Allan Holdsworth, have mastered this skill.

Selected Exercises

  • Practicing In The Dark

Staring at the fretboard while playing is considered the mark of an amateur. In most performance situations, it isn't possible to look at the fretboard while still communicating visually with other musicians and with the audience. In addition, looking at the fretboard introduces additional delay between thinking the note and playing the note, because the guitarist has to visually verify that his or her fingers are in the right place.

A good way to break yourself of this flaw is to practice with your eyes closed, or even better, to practice in the dark. You will probably find yourself playing mostly clichés that lay out well under your fingers. Resist the urge to do this. Practice until you can play new or difficult phrases without looking at the neck.

  • Visualization

Pianist and teacher Barry Harris stated in an interview for the 2008 Stanford Jazz Series that he believes that piano players would be better off if they played the "piano in their head" more often. According to Carroll Smith's book "Drive To Win," Formula One drivers can sit down in a chair, close their eyes, and move their hands and legs as though they were driving a lap, and surprisingly enough, they often get within several seconds of their actual lap times.

As a guitar player, you should do the same.

Practice running through a solo in your head, humming or singing the melody line and fingering in the air like you would on an actual guitar. Without the feedback you get from hearing the notes coming from the instrument, your weaknesses are exposed. Any chord or melodic fragment that you're not confident playing in the air will likely be played with hesitation on the actual guitar. The other advantage to visualization is that you can do it anywhere, since it doesn't require a guitar. People may give you strange looks as you walk down the street playing air guitar, but you can be self-assured in the fact that you're actually playing the right notes on your air guitar rather than strumming aimlessly.

  • The Random-Note Game

As an improvising guitarist, if you're truly creating on the fly, you will make mistakes. The best improvisers, including guitarists like John Scofield, can use unintended notes as starting points for new motifs or ideas. As an improvising guitarist, you need to know how to recover from a mistake. Recovery requires that you first know what note you actually played relative to the chord change, and then find a way to proceed from that note in a logical way, usually resolving the dissonance into something consonant.

A good way to improve your fault tolerance is to play the random note game. Put on a backing track with chord changes, such as the ones by Jamey Aebersold. Close your eyes, move your left hand up and down the guitar neck, and pick a random string and a random fret. Play the note. First, listen to the note, and try to hear where it fits into the current harmony relative to the root note of the chord and to the other chord tones. For example, maybe you just played the seventh instead of the sixth, or the flat third instead of the natural third. Next, try to create a melodic line that starts on the note and resolves logically into the tune's harmonic structure. There are a few devices you can try here:

  • Is the note a member of the current or next chord or scale? If so, you can play something diatonic (in the key).
  • Is the note a member of a chord or scale that can resolve into the current chord or the next chord? If so, play something over that chord, and then resolve it into the harmony.
  • Is the note a member of a chord or scale that is a half-step off from the current chord? If so, you can sidestep back into the correct key.
  • Is the note a member of a chord or scale that can be substituted for the current harmony? If so, play a line over the substitution, but keep a point in mind where you can enter back into the harmony of the tune.

This process will be difficult and time-consuming at first, but as you play more and more and experience the common scenarios and mistakes that you can make, recovery will move from a conscious (and slightly terrifying) process to an instinctual (and not so scary) one.

  • The Science of the Unitar

"The Science of the Unitar" is an exercise popularized by Mick Goodrick, professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music and teacher to guitarists including Pat Metheny. Basically, you practice playing major-scale lines using only a single string on the guitar. Most guitarists spend the majority of their time playing in one of several positions or "boxes" where the major scale or the blues scale are laid out easily. This exercise helps guitarists to break this tendency and become comfortable playing up and down the neck.

See the book "The Advancing Guitarist" for a more thorough description of this exercise.

  • Exploring The Neck

Most guitarists start out by learning how to play chords and single notes in first position up to the fifth fret. Next, they learn to play the blues scale in a few different positions, and if they're really diligent, they learn to play the major and minor scales in each of the five most common positions. They end up very good at the common case of playing within a position, but transitioning between positions or playing licks that don't fall nicely within a position remains difficult.

Here are a few exercises you can try that will improve your familiarity with the neck:

  • Take two pieces of tape and affix them to your guitar neck, five frets apart. For example, put one before the 5th fret and one before the 10th fret. You've just created a "box" that contains each note in the chromatic scale exactly once (with one exception in standard tuning). Next, put on a jam track and practice playing the melody and improvising using only the notes in the box. When you start to get comfortable in one position, move each piece of tape up a fret and do the same thing again with the same jam track in the same key. You will probably need to start at a slow tempo and work your way up. Don't be disappointed if you're less fluid than usual, or even if you sound downright bad – you've found a weakness and you're addressing it.
  • Learn to play scales with four notes per string. Start off with your first finger on the 3rd fret G on the bottom string of the guitar. Play the G major scale up and down with four notes per string and one note per finger (no sliding). As you ascend and descend the scale, your hand will have to move up and down the neck while also moving across the strings. When you've mastered that pattern, play the dorian mode of the G major scale in the same fashion, starting with your first finger on the 5th fret A on the bottom string. Repeat the exercise, starting on each of the notes in the G major scale. Then try it with major scales in different keys, and finally with the melodic minor, harmonic minor, and diminished scales in different keys. As you're playing, think about the patterns in the scales. Do this every day until you can play the scales fluently.
  • Repeat the exercise above using three notes per string, and then with two notes per string.
  • Using All Your Fingers

Are you using all of your fingers? If not, why not? Think of how much more quickly and efficiently you could navigate the neck if you had full use of all of your fingers.

Note that "proper" technique is not an absolute requirement for making great music with the guitar. Guitarist Django Reinhardt is renowned for his contribution to jazz guitar, and what he did is even more amazing considering that he only had full use of two of the fingers on his left hand. If you watch video of Wes Montgomery, you'll notice that when he played single note lines, he uses his first three fingers almost exclusively, using his little finger only for octaves and chords. Nevertheless, using all your fingers effectively will open up a world of musical possibilities. Allan Holdsworth is one example of a guitarist who has mastered this skill, and Kurt Rosenwinkel uses the same techniques to achieve a horn-like, legato sound on a "clean" guitar.

There are a few exercises you can do to improve the dexterity and strength of your little finger. The "Exploring The Neck" exercises detailed above, especially playing scales with four notes per string, are extremely useful for this purpose. In addition, placing artificial limitations on your playing while you practice can help to target specific scenarios. For example, try playing scales and songs, or even improvising, using only your middle, ring, and little fingers. You'll probably have to start at a slow tempo and work your way up. For a good practice aid, try using Jamey Aebersold jam tracks in combination with a software program that can change the speed of a recording without changing the pitch.

  • Tuning In Fourths

For many jazz and jazz-rock players, after they begin to improvise over music of a high level of harmonic complexity, the asymmetry inherent in standard tuning will become a limiting factor in their playing. Songs which contain rapid transitions between key centers, such as Giant Steps and other compositions based on Coltrane changes, may be especially difficult to master in standard tuning.

Tuning the guitar in fourths (EADGCF) eliminates many of these issues.

Stanley Jordan is the best-known guitarist to use this tuning. Allan Holdsworth states that "if I was starting guitar again, I'd tune in Perfect Fourths." (see link)

Advantages of tuning in fourths include:

  • Every shape on the fretboard translates directly into a musical interval. In standard tuning, the same shape on different groups of strings may produce several different intervals.
  • All chord shapes are usable across all groups of strings. For example, a voicing on four adjacent strings is usable on three different combinations of strings with no change in fingering, whereas the same voicing in standard tuning would require three different fingerings for the three combinations of strings.
  • All scales reveal their symmetry across the neck. For example, given a pattern to play a one-octave major scale across three strings starting on the root note, you could apply this pattern at any location on the neck and get the same major scale.

The major disadvantages of tuning in fourths are:

  • Obviously, re-learning of chords, scales, and licks is required.
  • Many pop and rock songs that rely upon open chords are no longer playable in their original form.

Selected Resources

Getting Started: Different Types of Guitars | Anatomy of a Guitar | Buying a Guitar | Buying an Amplifier | Tuning the Guitar | Tablature | Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar
For Beginners: The Basics | Intervals and Power Chords | Open Chords | Muting and Raking | Learning Songs | Song Library
Lead Guitar: Picking and Plucking | Scales | Arpeggios and Sweep Picking | Slides | Hammer-ons, Pull-offs, and Trills | Bending and Vibrato | Harmonics | Vibrato Bar Techniques | Tapping
Rhythm Guitar: Chords | Barre Chords | Chord Progressions | Alternate Picking | Tremolo Picking | Rhythm
Playing Styles: Folk Guitar | Blues | Slide Guitar | Rock Guitar | Country and Western | Metal | Jazz | Classical Guitar | Flamenco
General Guitar Theory: Tone and Volume | Singing and Playing | Writing Songs | Playing With Others | Recording Music |Tuning Your Ear | How to Continue Learning
Equipment: Guitar Accessories | Effects Pedals | E-Bow | Cables | Bass Guitar | Harmonica and Guitar Combo
Maintenance: Guitar Maintenance and Storage | Adjusting the Guitar | Stringing the Guitar
Appendices: Dictionary | Alternate Tunings | Chord Reference | Blanks