So what is the most important skill that most guitarists do not have? Some
would claim that it is thorough knowledge of music theory. Others would say
that the most important skill is creativity. Of course there are whole
legions of guitarists that believe having impeccable technique is the holy
grail of guitar playing. Maybe you agree with one of the statements above,
or maybe you think it is something else like, songwriting, playing with
others in a band or having perseverance (check out my past article on
All of the skills mentioned above are crucial to the development of any
player that really wants to become an excellent guitarist and musician. But
the single most important skill that most players don't have, and don't know
how to practice, is Ear Training! (also known as aural skills). We are
dealing with music here right?! How do most of us enjoy making music? By
listening to it! So why is it that most guitarists have poor aural skills
(an unskilled ear). Non classical guitarists have traditionally played by
ear, but surprisingly most of these players' ears are still not as good as
they could be and should be.
I'll use myself as a classic example of a player that used to severely lack
good aural skills. Before I began my formal music training in college, I
thought my ear was pretty good. I could usually learn songs by ear quickly
and my improvising skills were ok for the time. But whenever I wanted to
compose a guitar solo for a song or write my own songs I ran into problems.
I always felt as if I couldn't get the music that heard in my head to come
out in the music I was playing. I usually had very good technique and my
knowledge of basic music theory was not bad but my creativity was suffering
greatly. Everything I improvised or wrote came from my hands and my
knowledge of chords, scales, etc. I wanted to do more. I wanted to be more
unique, more creative and most importantly, more self expressive. I was
aware that a problem existed, but I did not know that the specific root of
the problem. I assumed that I was just not a very creative person and that
my (assumed) lack of creativity was permanent and beyond my control. I
believed that I was just not naturally gifted with creativity (refer back to
my article on perseverance).
In the fall of 1994, I enrolled at Harper college as a music major. In
addition to many other requirements, all music students are required to
complete 2 years of Aural Skills classes. It was not long after I went to
my first aural skills class that I realized how much my ear needed more
training. Fortunately I had a very encouraging teacher who knew that
guitarists often had problems with aural skills. After the first semester
(1/2 year) I realized that my problems related to creativity (improvising,
songwriting / composing, etc.) were improving and more importantly, I
realized that my problems were not due to a lack of creativity. They were
due to the fact that my ear had not been developed enough to release all of
my creative potential! This realization was one of the most single greatest
moments in my musical life. I felt liberated in knowing that I really do
have creative talents. Then all I needed to do was train my ear further so
that my creative ideas could then manifest themselves into my music.
There are lots of ways in which you can improve your aural skills. I've
listed many of them below. The idea here is not to pick just one of these
ideas from the list and expect miracles. Do as many of these things as you
can, as often as you can.
Activities to practice:
Ear training is critical to any musician's development as musician.
Remember to persevere and be patient with yourself as your ear develops.
Expect progress to be like your physical guitar playing, slow but steadily
moving forward each day. Your ear needs constant practicing just like your
hands do, so don't neglect the most crucial tool that you have - your
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
Send comments or questions to: