The Most Important Skill That Most Players Don`t Have

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:

  1. Transcribing (figuring out by ear) songs, chords, melodies, solos, etc.
    using your guitar.
  2. Transcribing without using your instrument (write the music down on paper
    and then when you think you have it as close to accurate as you can get it
    check your work with your guitar. Notice what errors you made and look to
    see if a pattern forms in your errors. For example, if you realize that you
    always think that minor chords sound major chords then you can see that this
    is something you will need to focus your practice time on.
  3. Sing (yes sing out loud) scales. Start with singing the major scale,
    later add the natural minor scale, harmonic minor scale, pentatonic scale,
    blues scale, etc.
  4. Sing intervals (two notes at varying distances)
  5. Sing arpeggios (chords - one note at a time) start with major triads and
    then move on to minor triads.
  6. Sight singing (you will need to have a basic understanding of reading
    music to do this) You can use any piece of sheet music for this. There are
    sight singing books that you can buy if you want.
  7. Transcribe rhythms. this is just like transcribing a melody, but the
    focus here is on writing down on paper the rhythm only.
  8. Improvising melodies, solos, etc. over chords. This is great thing to do
  9. Imagine a 3 or 4 note melody in your mind and then try to play it on your
  10. Record yourself playing lots of different chords (just major and minor
    triads for now). Try not to repeat the same chord very often. play back your
    recording and then try to identify whether the chords you hear are major or
  11. For those of you living in the United States, your local community
    college or university that has a music department typically offers basic
    aural skills classes that may be open to the general public. Community
    colleges often charge a very low fee for this class. I am not familiar with
    how this works in other parts of the world, so non US citizens should check
    this out with your local colleges.
  12. There are ear training software programs available that can be found on
    the internet. The one I used in college was called Practica Musica by Ars
    Nova. (Note: This is not an endorsement for practica musica or Ars Nova,
    I'm just letting you know that this and other aural skills software do exist
    and can be a valuable resource.)
  13. For those of you who may not be able to enroll in an aural skills
    class, I strongly recommend to seek out a private music teacher. The good
    thing about seeking a private teacher is that the teacher does not need to
    be a guitar teacher. Any competent music teacher (no matter what instrument
    the teacher plays) can teach you aural skills. The key is to find a
    competent teacher though, there are a lot of incompetent teachers out there.
    For help on finding a good one and avoiding the bad ones, check out my
    previous article titled: Choosing A Teacher.

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.

Visit his site to discover highly effective music learning resources, guitar lessons, music career mentoring and tools including free online assessments, surveys, mini courses and more.

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