How To Listen To Your Guitar Playing The Right Way

Author: Ed Cupler


Mike Philippov - professional music teacher and recording artistYour ears are the most important (and the most neglected) guitar practice tool. The vast majority of guitarists never truly ‘listen’ to themselves while practicing and as a result, are unable to notice and fix many of their guitar playing problems. They continue to go through the motions of practicing for hours, never becoming aware that the answer to many of their guitar playing challenges was right in front of them.

Why Do Your Ears Play Such A Critical Role In Your Guitar Playing Progress?

The answer is simple: Unless you are able to recognize the exact cause of every mistake you make in your guitar playing, your musical skills will not improve. You must know “what” must be fixed before you can fix it. If your own ears aren’t good enough to detect the root of the problem and you don’t have another more experienced player to analyze your mistakes, you will continue to be frustrated with your slow progress on guitar.

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Time To Get Your Ears Tested

For the rest of this article I will conduct with you a special test that will help you understand just how good (or not good) your ears are at spotting problems in your guitar playing. Your objective is to answer with a firm “Yes” to each point I will ask about. If you answer with anything other than a firm “Yes”, your listening skills are poor in the area being tested and need to be improved.

How Well Do You Listen For Guitar Technique Problems?

  • When your guitar playing sounds sloppy on the music you are practicing, can you accurately detect the SPECIFIC notes that aren’t 100% clean?
  • When your playing breaks down at higher tempos, can you detect if the cause is due to hands getting out of sync, not articulating the notes clearly, notes bleeding together, vibration from other strings or some combination of these areas?
  • If/when your picking and fretting hands don’t play in sync, can you always know which note of the music this occurs on?

If you did not answer with a confident “Yes” to every question above, you must refine your skills of listening to your guitar technique flaws.

How To Overcome Problems In This Area Of Guitar Playing

The first thing to do to make it easier for your ears to notice mistakes (and their causes) is to ‘play slower’. As another strategy, it will help to overemphasize the original challenge by making the music ‘more’ difficult to play. This will make it easier for your ears to pinpoint the problem in your technique without having to play slower. Study this guitar practice techniques tutorial to see a demonstration of this approach.

Can Your Ears Detect Your Flaws In Playing Vibrato?

  • Can you tell (from listening only) the difference between vibrato done in quarter notes, sixteenth notes, triplets and eighth notes?
  • Can you tell from listening if the pulses of your vibrato are locking in with the rhythm of the song you are playing?
  • Can your ears tell you if your vibrato is perfectly in tune during your playing?

If you failed at least one of these questions, you have some work to do to make your vibrato better. Watch the video below that will show you how to test your progress with practicing vibrato and you will see how your ears play a crucial role in improving this area of your musicianship:

How Well Can Your Ears Detect Problems In Your Improvising?

  • Are you able to pinpoint which of the notes you are playing sound awesome over the chords you are soloing and which ones sound only ‘average’ (or downright ‘bad’)?
  • Can you notice (while playing) if the phrase you are playing goes smoothly with the licks you played before it?

If you answered “No” to either question above, here is what to do next:

To free up your ability to perceive all nuances of your improvising (while playing), you must become fluent with skills such as fretboard visualization and knowledge of scales and chords in the keys you are soloing in. This will enable your ears to perceive all the nuances of your improvising in real time and become aware of any flaws that need to be fixed. Learn more about how to achieve this in this guide for learning guitar scales.

How Good Are Your Ears At Noticing Flaws In Your Rhythm Guitar Playing?

  • Are you able to notice if your playing is perfectly locked in with the drums/metronome vs. when it is NOT?
  • Can you determine when your palm muting technique starts to become harder or softer during playing?
  • Can your ears pick up when your picking articulation softens (without you intending to do so) on challenging guitar parts?

If you didn’t answer with a firm “Yes” to the above questions, what you must do first is develop your sense of timing without your guitar by clapping your hands against a metronome click. Your challenge will be to detect (with your ears) when you are clapping completely in time and when the timing is off. Additionally, it will help you to practice rhythm guitar riffs with a variety of articulation and palm muting feels to develop your ears’ ability to tell the difference between them.

After having seen the ways to assess several areas of your guitar playing, you know a lot more about how to become a better guitarist by making your ‘listening’ during practice sessions more effective. . Of course your guitar playing challenges will always change the longer you play guitar, but the more refined your ears become at ‘detailed listening’ to the sound of your guitar playing, the easier and faster it will be for you to consistently make progress.

To learn more about how to make your practicing more effective, study this video on how to practice guitar.

About The Author:

Mike Philippov is a professional music teacher and recording artist. His columns and lessons on guitar playing appear on guitar websites all over the web. On Mike’s instructional music website you can find many more free guitar practice resources.

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