The 3 Most Important Skills: Ear, Rhythm & Tone
The 3 most important skills and assets to develop for top-level musicianship are ear, rhythm, and tone. If you have a good ear and you have a good rhythm, you can have a lifetime of professional success as a musician.
If on the other hand, your ear and your rhythm are not all that good and you have a whiny guitar sound, but you know every scale that exists, and you can play 16th notes at 280bpm, you will more than likely never achieve the same level of musical success and satisfaction.
Think about it: most guitar players spend 99% of their practice time developing their fretboard knowledge, scale knowledge, scale fingerings, improvisation skills and techniques, etc., only to find out that in the real world, they spend 99% of their time not using any of this. You’d be lucky enough to have a guitar solo every once in a while. Most of the time you play rhythm as a guitarist.
In addition: if one would allocate some of the time learning scales to developing the ear instead, the ear after a while automatically would start guiding the fingers to the right locations, which makes learning scales all the more efficient and reduces the time to learn new scales significantly.
As such, a great deal of your practice time should be dedicated to developing and improving your rhythm and your ear.
- Training Your Ear
More than anything: this should be a top priority in every musician’s training. Unfortunately, this is not the most pleasing and enjoyable thing to work on. Ear training surely is not as much fun as learning your favorite song. I am guilty of that too as a private guitar instructor. Being that you want your students to have fun and you want to fire up their passion for music and guitar so they fall in love with music on deeper levels, you hold off on introducing ear-training exercises while they would really benefit from starting those exercises early on in their training.
The better your ability is developed to recognize intervals, chords, scales, and rhythms by ear, the easier it is to learn and remember any musical idea, to improvise, to compose, and to musically interact with other musicians. Here are some exercises to train your ear.
- Ear Training CDs and Online Resources
- Identify What’s Playing Around You
The best way to give your ear a workout is to just listen to music playing around you! Put on music and start practicing. See if you can identify what key the song is in (major or minor). Can you guess the tempo of the song? (Which you can double-check with a metronome while the song is playing).
Can you identify specific tempo changes? While listening to a simple melody on a commercial jingle on TV, see if you can pick out the intervallic distances between the notes in the melody. Try to tell by ear what the chords are. Does the song start on the I chord? Where does the harmony go from there? There’s music all around you and once you tune in to it, exercising your ear will become a natural, daily habit!
- Transcribing Music.
Pick a familiar tune and sit down with your guitar. If, for example, you choose “Happy Birthday,” start on a random note and figure out the rest of the melody from there. Once you have mastered “Happy Birthday” in that key, try to figure out the melody again starting from another starting note. Identify what the names of the intervals are that make up the melody. Listen very closely to the sound of each specific interval that makes up that melody.
Do this with a couple of familiar songs every day. Also: try to figure out by ear what the chords are that would go with that melody. At a later stage, as you get better at this, start transcribing guitar solos by ear. Progressively keep transcribing more challenging material. There is no better way to become a master musician, than learning from the masters transcribing their music by ear.
- Developing Your Tone
Your tone can be simply defined as the sound you produce when playing guitar. This is a result of your guitar, equipment, amplifier, cables, string gauges, and the thickness of your pick. However: your tone and sound are also the result of your personality, your energy, your life experiences, how hard or soft you attack, your timing, your mood, your physical built, etc.
Your tone is ultimately your personality and the way you feel at the moment. You can tell a guitar player by the very first note he plays. If for example, an insecure guitarist begins to play, the tone will be timid and lack energy. Here are some simple ways to get in touch with your uniqueness as a guitarist and translate it into a better tone.
- What Do You Want to Make People Feel?
Getting in tune with what you want to project and how you want to make people feel is an important step in developing your tone. By looking into your individual experiences, you will be able to tap into them and improve your tone.
While playing a song, imagine how it relates to you. If it has lyrics, can you relate to them? How can your experiences, thoughts, and interests affect what you’re playing? Tap into how you feel while playing guitar and you will transmit it through your playing. The more you lose yourself into the music, and the deeper you feel the music you play, the more genuine and unique your tone is going to be.
- Experiment With Your Imagination, Mindset & Emotions.
Try playing the same song or guitar solo transporting your mind into different moods, emotions, or imaginary situations. You might for example try playing one song while thinking of something that is provoking anger. Or play the same song after you imagined yourself being a super hectic Wall Street exec that leads a very hectic, stressful life.
While feeling this, your tone probably would be sharper, defined, and staccato. Your phrasing, timing, and note placement would also be on or ahead of the beat. That too is part of your tone and sound.
However, if you play the same song while focusing on a different feeling or experience, such as sadness or loneliness, your tone would be softer, more legato, and calmer if you feel those feelings while playing. Your phrases and timing would also be more laid back, and your melodic feel more lyrical.
- Tune into Your Experiences
Every musician’s individual tone is developed by everything they have ever experienced, felt, and learned in their lifetime. Master musicians lived a lot, learned a lot, know a lot, and have acquired tons of life experience.
Their art and sound is not only the product of practicing relentlessly but also the product of their beliefs, travels, and their interests in history, art history and painting, architecture, nature, science, religion, politics, economics, psychology, spirituality, etc. The more different avenues you can draw inspiration from, the more rich, full, intricate, and personal your sound is going to be.
- Improving your Rhythm
Rhythm is what builds a connection between your music and the people around you. If your time feel and placement is shaky, you lose your listeners. Their attention is gone instantly because your inability to create rhythmic flow is distracting from the music. Once you establish the rhythm of a piece, you feel more connected to it. Rhythm is what makes or breaks a band. The better your time feels, the more you will be able to draw people into your music, the more your band name and reputation will be established as a band to be reckoned with. This is what you will be doing most of the time when playing with bands or as a hired gun: “playing rhythm guitar”. It then goes without saying that this is one of the most important skills to have. Here’s a couple of tips:
- Use a Metronome
Practicing with a metronome is the simplest and most effective way to improve your rhythm. Great tip: practice everything slowly, then as you get the hang of the rhythm you’re working on, gradually speed the metronome up in small increments of a couple of beats at a time. Using the steady, accurate pulse of the metronome as your guideline, you develop a sense of where to place your phrases in relation to the beat.
The rhythmic perception you develop that way will give you control of where to place things in time. Being able to identify tempos to songs is another fun skill to have. Using a metronome while you play, you will develop a sense of what 60, 100, 120, 180, etc. BPM sounds and feels like.
- Counting While Walking.
Using your footsteps as a metronome while you walk or run, and counting out rhythms on top of that, is a great technique for internalizing complicated rhythms. Not only do you get great physical exercise, but you are also developing your musicianship in the meantime! Here’s how this works: every step counts as 1 beat, 4 steps is a measure.
While you’re walking, you count “1” for a quarter note, “1-2” for 2 eight notes, “1-2-3” for a triplet, “1-2-3-4” for four 16th notes, “1-2-3-4-5” for quintuplets, and so on.
There are tons of CDs, apps, software, and websites available to help you train your ear. Many of those are free resources.
Here’s a website with great exercises that I always liked: http://www.musictheory.net/
This is how it looks like:
All of these numbers need to be counted/divided evenly in the space of 1 footstep.
It is important that you spread the numbers out evenly across the beat. For example: for a triplet make sure you don’t have “one-two-threeeeeeee”, you want three evenly pronounced numbers: “one-two-three”, evenly spread out over the spacing from the moment your foot hits the ground (which is when you say “1”), till right when your other foot hits the ground on the next step (which is when you say “1” again for the start of the next grouping of numbers).
This is a fantastic way to practice performing rhythmic groupings. You’re improvising rhythms while you’re walking. This is especially a very efficient way to practice odd-numbered groupings (triplets, quintuplets…), which are challenging to play, but easier to feel when you count them while walking. Go for a walk and start counting.
A musician’s ear, tone, and rhythm are the most important skills that must be developed in order to become a master at guitar. When you focus on these aspects of your musical training, you will grow much more quickly in your musical development. Anything else you want to learn about music will come much more easily to you.
Moreover: your playing will become more unique and personal. Last but not least: you will have much more fun on your musical journey, as those skills will help you attract much more high-level musicians who will want to jam or perform with you.
The thing that is really exciting about all of this though: is that you are improving yourself as a human being because you are developing your senses in a way no other art or skills ever can: your aural perception, your aural abilities, your ability to feel space in time, your ability to predict when a rhythmic event is going to happen in time, your ability to hear distances between sounds, and your ability to sound whichever way you feel like at any time.
Enough reading… time for you to go practice all of this now!
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