If there is one skill that guitarists should develop more than anything else, what would it be? Most people will tell you things such as rhythm (great answer, but not correct), dexterity (good, but not right) or maybe theory (agree to an extent). But the one thing guitarists should truly focus on is something which no one will tell you.
The single most important thing is to always be developing is your aural skills.
The Cure for Everything
Yes, you heard it right. Of course, you should develop all the skills mentioned above as well as many others, but your aural skills encompass everything:
- Do you have bad rhythm? It’s your aural skills that will help to first identify this and then guide you to fix it.
- Do you have poor tone? It’s your aural skills that will help to first identify this and then guide you to fix it.
- Do you have weak improvising skills? It’s your aural skills that will, you guessed it, help to first identify this and then guide you to fix it.
See, aural skills are the cure.
Your aural skills are the umbrella of your guitar playing. Without them, a variety of your core elements of guitar playing will be hampered and you will struggle to improve.
The Five Things You Don’t Want to Do
Here are five things that guitarists rarely do which ruins their aural skills and therefore holds back their playing:
1. Not working songs out for themselves by ear
This one is a kicker. Everyone wants to learn songs quickly. We don’t want to spend hours working songs out for ourselves. It takes time. Time is valuable.
The thing is, when you get good at figuring songs out by ear, you will realize that it is often quicker to work it out for yourself than it is to trawl through 50 YouTube videos, or 100 Ultimate Guitar tabs to find one that is correct and then have to sit and learn it.
During all that time you wasted searching for the “correct” way to play the song, you could have been working on a skill of your own whilst having the satisfaction of teaching yourself.
2. Not testing their aural skills regularly
How do you actually self-test your aural skills? Well, let me ask you, do you do any of the following on a regular basis?
- Play a melody on the guitar and then sing that melody making sure it sounds exactly the same
- Strum a chord and then sing a note from within that chord
- Play random notes on your perfectly tuned guitar and hum those notes back in tune
- Play a riff in your head and then without singing it try to replicate on the guitar
If you answered “no” to any of the above then you are not testing your aural skills enough and that is holding back your guitar playing. There are countless great ways to test yourself, and testing equals improving.
3. Not experimenting with tonal options
If you are an electric player there are so many different tonal options available to you, but if you are like most guitarists then you won’t use many of them.
A typical electric player will have two tones – clean and overdrive. They usually use a footswitch to change their amp from clean to overdrive and back and forth.
If you really want to experiment with new tonal options, your secret weapon is your guitar’s volume control. If you add that to the mix and use your footswitch you now have dozens of tonal options available to you. When using your volume control, your ear will decide exactly how much you turn this pot up or down for the song.
Like most pros, you will then start doing this within the song. Working the volume control forces you really open up your ears and listen to the mix as a whole—you’ll hear just where your guitar fits in. This is a wonderful all-round ability as it keeps your attention focused on the song all the way through—to do this your aural skills need to be good.
4. Not tuning their string bends
One of the biggest things guitarists do wrong on a regular basis is not tune their bends. The root cause of this is because they are not truly listening to their playing. In other words, their aural skills are not up to scratch. If they were, their bends would be in tune.
To be in tune, a string needs to be bent up a:
- semitone (which is the note on the next fret up on a guitar),
- a whole tone (two frets up)
- or sometimes a whole tone plus a semitone (three frets up).
Often a guitarist will bend a note the amount that feels physically comfortable and not the amount it needs to be bent to be in tune. When bending a note you should always be thinking about which of the three bend types you are striving to achieve.
Bending notes and staying in tune is a tough skill at first as only your ear can tell you if you need to bend the string a little more or a little less for it to be in tune.
You can reference your bend, by first playing the note you are aiming for and then checking the bend against it. For example, if you are looking to bend the 9th fret G string up to the 10th fret, then first play the 10th fret with no bend, listen to the pitch and then bend the 9th fret aiming to hear that pitch when bending. That will help.
Keep checking your string bending regularly.
5. Not actually listening when they play
This is a big one and is so obvious to me as a guitar teacher but it is not always obvious to the student. Many guitarists—particularly when they are going through (what I call) their doubting days, and haven’t yet built a lot of skill—are actually concentrating so hard on their playing they forget to actually listen to the music as a whole.
It sounds silly, but it is a real thing that goes on everywhere. Most beginners’ attention is spent on the technical things such as chord changes, strumming patterns, the next chord, etc. Obviously this all requires a lot of concentration as these are the elements that combine together to make the music. The trouble occurs when a student stops paying attention to the overall sound of the music.
For example, I taught a student once who concentrated on all these little things so much, he didn’t even realize his capo was sending his guitar slightly out of tune and he was strumming the low E string on a D chord (which we know is bad!).
I recorded him playing like this and played it back to him. What an eye opener! He hadn’t realized that his playing was this sloppy (sometimes it wasn’t, but was hit or miss). Once he opened up his ears, all it took was a few adjustments and he sounded loads better
Now he is so much more aurally aware of the music as a whole. He mentally checks that his guitar playing is more musical on a regular basis—and it is.
The five things above are all common for many guitarists. Keep them in mind the next time you pick up your guitar and always be forcing yourself to use your ears as much as your hands when playing. Your aural skills are integral to your guitar playing. Improve them and you will sound more musical, more professional, and be a better and more confident guitar player going forward.