Friday, January 19, 2007

Learning (to hear) an Instrument

I'm a pretty good guitar player. Been playing since I was maybe 12 or so, and I'm self-taught, which is why it took me so long to get any good. A great teacher can make you better faster.

But there aren't a lot of great teachers. If you really want to learn an instrument, you're going to have to teach yourself, and to do that you need to do two things:
  • Tap your foot
  • Listen
Always tap your foot when you play anything. Always, always, always. If not your foot, some other limb or digit. You must develop your rhythm. Timing is everything. Beginning musicians neglect rhythm/meter/tempo. They're too focused on pitch/melody/harmony. The tune means nothing without the rhythm. Don't tell me you can play something unless I can dance to it and/or accompany you, and your sense of rhythm is what enables me to do that. Tap your foot when you practice, always.

The Internet has produced two great tools for budding instrumentalists: tablature and YouTube. But without a good ear, they're dangerous, because quite frankly, most tablature available on the Internet is wrong and most YouTube performers suck. There are, of course, plenty of valuable exceptions, but even bad tablature and sucky performers can teach you something...

I'm not telling you anything new, of course. You already know the tabs/videos are wrong, because they don't sound quite right. Recognizing this is a big step! Unfortunately, your mind can trick you into thinking what you're playing is correct. If you practice it enough, you'll begin to think it's right, simply because through practice you've become better at playing it, even though it's not exactly what the artist you're trying to emulate is playing.

You would know this if you simply listened or -- even better -- played along with the song you're trying to learn. (which also improves your rhythm)

As your ear develops, you'll start to hear subtleties you missed before. There are many ways to play an F# chord on the guitar, for example. Any chord played around the 1st fret will have a completely different tonal quality around the 7th fret, even though both are the same chord. An open string sounds much different than a fretted one, even if it's the same note.

When I first started playing, I became very frustrated trying to play rock/blues solos, until I discovered string bending. My ear was telling me Hendrix was playing an E. I could hear the note, and I could play it: 1st string, 12th fret. Same note, exactly. But his sounded so much better than mine. Why? He was fretting the 1st string at the 10th fret (D), and then bending it up to the pitch it would be at the 12th fret (E). Or he'd bend the 2nd string from the 15th fret (D) up to (E), simultaneously playing the (E) at the 12th fret on the 1st string. Same note I was playing, but sounded WAY cooler.

Always trust your ear. I can remember struggling to "pick out" George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun". When I thought I had a reasonable approximation -- though I knew it was wrong -- I went looking for some tab and experienced a huge "Doh! moment" when I discovered he was using a capo! That made it MUCH easier!

But even more important, because I had tried to play the song myself first BY EAR, and then by tab, the subtle effects a capo can have on a guitar's tone creeped into my subconscious. Over time, it became easier for me to recognize when a guitarist is using a capo, or bending a string, or pulling-off, or hammering-on, etc... without having to watch a video or read tablature.

I could hear it, and eventually, I could play it.

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