Some skills are more difficult than just learning a new lick:
or a chord voicing,
and you want to keep working on and developing these skills because THEY will benefit your playing and progress forever. They are sort of the opposite of a quick win., but probably also a lot more important. In this video, I will go over 7 of those skills including one that I really suck at, but there is still hope. Some of these may also be unpopular opinions, but I am sure you guys will let me know in the comment section.
#1 Learning By Ear
When I started learning Jazz, I was told to learn songs by ear and transcribe solos pretty early on, and in hindsight, that was some of the best advice I ever had, even if it had a few funny side effects which I will get back to later.
Right now it is easy to get any information, everything is available as a PDF transcription and you can ask “got tabs for that” on any post on Instagram, Facebook or YouTube, but learning by ear is incredibly important for how well you play guitar.
When you learn songs by ear then you reinforce the connection between what you hear in your brain and what comes out on the instrument and while this is a pretty obvious advantage for learning to improvise and compose music then that connection is just as crucial if you are playing composed music.
If you are just reading the notes then that is what we call “typing” and you are not really making music just making sounds from a piece of paper.
The odd side-effect that I had by learning songs by ear was that I wasn’t really jamming with other people at the time and just learned songs that I liked from the albums I listened to, and It turned out that “I Heard You Cried Last Night”, “This Is No Laughing Matter” and “She’s Funny That Way” was not really songs that I ever got to play with anyone.
If you are completely new to learning by ear then it can seem difficult to get started, but don’t be afraid to ease into it and go learn songs that you know but never played, and it really is perfectly fine to start with the riffs from Sunshine Of You Love or Seven Nation Army and build from there instead of giving up on a 10 Coltrane solo.
#2 Analyze Your Own Playing And Progress
In my experience, the biggest problem with self-teaching, and this is true for students of any level, is ear training. Not only being able to hear notes and chords but really being able to hear how something is supposed to sound when it comes to all of the important aspects of music.
Keep in mind that Stevie Ray Vaughan uses pentatonic scales, but so does a lot of African folk music and a ton of heavy metal, and they all sound pretty different!
So there is a lot more to music than what notes or scale is used because you need:
to all come together and none of those are described by a scale.
If you are teaching yourself then you need to train yourself to hear what is wrong and figure out a way to improve on that. I am sure you can see how this is difficult to get right.
The way you do that is by recording yourself because It is impossible to listen and catch it all while you are also playing. Then you start analyzing what and how you play so that you can figure out how to get better. and This is something that no YouTube video, blog post or podcast can do for you, but it is an essential part of learning, and it will help you improve your playing forever. The fact that giving yourself feedback is almost impossible is actually also why I have included a community in my course to give students feedback on their playing, in a way that is to let them borrow my ears, get some feedback and help focus their work while going through the course.
So record yourself and listen for what needs work and focus on improving that, and train your ears to hear good rhythm and good phrasing as well as notes and chords.
#3 Fretboard Knowledge
Building an overview of the fretboard so that you are free to move around like Joe Pass does here and play lines over any chord on any part of the neck is of course the goal,
but it is something that you want to build over time. In fact, I found that it works better to start with one place of the neck and make sure that you can make music there and then expand that.
This may be a controversial opinion, but I don’t think I have seen anyone really get a lot out of trying to work on fretboard knowledge without also using this in music. When I see students improve this aspect of their playing then it seems to be mostly by learning a song in one position and then gradually adding the surrounding positions to have an overview of that part of the neck.
The types of exercises that work beyond that seem to be exercises that help you find things in a context on the guitar, so playing diatonic triads or arpeggios across the neck or on a string set, but you need to pair it with using this material to really integrate it into how you already play and actually learn something.
#4 Knowing Music Theory
This is possibly a hot take when it comes to guitar skills, but in general, most people get a lot out of learning some theory so that they can understand the music that they play and what they are doing when they improvise. It really does tend to make them better musicians in the long run.
The trick with theory is that you need to get it away from being just theory for it to be useful, so if you want to understand harmony then you want to know songs that use that harmony, if you want to use the altered scale then know how solos sound that uses the altered scale.
For a lot of us, certainly, for me, it is pretty easy to learn the theory part, but it takes a lot more work to also connect it to your ear and in that way get it to the point where you can actually use it, but that is worth working on and can open of for amazing things in your playing.
#5 Reading Music
Not sure if this is another unpopular opinion, but reading music is really good for learning to play an instrument, and maybe the most important part of that is something that nobody ever talks about.
On guitar then most internet stuff will include tabs and diagrams which are ways of writing down what to play in a very direct and easy-digestible way. They do however leave a lot of information out and some of the advantages to reading sheet music that are not included in tabs and diagrams are:
The Rhythm, a bunch of numbers doesn’t give you the rhythm and that is at least 50% of the music most of the time.
How it sounds in the context and where the notes are going, the number describing the root of the key looks just like the number that is the most dissonant chromatic note over a chord.
Music Notation is more general so if you can read, then you have access to great music that is written for violin, saxophone, piano etc.
Most of this is obvious, but just to give you a superficial example of hearing things in the context, here are the tabs of a II V I lick. From looking at this then it is not immediately obvious that the V chord is going to be sounding out of the key, but if you add the sheet music you can see how suddenly there are a lot of notes in there that are not in the key so you expect those to sound further away.
In fact, if you train reading and especially singing from sheet music, then you are working on hearing what is written, and THAT helps you hear music and know what it is you hear, which is a great shortcut to playing what you hear.
Let’s talk about a skill that I do NOT master….
#6 Setting Up A Guitar
I actually tried to learn how to set up a guitar and become less dependent on others, but I ran into a problem that needed help solving.
The reason that I suck at this is that I am lucky and unlucky to be surrounded by people who are incredible at doing setups and I was always more interested in playing a guitar than setting it up. I actually bought my Yamaha SG1000 as a project to practice setting up guitars.
Most guitars are made of wood, which sort of means that they are still alive and change over time. So the instrument changes with temperature and humidity and you need to set them up so that they play well and stay in tune. This becomes especially relevant when you start traveling with a guitar.
With my SG1000 project, the problem that I ran into was that the bridge had bowed inwards over time and needed to be replaced, That was more than I could figure out myself, see the part of the video on self-teaching, so I just kept trying to get the guitar in tune, with the right action but kept running into problems because the bridge and the neck don’t curve the same way.
This is something that I do plan to pick up again though since it sucks to be stuck in a city in another country with a guitar that doesn’t play as easily as it did at home, maybe I will keep you up to date along the way on that.
#7 Playing With Other People
The only reason that I managed to start playing Jazz at 23 and get into a conservatory two years later is that I focused on playing with other people. I love making music with others, that is by far what I find the most important about making music and what I enjoy doing the most. Spending hours every day during the summer playing Jazz standards in the street really made that all come together and got me to the level I needed to get into music school.
Playing music with others often boosts progress massively when you are learning an instrument for 3 main reasons:
The skill you want to develop here is to be able to communicate, which really means that while you are playing, you need to be able to listen to the rest of the ensemble and decide if you want to follow or lead something in the music and know how to get that across while you are playing. If you just start playing and close your ears to what is happening around you then you will not be called again.
The reason that this will pay off forever is pretty simple, playing with other people is fun and incredibly motivating for you to keep practicing and explore new things, and if you want to be able to use what you practice then you need to internalize it so that you can play like that and still pay attention to the band. In the end, you can jam a standard with a band 100s of times more than what you can practice it, and that will make a huge difference to your development.
So try to work on becoming great to play with by being flexible when you play with others and listening to what they are doing, regardless of how your level of ear training is you will only hear something if your ears are open in the first place.
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