Imagine you’re on a gig with a full rhythm section and singer, when the singer calls out a jazz standard like “Take the ‘A’ Train” that you’ve played hundreds of times before. You sit easy waiting for the piano player to start his intro, except right at that moment the singer turns to you and says “Why don’t we try it with a guitar intro instead?”
If even thinking of being in that situation fills you with dread, then consider this video a step in the right direction to help you get some simple, great sounding intros and endings under your belt so your next response in that situation is “Sure. No problem.”
Here’s a short video lesson demonstrating a classic Benson lick in G.
I wrote out the main lick and three examples of how to generate your own ideas, in standard notation and tab.
If you want to refer back to the notation later, right-click on each image and select “Save Image As…”
Imagine you’re in a bookstore one Sunday afternoon and, for whatever reason, you happen to notice the music playing in the background. Maybe it’s a classic rock song that you haven’t heard in awhile or a jazz tune; the genre doesn’t really matter. Can you listen to the song and know what the chord progression is? When the guitarist is soloing do you instantly recognize the scale being played or what notes make up the melodic riff?
If you’re hesitating to say ‘yes’ to these questions, then keep reading because I want to share a simple concept with you that will have a profound impact on your ability to recognize chords, progressions, and scales by ear, and that you can implement today.
To be clear, there are two kinds of pitch recognition: perfect pitch and relative pitch. Perfect pitch is the ability to recognize the exact note being played and relative pitch is being able to recognize the interval between notes or chords in sequence. The concept I’ll be describing is intended to help you develop your relative pitch recognition, which in many musical settings is actually more useful. Only around 0.01% of the population is born with perfect pitch, although that skill can also be developed, and those with perfect pitch and some form of musical training almost inevitably have great relative pitch as well.
I first heard of this ear training concept from the University of North Florida’s jazz guitar instructor, Barry Greene. One day in my weekly lesson, I asked him for some tips or exercises I could do to train my ear, since that has always been a weakness for me. In addition to teaching me a bunch of great ear training exercises to practice with my guitar, he made a suggestion that seems so incredibly obvious but took me time to appreciate. I call it “Barry’s Present Awareness Concept” and, to paraphrase, it is, “Be aware of the music in your present environment, even when you are away from your instrument.”
Right now you might be thinking that you already are aware of the music that’s playing around you. When you’re listening to music in the car, you’re jamming along and paying attention. If you hear a song playing in the grocery store, maybe you pay attention for a few seconds, and then go back to your grocery list. But, this concept challenges you to focus your awareness a little deeper.
To really apply this concept, when you hear music on the radio, at a restaurant, or anywhere other than your practice space, focus in and analyze the music. Ask yourself questions about what you’re hearing. Here are some example questions to get you started, but the list is endless.
- What chord, progression, or scale am I hearing?
- Do I hear anything out of the ordinary, chord-wise or scale-wise?
- If I do, what do I think the chord or scale is?
- Is the chord progression made up of basic triads, seventh chords, or something more complex?
- Does the chord, progression, or scale remind me of a part of another song?
This last question has been particularly helpful for me because when my mind recognizes a certain chord or pattern in what I’m listening to as being from another song, it makes future recognition of that nearly instantaneous.
But, doesn’t this sort of constant analysis ruin the enjoyment of the music? The short answer is ‘No,’ if you use the idea for its intended purpose as a tool for practicing.
Barry’s Present Awareness Concept helps you quickly develop your ability to identify chords, progressions, etc. by giving you a way of improving your listening when you don’t have your instrument with you. So, if training your ear further is one of your current goals (and, if you’ve read this far, I assume it is), then employ this idea when you are out in public on errands or not specifically listening to music for relaxation. I personally find that I end up enjoying songs that I already like even more if I have analyzed them by ear and really know the song inside and out.
What ear training tips or exercises have helped you the most? Share in the comments.
*And, if you want to really take your jazz guitar playing to the next level, I urge you to go to http://www.barrygreene.com/videolessons/ now and take advantage of Barry’s free video lesson while he still offers it.*
There are obviously many factors that differentiate a good musician and a great one, but what are the qualities that instantly separate a good musician and one that you really remember? What is it about a great musician that allows you to recognize their mastery from the first note they play? What is it about their playing that can make you want to get up and dance or leave you feeling overcome with sadness?
Many summers ago, when I was just starting to learn guitar, I attended a camp for young musicians held at the University of Miami. One of the best parts of this camp was the faculty concerts. At these concerts, the other campers and I witnessed masters on the piano, saxophone, trumpet, and guitar, perform with such facility and conviction that you couldn’t help but be impressed. A couple fast licks here, a really high note there, and it was almost guaranteed that they were going to make kids’ eyes widen. Thinking back on those faculty concerts now though, I can’t remember a single one of those licks. What I do remember is certain performances and qualities of those great musicians — like Ira Sullivan playing through an impossibly fast tune with total finesse or the powerful sound I heard every time Ed Maina played his tenor sax.
If the purpose of music is to connect with the audience on an emotional level — to inspire, to uplift, to make them feel a deep emotion — then there are two main qualities that instantly distinguish great musicians from good ones: their tone and time feel. Think of a musician’s tone like a writer’s voice that matures over time and demonstrates a certain command of the craft. Time feel is the ability of a musician to lock into the rhythm of the music. The simplest comparison is dancing. The difference between a good dancer and a great one is not really that the great dancer knows more moves, but that he or she is so tuned into the groove that time seems to flow with them and pull or push according to his or her movements.
You can be a great musician by playing simple melodies with excellent tone and time feel, but you can’t be great without those qualities. I think the best example of this is jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis. Not to say that he couldn’t rip through a fast tune, but when you think of his playing, what comes to mind first? Most likely you think of his distinct sound on a Harmon mute, or the way he could leave space in the music and then come in with a single, perfectly placed note, like he does on the track “Blue in Green” from his classic album, Kind of Blue. Look that song up on YouTube and you’ll hear exactly what I mean.
Another reason that tone and time feel are an appropriate measure of mastery is that they can’t be faked. Great tone and time feel are things you develop as a musician over time from practice. You can learn to play all the same licks as your favorite musician, but if you don’t know how to improve your tone and time feel as well, then your musical growth will be limited. Miles said it best when he said, “Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”
What qualities do you think separate a good musician from a great one? Let me know in the comments or send me an email. I read every one.
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.”
Think about the last time you went to practice. Put yourself in the moment when you thought, “I need to go practice.” How did you feel? If you’re like most people, you felt a bit overwhelmed by all of the possible things to practice and by how little time you actually have to do it all. Maybe you decided you’re just too busy and don’t have time to practice today (like yesterday and the day before that…). Or, maybe you went to practice and pushed through, knowing you didn’t really put in the focus and energy to make solid improvements. What happened to those early days of learning when practice was fun and exciting? What’s changed? How can you hope to make lasting improvement if your practice is inconsistent, and what’s the point if the day-to-day practice is a drag?
I want to show you the three key principles that helped me go from skipping practice for weeks at a time to systematizing the process so that showing up to practice happened automatically.
Principle #1: Motivation matters.
“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”
There is a lot to be said about motivation, but the main idea is this: Motivation is what gets you to actually go sit down and practice, so without a reliable way to motivate yourself you’re leaving all of your improvement to chance.
Personally, I don’t want to spend a ton of time and energy learning a new skill only to hope I’ll be better a few months or years down the line, and if you’re reading this, chances are neither do you. So, what we need is a way of ensuring that we stay motivated over the long-term, through the inevitable difficulties of learning a new skill, but especially a way to gain some daily motivation to practice.
Now, I’m not going to suggest you start reciting mantras and telling yourself, “You can do it!” in the mirror. This isn’t that kind of blog. Instead, I’m going to tell you a quick story about a method that I call the “Motivation Bank” which I now use to guarantee I stay motivated, and the specific steps to implement it in your practice.
I was waking up late one morning, as jazz musicians do, and struggling to get out bed. My guitar and music stand were sitting directly in front of my bed, staring at me the second I woke up, while I did my best to try to avoid eye contact. I was vaguely aware that someone was blasting music, and eventually realized that it was my brother listening to the jazz organist Jimmy Smith. All of a sudden, I heard this ripping guitar solo from George Benson, and man was it grooving! Now I was awake. I got up and asked my brother what track he’s listening to and immediately went back to my room because I NEEDED to learn how to play those bluesy Benson licks I just heard. At that point, nothing else was on my mind except the desire to go play some guitar, in the hopes of getting the smallest bit closer to my guitar hero.
Later, I thought about how easy it was for me to practice that day and wondered if there was a way I could somehow bottle up the motivation I got from listening to George Benson for the days I didn’t feel like practicing (hint: most of them). As I worked on this idea, I remembered other seemingly unrelated times when I felt an intense desire to go practice: watching Lebron James own the court in a Heat playoff game and seeing one of my favorite bands perform live. What I realized was that, to me, those moments were all examples of an outstanding performance, and that the act of witnessing a great performance instantly and powerfully motivated me to want to improve my own performance, a.k.a. go practice. Most importantly, it doesn’t matter how many times I hear that same Benson track or watch Lebron throw down the same slam dunk. Because I really connected to their performance, it continues to motivate me time and time again.
Here’s how you can apply these ideas to create your own “Motivation Bank” to draw upon when you need to get yourself to practice.
- Think of 2-3 great performers that truly inspire you. To make it a more powerful connection, ideally you saw these performers live at one point. Remember, these performers don’t have to be in your field, as long as their performance resonates with you.
- With those people in mind, create a bookmark folder called “My Motivation Bank” and add a couple of short video links from YouTube of their top performances in your mind. You want to pick something that you know will motivate you, not cause you to procrastinate.
- Now, when you need to practice, but just aren’t feeling like it, play one of the videos from your “Motivation Bank” and use that quick boost to get yourself started.
Principle #2: Prepare your practice.
“Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.”
In order to make use of that motivation, you need to prepare your practice by knowing EXACTLY what you’ll be working on and why. Otherwise, you may show up to practice, only to noodle around the whole time unfocused. That’s not practicing.
Now, diving into the details of how to choose your goals and how to structure your practice to fit them is beyond the scope of this article. But, the act of preparing your practice is still crucial to creating a consistent routine. In other words, knowing what you need to do and why means you are more likely to do it. In my experience, there are two main reasons that this is true.
The first reason is that it makes the transition from wanting to practice to actually practicing as seamless as possible. Why is this important? Think about a time when you wanted to do something but justified pushing it off in your mind because you weren’t totally sure of what steps you had to take. Here’s my favorite example of that: cleaning out the garage. Everybody wants to have a clean garage, but it’s such a hassle and where do you even begin? Of course, even if you knew exactly which box or broken exercise equipment to move first, that doesn’t mean you’ll jump right to cleaning out the garage. The real reason you don’t clean out the garage is because you don’t have a compelling reason to. You vaguely accepted the idea that your garage should be clean, but can’t think of a clear reason that motivates you to actually do the work. Which leads me to the second reason…
When you know WHY you’re practicing a specific skill (or practicing at all), you are far more likely to put in the work because that ‘why’ reminds you of your overall motivation and gives you a defined start and end point. The best way that I’ve found to keep track of exactly what I’m practicing and why, is to keep a practice log. In case you’re unfamiliar with how to set up a practice log, I’ve included a recent page from my jazz guitar log below. Over the years, I’ve tried all kinds of methods for tracking my practice, and so far I’ve found that this way is simple and clear enough to keep me tracking my progress.
A recent page from my jazz guitar practice log.
Principle #3: Accountability allows for long-term success.
“Accountability breeds response-ability.”
If motivation and preparing your practice get you to practice today and tomorrow, then accountability is what keeps you practicing weeks, months, and years into the future. To demonstrate its effectiveness, let me tell you how I used accountability in college to ensure I ran three times a week, even though I HATED running.
My sister and I went to the same college, and one semester she decided to start running in the morning around 7AM before her first class. I wanted to get into a running habit myself to exercise on my days off from lifting weights, but every time I tried I never kept it up for more than a couple weeks. I had recently listened to a podcast by Alex Epstein where he talked about the importance of having an accountability partner and decided to put those ideas into action by teaming up with my sister. Here was our plan. On Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, my sister would show up to my dorm room at 7:15AM and then we would run around campus. It was that simple, and this is why it worked. Every morning that we planned to run, my sister knew that I would be getting up too, and she knew that if she didn’t show up I would be pissed that I got up early for no reason. And, it worked the same way for me. We had tied our commitment to run in such a way that neither one of us could singlehandedly back out of it, even on days it was freezing cold outside or we felt tired.
My first suggestion to you would be to find your own accountability partner. Find someone who is near your level that you can be slightly competitive with and push each other to practice. What if you can’t find someone to keep you accountable? Make yourself publicly accountable to your entire social network with an upcoming deadline. For example, if you’re learning guitar pick a special occasion or family gathering a few months down the line where you can show off, and then let them know now that you will be performing. If the idea of performing in front of a small crowd makes you nervous, then good! Make yourself accountable anyways and use that fear to keep going on the days when practice is difficult.
Principle #1: Motivation matters.
-Gets you to practice today
Principle #2: Prepare your practice.
-Gets you to practice tomorrow
Principle #3: Accountability allows for long-term success.
-Keeps you practicing for weeks, months, years into the future
These three principles have allowed me to achieve most of my success, and the more I consciously implement them, the more results I see. In fact, I used these principles in writing this article. My motivation was helping a few close friends and family instantly improve their practice routine and guitar skills. My preparation was making a detailed outline of the article before I started writing. And, I made myself accountable by messaging a few of those friends to tell them that I would send them this article, which I hadn’t started at the time, within the week.
Now the thing is…I don’t want to help only a few of my closest friends. I want to share what I spent the past 18+ years learning through trial and error with you as well, so you can benefit from my experience and not waste years of your time and energy stuck in the same place like I did. If you’re struggling with practicing or learning the guitar, send me a quick email at “Chase@TheArtOfTheChase.com” telling me your biggest challenge right now, and I will help you break through that plateau. I read every email.
All the best,