The Magic Triangle Of Musicianship

I believe a good goal to work towards, for a guitar player is: to become a musician. A good guitar teacher ought to aim to develop their students’ musicianship.

But what do we mean by “musicianship?”

What’s the difference between someone who can “˜play a bit of guitar’ and someone who can confidently describe themselves as a musician? What is it exactly that a “˜musician’ can do that a mere “˜guitar player’ can’t?

Let’s take this a radical step further and cut out all thoughts of technique. This isn’t to say technique isn’t important. Far from it! But for the sake of this article let’s look at “musicianship” as a mindset. Better than that, let’s think of the “musicianship” as a point in our lifelong musical journey. We start as a “want-to-be guitar player” and then progress to “guitar player.” “Musician” will be a point further along our road.

Personally I have pinned it down to three specific main skills that have to be mastered to earn your “˜I am a musician’ badge.

These are:

  • The ability to improvise music
  • The ability to compose music and
  • The ability to transcribe music

I consider these skills to interact in a similar way to the three sides of a triangle. If you increase the length of one side of a triangle it forces the length of the adjacent side to increase.


It works like this: if you improve your improvising skill, your ability to compose automatically improves (composing is really just improvising done more slowly!) The insight gained from composing or improvising goes a long way to improving your listening and music analysis skills, which in turn enhance your ability to transcribe music, such as working out a song from a recording you’re listening to so you can write it down on paper in either notation or tablature. Transcribing is really reverse-engineered composing!

The more music you transcribe, the better your understanding of how music works. This newly gained understanding then feeds back into your ability to improvise and compose.

The interesting thing about each of these skills is that they all have a slightly high entry price. Left to their own devices, guitarists seldom teach themselves to improvise without help from a teacher or another musician. Composing music is seen by most as something akin to a black art and, again, few people start composing entirely under their own steam. Demonstrating the ability to instantly transcribe music is even more likely to get you burnt at the stake – I have literally seen students’ jaws drop when witnessing this skill in action.

So if you are teaching yourself to play guitar and want to work towards mastering the subject I recommend starting with improvising. It’s not necessarily the easiest one of the three for everyone, but I think it is slightly more accessible than either composing or transcribing. It’s also more fun!

What’s the best way to learn to improvise? Well, there are several approaches and, to be honest, each approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

The simplest approach is just to start. Play along to a song and use your ears to hear which notes seem to go with it and which ones don’t. This is a very direct approach, but I have to say that most people find it to difficult to get a satisfying result early on and so, for them, I’d recommend approach number two.

The second approach is to learn scale patterns. The most easily applied scales are the minor and major pentatonic scales and their derivatives: the blues and country scales. Drilling scale patterns may seem laborious, but it is a most effective shortcut to finding the right notes to play.

To play Rock “˜n Roll style lead or Jazz, you need to progress to improvising directly over chords. This can be done using the chord shapes themselves (Django Reinhardt, Eddie Cochran and Mark Knopfler are all ace exponents of this approach) or by learning arpeggio patterns (check out Charlie Christian’s jazz style or Joe Walsh on his Hotel California solo).

Improvising directly over chords is, in my view, much harder and takes lots of practice, but ultimately produces a much richer result. If you can, team up with another guitarist and take it in turns to play lead and rhythm. The next best thing is to use backing tracks.

Once your fingers are up to speed (and that can take a while), the most important thing is careful listening. You have to simultaneously listen to three things: (1) The rhythm section, (2) your own playing and, (3) the combined effect of both those things!

The final step is to learn to appreciate the subtle effects of timing. The rhythmic element of great lead guitar is often underestimated. If you listen to B.B. King and Peter Green you can really appreciate what can be achieved with only a few notes but a divine sense of timing!

Once you feel you’re getting the hang of improvising have a go at composing. Record yourself playing a simple chord sequence then play it back, and using your improvising skills, work out a great tune to go with it. If you have the right kit to do multi-track recording you can then record yourself playing the tune and listen appreciatively to the playback! Like improvising, your composing skills will develop with practice and will benefit from swapping ideas with fellow guitar players and other musicians as well.

Finally, have a crack at transcribing. Listen to a song and work out in this order:

  1. What key it’s in.
  2. What notes the bass is playing under the chord changes.
  3. What the chords are.
  4. What the melody is.
  5. Any lead lines, keyboard or horn parts.

If you have studied any amount of music theory you will find that will help greatly in narrowing down the likely chords and notes used. If you struggle with music theory (and in that case, welcome to one of the largest clubs on earth!) you will find transcribing harder, but if you stick at it you will gradually gain an intuitive understanding of how chords and notes work together in keys to form music. You will then find the theory making a lot more sense.

So use the Magic Triangle of Improvising, Composing and Transcribing to work your way up from being “˜a bit of a guitar player’ to being a fully competent Musician and above all enjoy the process!