The Ears Have It

As the tutorial resources you have at your beck and call get more and more sophisticated, it gets harder to remember that learning guitar is all about playing guitar. That means if you want to be able to play your instrument, you have to go through all the “grunt work” – that means practicing. And for many players the biggest aspect they need to work on is not using their eyes.

That may seem like a strange thing to say, but there are many places along one’s journey of learning the guitar where one eyes can actually make learning more difficult. Actually, it’s not really the eyes as much as it is the perceived (and pre-conceived) need to see.

“But,” you say, “what about if you’re a visual learner?” That is something that teachers hear over and over again these days. And while is it true that some people do learn quicker through a visual medium (and it’s exceedingly strange how reading, which is totally visual, seems to have fallen through the cracks and is no longer considered a “visual medium”), most people brains are, fortunately, quite adaptable and can switch gears quicker than one realizes. More on this later as it’s very important.

More to the point, though, is that music is not a visual medium, now matter what kind of spin you try to put on it. Music is heard or even felt as vibrations, but unless you go to concerts carrying a lot of sophisticated scientific equipment with you, you don’t see it. You can see all the peripherals of the show – the set, the lights, the costumes, the seemingly endless visual effects – but that is not the music. It’s the show and it’s important to remember that the two are separate.

When you play your guitar you also do not see the music. You see yourself playing the instrument. And, despite what I initially said, very important to beginners. Playing the guitar requires a bit of coordination. You need to correctly fret a note, which means that you have to be fretting the correct string in a “sweet spot.” You also have to pick the right string, too! Imagine doing that without looking!

But as one learns the guitar, this need to look at what the hands are doing can have some adverse effects. First off, in order to see your fingers on the frets, you have to tilt the neck of the guitar at an angle toward you. This creates two problems: First, with your guitar at that much of an angle, you’ve placed it in such a way that you cannot get the tips of your fingers in an optimal position to fret the notes. The angle dictates that the fingers are more flattened than “on point,” which increases the likelihood that you’re going to blunt some of the adjacent strings even if you do manage to fret the note you want.

Having the guitar tilted so that you can see the neck also places your wrist in a very awkward place. Ideally, you want your wrist to be relatively straight when you’re playing. There’s no way you can get it close to straight when tipping the neck to favor your eyes.

As a beginner, you have a fine line to walk here. Initially you are going to have to see what you’re doing. But you want to develop confidence in your fingers as soon as possible so that you don’t have to rely on your eyes to know they are sitting on the right place on the fretboard. This is why so many teachers first walk students through the many variations of the “one finger one fret” exercises when starting out. It helps to build that confidence and also makes you realize that you don’t have to see where your fingers go all the time.

Just as important, these simple exercises work to start developing your ear as well as your sense of touch. With very little concentrated practice, it’s amazing how quickly one can both hear and feel when a note is wrong. And this becomes more important as you get more serious about your playing.

So if you’re just starting out, make it a habit to try to set your guitar straight, parallel to your upper body, just as soon as you can. Read any of Jamie Andreas’ articles and you’ll understand the importance of proper posture and position. Look at your fingers first and then set your guitar right and try to go by feel. Some people practice sitting in front of a mirror to help with being able to see. That’s okay, too, but again the point is to try to play without looking. After all, if you perform live you’re not going to be playing in front of a mirror! Yes, playing without looking will certainly be difficult at first, make no mistake about it.

But in the long run it will also make your learning easier. Whenever you run into a chord that you’re having difficulty fingering, merely setting yourself in good position, getting the fingers where they can optimally fret the strings can usually make a huge difference in playing a chord well. Not to mention cleanly!

Changing chords is another area where our eyes can slow us down. Not that they mean to do so, but when one watches ones fingers change chords the natural tendency is to slow things down and to have each finger work individually in order to better follow it with the eyes. It’s almost as if the fingers and eyes have a contract between them to make the signal to the brain better – “…first remove index finger and stretch it to the first fret and put in place, then remove ring finger…”

Ultimately, you want your fingers to work together as a unit to change chords (see Tom Hess’ excellent article Teaching Chords to Beginning Guitar Students for some tips on doing so) and not relying on your eyes to supervise your chord changes will make you quicker and also more confident about your abilities. Not to belabor the point again, but you are far more likely to develop both your ear and your sense of touch more quickly once you push yourself to the point of not watching your every move.

And developing both your ear and your confidence in your fingers are two important by-products of getting past using your eyes. Read any interview by any guitarist whose ability and skills you admire. When he or she talks about learning it’s inevitably about how he or she would listen to his or her own idols and then try to play what was heard. The interviews rarely delve into just how much work that involved, it’s almost as if the interviewer has no idea how much time was spent getting things wrong! That’s important to think about, because ear training takes work, and if you never set aside time to practice using your ears, you won’t get a sense of phrasing or rhythm that are essential to being a great lead guitarist.

Speaking of rhythm, how many guitarists do you know who describe beats in terms of “ups and downs?” And how many do you know who count out the beats? Generally speaking, which ones have you found to have a better sense of rhythm? Chances are likely it’s those who count. When you count out rhythms you internalize them. You feel them. You cannot feel “up and down,” you can only copy a motion you’re seeing. It may be that watching someone gets you started, but until you develop the ability to internalize a rhythm you’re always going to need someone to get you started.

Please understand, none of this is to say that I don’t think using your eyes isn’t important or that being a “visual learner” means you’ve no chance of becoming a musician. All that I’m trying to teach you is to not let a convenient label keep you from making real progress on the instrument you love making music that means the world to you.

Our brains are incredibly wonderful and yet intensely dangerous things. They are wonderful in that we ultimately learn about the world using all our senses. And we truly need to use all our brain whenever possible. Most of us can smell something burning long before we see it, just to use an everyday example.

The brain is dangerous when we talk ourselves into a handicap that we don’t necessarily have. Saying “I am a visual learner” or “I need to see my fingers to play” takes all the pressure off, so I don’t have to worry or work harder when I stumble. More importantly, if I say it enough my brain will believe it and I’ll never be able to prove it otherwise, even if I manage to get good in spite of myself. If I say instead, “I prefer to learn visually but this is a musical instrument so I’m going to have to work on being able to use my fingers and my ears as well as my eyes, maybe even instead of my eyes” then I am letting my brain know that I need its help to coordinate all my abilities so that I can make music.

Way too many guitarists end up giving up playing because they don’t use all the abilities their brains have access to. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.

Speaking of seeing, here’s a final thought – as you get more serious about playing and start performing either solo or as part of a group, or even if you simply just jam with some friends, you’re going to need your eyes both to communicate and to catch communications with your band mates and audience. You’ll totally miss out on that if you have to constantly keep watch on your hands.

Until our next Guitar Column…