Playing What You Hear

This month I want to delve into the mystical world of ‘playing what you hear’, what it really means, how I think it might work and how you can develop it.

So to start with, what is hearing music? Think about your favourite guitar solo in your mind. Can you hear the notes? Can you hear the rhythm? Can you imagine the tone? Like most things I think the learning to ‘hear in your imagination’ is a skill that can be practised by doing it, a little time each day imagining riffs, licks or lines is a great way to develop it. If you can sing what you hear in your imagination you can be sure it’s properly in there (and I highly recommend trying to sing, even if you’re not a confident singer).

So how does being able to ‘hear in your imagination’ help you play guitar better? I have a great little exercise I give to any new students you might like to try yourself that will explain it. Put Finger 1 on Fret 8 of String 3, and then play Happy Birthday while staying in position (not going up and down one string). We all know how that song goes so if you can’t do it then there is a disconnect between your ‘imagination’ and your hand which could use some work! If you found that one easy, pick another song that is slightly more difficult (jazz standard melody?) and try again somewhere else on the neck. If you can play all the melodies you can think of, then you’re doing it for real – you’re playing what you imagine and I believe that to be the purest of expression, congratulations!

If you found it difficult or impossible like most people do (and I did) then you can work on it, again, the solution is practice. I start almost every practice session with 10 minutes of ‘playing my imagination’ and over the last few years have seen great improvement, though still far from perfect. I have a list of songs that I add to all the time and I just pick one at random and put my hand somewhere on the neck and try to play it. Sometimes I find that actually, I can’t hear the melody clearly in my imagination so the problem is not with the hand/imagination connection but getting it right in my imagination to start off with! I’m also working on playing solos I know well in my imagination on the ‘wrong’ parts of the fretboard, for any of you that find basic melodies too easy!

There are quite a few things you can do to help this develop quickly. Transcribing is my favourite, you hear a note on the recording, find it on the neck, hear the next one, find it etc. So you’re playing what you hear in slow motion – but at the same time, you are installing the music correctly into your imagination too, which is important. After a while, you’ll find you can transcribe whole phrases because you recognize them and know where to make those sounds on the guitar neck. Doing Interval Ear Training is also something I highly recommend. You’ll find free courses on both on my site if you’re interested.

So please have a try at playing what you hear in your imagination, it’s a wonderful feeling when you can do it and well worth the effort! Good luck!


* This article originally appeared in Guitar Techniques Magazine [GT260]

Food For Thought