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The Simplest Tip To Improve Your Guitar Playing - The Art of Listening

Updated on July 10, 2011

Franklin P. Jones once said: “You are what you eat”. The other day when I was messing about with my guitar, something occurred to me: “You are what you listen”.

Just like how eating too many fattening foods can make you fat, what you listen to determines what kind of a guitarist you are.

The power of listening is hugely underrated amongst the guitar community. The emphasis has always been to practise the guitar chops, learn the scales and learn the guitar solo from x guitarist. No one really talks about listening with as much zest. You might hear some serious guitar student spending hours perfecting that lick or getting the sweep picking right, but you never really hear people saying they’ll spend hours listening.

Before I continue, I feel I should clarify something. By listening – I’m not simply referring to listening to the same old songs, the same old guitarists or the same old bands that you’ve always been listening to. That’s hardly going to make you grow as a guitarist. The listening I’m talking about is far more complicated than that. I call it the art of listening, or the how to of listening.


I believe there are four rules to this art.

Rule #1 – Dig Deep and Far

The first rule in the art of listening is to be what I call a musical historian. Many times, a lot of beginners simply get stuck in listening to what’s currently popular, or the classic songs and bands that everyone knows – i.e. the cool stuff. They simply fail to go beyond the surface when it comes to listening.

What I’m about to say is going to be hugely unpopular amongst a lot of guitarists but I feel it’s the truth. It saddens me these days that people think that the guitar revolves around only Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Slash and so forth i.e. that the guitar community has come to a stand-still since the times of these guitarists. Whilst these guys have certainly contributed immensely to the guitar world, they are no means the only players.

The truth is, the guitar community has moved light years ahead since the days of Hendrix. What was considered breathtaking and revolutionary guitar playing then now seems rather plain. What saddens me is that we have more talented musicians and guitarists than ever before but these are failed to be acknowledged by the mass of audiences. By talented, I don’t just mean shredders and people with awe-inspiring chops – I mean people who also possess great musical writing abilities too.

Similarly, you can also make the mistake of listening to the new stuff and miss out on the old gems which are just waiting to be discovered. For the shredders, who says old guitarists played slow stuff? You think Yngwie Malmsteen is the god of shred? Jazzers such as John McLaughlin and Pat Martino have been ripping it up at break neck speeds on stage decades before Malmsteen – whilst playing over complicated chord changes that require a bit of thinking too. You think Stevie Ray Vaughan was the best blues player? Check out who influenced his blues playing. Players such as Buddy Guy and Albert King laid the foundations of modern blues phrasing and warrant some much deserved attention too. 

In fact one of the things that I like to do is to find out who influenced some of these big name players and listen to their stuff. If such musicians were able to influence and shape the playing of the great players – surely, they must be worth checking out.


Rule #2 – Variety Is the Name of The Game

Going back to the analogy of “You are what you eat”, it becomes obvious that the music one listens to will determine what kind of a guitarist one will become. Simply put, if all you listen to garbage, then don’t expect your guitar playing skills to be amazing. Similarly, restricting your musical interests to only one or two genres is not conductive of growth as an all-round guitarist.

People in this society have a lot of self-labelling. Guitarists unfortunately are not immune from this phenomenon. You see guitarists branding themselves as being purely metal or shred. They have no interest in the other genres of music and are even dismissive of these other genres such as blues or jazz, despite not even giving them a fair chance. Similarly, classical guitarists, as noble and almighty as these guys are, can sometimes be quite stubborn-minded when it comes to electric guitar playing.

Some might argue that it’s a guitarist’s choice to be part of a particular niche. I totally respect this – in fact I would encourage it. After all, there’s only so much we can know. It is impossible for a guitarist to become a great classical guitarist, a great jazz guitarist and a great heavy metal guitarist all at the same time. You would simply have a melt-down! However, by not investigating and listening to some of these other genres you’re missing out on things you could have learnt. For example, a heavy metal guitarist could learn a lot from blues guitarists in terms of licks and phrasing during guitar soloing. Similarly, jazz guitarists could also learn a thing or two about finger-picking from classical guys. You may not necessary want to embrace these other genres, but at least you gave it a shot. 

And who knows – you might even like it. When I was a teen, all I ever wanted to play was shred and neoclassical. I practically worshipped the likes of Paul Gilbert and Malmsteen. However, one thing which made me different from the other kids in the block was that I was open to new styles of music. I was hungry for learning. After a chance encounter with a Pat Martino album, I never looked back. Today, jazz is my favourite genre. 10 years ago, I would never have guessed that I would end up playing jazz.

Rule #3 – Listen To Other Instruments

Musicians tend to have a bad habit of becoming immersed in only the instrument that they play. For example, how many guitarists out there do you think spend time listening to instrumental music that is not guitar? Probably not a lot. This is a real shame because we can learn a tremendous amount from other musicians. One thing which I consistently notice amongst good guitarists (those with good phrasing) is their diverse musical tastes. For example, many jazz guitarists frequently cite horn players as their main influences. After taking this approach on, I too feel that listening to other musicians has greatly benefited my guitar playing. Guitarists tend to be stuck in a rut of playing the same guitar-sounding licks, where hammer-on’s, pull-off’s and bends are abused to death. Listening to some of these other musicians could help inspire us to break out of these habits and learn some pretty cool new licks. I regularly listen to piano players such as Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea in order to get me thinking out the box and come up with new musical ideas.

Another reason to listen to other musicians is that you reach a much more profound appreciation for music in general. You discover songs and artists whom you might have never discovered. For example, one of my favourite all time compositions is a Chick Corea tune called “You’re Everything” - wonderfully written and played, but containing no guitar in it all! At the end of the day, I feel that by diversifying your musical interests, not only will you become a better all-round guitarist, you’ll also become an all-round musician, which in my opinion, is more crucial.

Rule #4 – Be an Active Listener

The fourth rule of the art of listening is all about making use of the things you hear. You’ve heard about the idea of being an active listener. But how does it apply to us guitarists and musicians in general? Being an active listener simply means to learn as we hear, to take in the good points of the things we hear and to see if we can adapt some of the musical ideas to our own guitar playing. It goes beyond simply appreciating the music. I like to think of it as harnessing the music that we listen to.

Those of you who read my guitar blog, will know that I’m a big believer in the one-lick-a-day philosophy. The gist of it is to learn one and only one new lick a day, spending the whole day internalizing the lick and practise making use of that lick in improvisations. The biggest source of learning for my licks of the day isn’t from any website, tab or book – it is the music that I hear. When I hear a lick that I like (which doesn’t necessarily have to be a guitar lick), I make a note of it to return to it later and transcribe it. This transcribing process also helps you to develop a good ear – one of the essential tools for good musical improvisation (i.e. the ability to hear things in your head and then play it).

So I urge you – be an active listener. When you hear something you like, understand why you like it and see if there’s anything there that you can adapt and use in your own guitar compositions or guitar improvisations. You can do this for just about any aspect of music – rhythmic motifs, guitar tone, a certain guitar chord progression or lick. You will be amazed at the things you pick up when you adopt this philosophy in your listening.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Just what I needed tonight. Great thinking. Loved the information in this article; I will definitely be broadening my listening music. Thanks.

    • wannabwestern profile image

      Carolyn Augustine 

      8 years ago from Iowa

      I am no guitarist but I have always loved music. You have written this article in such a way that it has a universal application. Kind of like a Zen and the art of guitar listening. We can all benefit from broadening our outlook and listening more carefully to the music that surrounds us-both the literal music and the figurative. Interesting read! Thanks!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Then in adition u are what you want.


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