Why the ear is your most important tool…

Great music educators and players Leni Tristano and Charlie Banacos believe that having a good ear is the most important tool a musician can possess.

In this article I'm going to dispel a few myths around tone deafness and perfect pitch and tell you what a 'good ear' is and why you need it.

Am I tone deaf?

Tone deafness has nothing to do with actual deafness but it is in fact a condition called 'amusia'. It has been estimated that around 5% of the population are tone deaf. Are you one of them? Probably not. If you really enjoy listening to music then you are not tone deaf. Tone deaf people describe listening to music as something akin to hearing pots & pans banging about.

So if you love your music but think you maybe tone deaf it's more than likely all you need is a bit of guidance and training to learn how to use your ear.

Do I need perfect pitch?

'Absolute Pitch' or 'Perfect Pitch' as it's more commonly called is the rare ability to name a note without using any other note as a reference. Notice I used the word rare, not many have it and it can't be developed and even if it could it's more a party trick than a requisite skill for a musician. "Whats the note of that car exhaust"?

You may have seen methods selling the idea of perfect pitch as the holy grail, it's not and what they are selling is a pseudo form of perfect pitch that takes a lot of work to see minimal results that disappear when you don't do the exercises. You either have it or you don't and it's not important. Don't waste your time.

Developing your musical ear

'Relative Pitch' is what every musician should strive for, the ability to hear a note or interval against a given pitch or reference note. Everyone, unless you are truly tone deaf can develop 'Relative Pitch'.

Having good relative pitch will help you to play whatever you hear, whether it be some idea you have or something you are listening to. All of the great modern players have a good feel for relative pitch whether they know it or not. They all learned at some stage by working out songs and solos from the recordings of their heroes. They didn't use TAB's, they used their ears.

All students should work out music in this way; work out the melody of the song and be able to play it in multiple positions on the guitar. Then work out the chords, if you hit a roadblock then develop your skills with relative pitch to define the root movement of the chord progression, usually defined by the bass. Once you have this then add the chords. After you've done this then work on the solo if there is one.

The most important thing to know here is it doesn't have to be right, it's more important to get in and have a go at working out a song than getting it right. The more often you do it the better you get, I often come back to songs and find something I missed before.

Ear Training

As you can do exercises to train the body you can also train the ear. There are quite a few approaches to this and I've developed one that I am now starting to teach based around 'Relative Pitch', melody, hearing chords and hearing chord progressions.

As I said previously, you will get a lot of this stuff naturally if you keep working out tunes but the beauty of the training is it focusses you and gives you a process to work by. It's still important to work out the tune but now you will have some tools to help.

...and it doesn't take much of your time. Just a few minutes at the start of a practice session will be enough to make considerable gains if you do it consistently.

Like training the body and the mind, training the ear is an ongoing pursuit. We can always get better at it.


What is the ‘CAGED’ system?

The 'CAGED' system is a way of visualising the guitar that gives you a point of reference for chords and scales in any position.

The system  breaks the guitar down into 5 positions built on the basic (cowboy) chord shapes C, A, G, E and D. It connects the chords in that order as you move up the neck hence the name 'CAGED'.

'CAGED' is not style specific, jazz master Joe Pass talks about organising the guitar around these shapes as do many of the rock, country, bluegrass and acoustic legends.

In my playing and teaching I have found this to be the most efficient method to set up core structures which allow for a solid, musical approach. I can move out from 'CAGED' but it is always home base.

As the guitar in standard tuning is really built to accommodate these shapes it only makes sense to use them as your point of reference when you want or need to move up the neck.

The system is fairly simple to understand but like all things guitar it takes a bit of work to get comfortable with. The way I use and teach the 'CAGED' system a lot of the trouble people have understanding modes is no longer a problem. It's all about the music.

The basic scale system is shown in my book 'Scale Shapes', which is available as a free download from the store on this site. Of course this is only the raw material and you will need some help to apply it and use it as a part of your guitar playing.

If you want to understand how best to apply 'CAGED' to your playing give me a call or drop me an email and let's see if we can set up a time to get together.

Cheers, Ross

A bit of music…

Here are a few clips that I've enjoyed watching recently.

The great Tommy Emmanuel with John Knowles, Tommy just loves what he does and it comes through in his playing and in his life. If you are lucky enough to know or have met Tommy his personality is infectious and he has time for everyone, I think one of his goals is to know every guitar player in the world.

Tommy plays Rudolph

This is a great concept and Lyle Lovett is just the guy to pull it off. Great songs, great playing and sense of humour to go with it.

Lyle Lovett - Tiny Desk Concert

Live from Daryl's House, great online TV show this one featuring Joe Walsh. The clip is of Joe doing his classic 'Rocky Mountain Way' with Daryl and the boys. If you haven't checked out 'Live from Daryl's House' then do yourself a favour, there is so much good music in the archives.

Joe Walsh Live from Daryl's


Another Year…

Well, as we come to the end of 2012 here's wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. The plan had been to get some video and interviews up in 2012 and looking back at some of my notes it seems I have missed a few deadlines. Where did the time go? Promise there will be some good things up early in 2013.

Take care over the holiday period and I look forward to catching up with you all in the new year.

Cheers, Ross

Can you help me with this

I've recently added a new Facebook page 'Guitar Lessons with Ross Helmot' and am trying to get as many likes as I can to build the profile. So if you like the lessons you have had or are having with me could you click on the like button on the home page of my web site it would be much appreciated.

Cheers, Ross