You may learn more if you listen by Boyd Scott Kulick
Do you hear what I hear?
Some time ago, a student of mine handed me a CD of a current progressive metal band and asked if I would teach him a song from it on the guitar. I took the CD from him, put it into my stereo and played about the first twenty seconds of the track. I paused the song, and proceeded to d-tune my low E string to D. Then I began to play the opening riff to the song. He looked at me in question, shaking his head with a smirk on his face, and said "I don't get it!" "How is it that you know to tune down and than play it without seeing how it is played, or without sheet music?" An excellent question I thought. Something some musicians might not think about, but do anyway. I told him that it certainly isn't a gift that I was born with, but that it was a skill that can be developed more quickly on your own, and not something I could show him.
So then, how do you learn to play what you hear?
Let me start by saying that I was drawn towards music at a very young age. My older sisters and mother all had a variety of albums that they would play; John Denver, Elvis, The Beatles, Kiss. I can assure that these artists had little to do with my style of playing, but the variety of the music's sound; the notes, that is what I paid close attention to. What really played a role in my style, though I didn't realize it until almost two decades later, was the day my father took us to the drive-in theater to see Star Wars. I was about 4 years old, and had no real idea of what the movie was about, but the soundtrack grabbed my attention immediately. I was so drawn in, and moved by the power of the sound that I asked my mother to buy the soundtrack from the movie for me. I must have listened to it a hundred times. So I would say that my first real influence was John Williams. My sister had a piano and an acoustic guitar that I made noise on for several years trying to imitate what I heard. When I was in grammar school I began to take the guitar more seriously, but I struggled, like most students, with reading music, chord progressions, and general string manipulation. I actually had more success with playing the notes that I heard, rather than reading tab, or sheet music. After many years of being a poor (to possibly average) guitarist I decided to play my favorite movies on my VCR and try to accompany the soundtracks with my guitar. Countless hours were spent, but before long, I could nearly play note for note along with the scores and songs. Over a few years I spent playing along with TV shows, movies, classical composers and my favorite bands. What I began to realize was that by listening closely, I had learned many of the things I had struggled with before, like chord progression, song structure, improvising, scale fragments and modes, and key changes. I would never suggest that music books and lessons are not effective, because they can be. What I am saying is that what I learned about songwriting and actual playing style didn't come from a book, or from the few years of lessons that took, it came from practical application. I practiced every note that I heard on every position of the fretboard for so many years that before long I was writing entire songs. Not always good songs, but my peers would always be the judge of that. Composing, for me that is, has always come from a feeling that is transformed into notes. When I listen to music I don't just listen, I hear. Whether it is a note, or just sound made from objects striking other objects to create a feeling, or emotion; try to imitate what you hear with your guitar as much as possible and with patience and determination you will be a successful musician.
What can make you sound as good as the musicians you love?
PRACTICE! Practice what you see, what you hear, and what you feel. It is truly the only way to play as well as you'd like to. Practice and drive will always promote progress. But aware of the 'obsession to mastery.' The catch is that you may never be satisfied with your ability, because the better you get the better you will wish to become. There is so much to hear, and so much more to learn that the climb to perfection can seem, at times, impossible, though many of our music idols are close to what we think is perfection. I would like to think that being close to perfection is a goal that most anyone would want to achieve, and that many people admire those who are nearly perfect. Practice is said to make you perfect, and I have never met anyone who regrets the time they have put in to what they are passionate about. Success however, is entirely up to you. If you continue to try you will always improve. You can only fail if you stop trying. Even if you think you are awful, if you practice, it is impossible for you to get worse.
How will you know if you are successful?
Success is not always measured by money, though most would agree that it is a good benchmark for measuring success. There are many levels of success. Success is a feeling, quite often of something your are proud of. Whether it is a song, an album, or an entire symphony for some. You are successful when you can look back (or listen) at/to something and say "I am really proud of that." Much like a parent does with a child. You will know success when it happens, and the higher your set your standards, the greater the feeling will be when it does happen. What drives me to want to be successful is the closer I get to succeeding the more positive I feel about myself in everything that I do. Those positive feelings drive you to work harder, and in turn raises the bar for your next level of success.
Frustration is normal. If it was easy, everyone would play well. Don't ever let anyone tell you that you can't do something. The fact is that you will do it, or you won't. You can accomplish anything if you push yourself. Thousands of others have succeeded, why not you? People will often try to tell you what you can and cannot do because they may have had failed attempts at success in their own lives. You will be as good as your will allows you to be, and if you don't set limits for yourself you will be the best you can be. My suggestion to you is go pick up that guitar right now. Practice, experiment, and think outside of the conventional ways of learning guitar. Steve Vai and Joe Satriani have had a great deal of success with their unconventional approach to the guitar.
"Do whatever it takes, natural or unnatural, to improve on you playing ability, and you will succeed!"