In the old days, (1960’s), when an aspiring rock guitarist wanted to copy those licks that Hendrix or Clapton was playing, they had to take that vinyl record and wear it out by picking up the needle and playing the same spot over and over again. One of the tricks was to slow the music down by playing the 78 record at 45rpm’s, so the individual notes could be heard more distinctly. You hoped that the music would get into your ears and fingers before the record wore out!
It was true then, and it is true now, that it is absolutely essential for the practicing musician to get the music into their brain and body through the ear, first and foremost. This is especially true for any kind of rock music. It cannot be learned (as can classical), just by having the notes or tab in front of you. Like flamenco guitar (another “folk” or homegrown style), there are too many nuances to the style, too many details that can’t actually be written down exactly. This music must be heard, and absorbed through the ear.
It is our crystal clear conception of the music, each note with all its qualities of tone, length, rhythmic position, articulation and volume that act as the guide to our brain as it directs our muscles to reproduce that music. Often, the root of a player’s inability to play something correctly is they simply do NOT have this crystal clear conception of the music itself, each and every note.
These facts have been appreciated and stated by many great musicians over the years. Paco de Lucia, the flamenco wizard with his blazing speed has said “the secret is in learning how to listen”! You wouldn’t think it was such a big secret, since we’re all supposed to be listening with those two ears we have, especially when we practice and play. But, we don’t. And when someone like Paco says something so simple, my advice is to, well, listen!
One of the ways I developed my ability to “listen” and to “hear” with the degree of subtlety and precision required for more advanced playing, was to begin the practice of slowing down to half speed with the aid of a micro-cassette recorder, everything I played and practiced, and also, doing the same with the playing of the great players I admired. The improvement and benefit I obtained has been absolutely essential to my development as a player, in short, I don’t think I would play at the level I do without making this a part of my practice approach.
If I was practicing a fast scale, I would play it, then play it back at half speed, examining every note to make sure it was right in all its aspects. Of course, often I would discover that the note wasn’t even there, which would lead to a whole series of investigations as to why it wasn’t there (where were the fingers that were responsible for playing that note, why were they where they were?).
Developing Ear Speed, Learning To Listen
Over time, I noticed that I was developing what I called “ear speed”, the ability to hear and distinguish all the qualities of a note, even though the notes were extremely fast (which really means that the notes are extremely “short” in length). In other words, because of my habit of slowing things down as part of my working procedure, my ear was getting “sharp”, and it reflected in my playing.
I found that the “ear speed” was translating into “finger speed”, as my brain was able to give more precise instructions to the fingers as to when and how each note was to be played. Of course, physical tensions must still be uncovered and removed during practice, or the fingers will not be able to respond to the instructions anyway.
One of the problems in copying our favorite electric guitar player is that so much of the music is so fast, it is quite impossible to make any sense out of it whatsoever. Even with the tab staring at you, the ear and brain often cannot really organize the sounds into discrete units that can be comprehended, digested, and processed into the fingers through persistent, correct practice. Of course, the greater the gap between your present level of ability and the difficulty of the music, the more this will be the case.
For awhile now, I have been taking various pieces in my repertoire, and assembling from my CD collection recordings of the same piece by different artists, and slowing down certain sections to half speed with a micro-cassette recorder.
It is amazing how you begin to get a handle on those incredibly fast scale passages when you hear them over and over at half speed. You can begin to actually “see” and “feel” the notes after awhile. Its like your mind and awareness are able to get into the space between the notes, making you aware of the beginning and the end of each note, and what the body actually does to create the beginning and the end of each note. I maintain that this is the same awareness the player who is playing the fast scale passage actually has, although it may be subconscious.
It is also very enlightening to hear the different solutions, in terms of phrasing and fingering that different players will use for the same passage. I remember one particular examination of a passage that taught me a lesson. I was working on the Villa Lobos Etude #1, and trying out different fingering solutions. There is a G note on the 8th fret of the 2nd string that must be played right before an extremely fast shift to 12th position.
I was curious how John Williams (who plays the 16th note passage at 144bpm) played this part, so I made a loop of the section to study it. Quite to my surprise, I was able to hear at ½ speed that in fact, John Williams did NOT make this shift from the fretted G note on the 2nd string. Instead, he changed the music, making the Gnote and octave lower, thereby enabling him to play an OPEN G note, giving him a lot more time to make that needed shift to the 12 fret. Later, studying Segovia’s recording the same way, I found he did the same thing.I wonder how many players are wearing themselves out trying to do things they THINK the great players are doing! After studying this part in that manner, my ear speed improved to the point I could hear the note quite distinctly without it being slowed down.
If you are an intermediate player who wishes to improve your speed and precision, I highly recommend you begin to listen to other players, and especially yourself, at half speed so that you can really hear what you are doing when you play!