Listen and Learn – How to Listen To A Band and Improve Your Guitar Playing

rick honeyboy hartIt took me a while to realize that when someone listens to a piece of music they don’t necessarily hear the same things I do. I learned this fact when I gave bandmates a piece of music to learn by listening to it. They didn’t always hear the same details in the song. Things like dynamics, rhythm accents, and even the general groove of the song may not be “heard” by others.

This is no fault of theirs. Hearing the details in a song’s arrangement is a learning process. It takes time and hard listening until you get it.

Now this becomes problematic when I want someone to learn a new song or a new part. I usually hope that they can “hear” what I want them to play so that it won’t take as much rehearsal time to learn the song.

But sometimes when I say, “leave a little space after that G# note” they don’t know what I’m saying even though it seemed clear to me on the recording I gave them.

Inevitably I have to breakdown the song and go over the recording until they “get” what I’m talking about during a rehearsal session. That’s just the way it is… no big deal. That’s what rehearsing is all about anyways.

Now believe me, it took me years to be able to hear the nuances of an arrangement in the song. This didn’t come naturally to me.

Things like how the bass part should sync with and reinforce the kick drum part, and how the verse section parts should be quieter and simpler than a chorus section… or just how the volume of a song and even the tempo must change throughout the song to fit the emotional level of each section. That’s what moves a song from being good to making it great.

So learning the inner workings of a song was a matter of listening to a lot of music. Over time I began to be able to hear how the band created the tension and resolution that makes a song great. More about that later.

Playing With Great Musicians

But on the other hand, if you get to play with great musicians, then often these nuances are already understood by them. In fact, they sometimes have a much more sophisticated sense of the details than I do. They may even make great suggestions that I never even thought of. If that’s the case I just thank my lucky stars and listen and learn.

But even when you play with great musicians, you may have a song or an arrangement you’ve written that you want played a particular way. At this point you may have to teach the other band members how to play the arrangement. This is when it sure helps to know a little music theory so you can communicate your ideas. After all, music theory is just a frame of reference for what’s happening musically. It gives you a common vocabulary so you can talk to each other about the music. The concepts of notes and keys and time signatures are just ways to communicate something that’s happening in the music.

But if you are not inclined to learn detailed music theory, or how to read musical charts, the next best thing is to know how a song should be played inside and out. The best way to do that is by listening closely to a lot of music.

joe bonamassaHow To Listen

This is the key… no pun intended! A lot of guitarists may only listen to the guitar parts of a song. To go beyond being a “guitar player” and becoming a “musician” you have to learn what all the instruments are doing in a song… or at least should be doing.

I’m a band person. I love bands where everyone listens to each other and the song is the focus. The players make room for each other and there is a real synergy happening and the music becomes better than the sum of it’s parts. The bands that do that for me are pretty rare.

In the blues today I like bands like Anson Funderburgh and The Rockets, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Rod Piazza and The Mighty Flyers, and B.B. King’s bands. If you listen closely to these bands you’ll see that none of the musicians over-play or get in each other’s way. They play their role in the song and support whatever the lead instrument or vocalist is doing. This is the sign of a great band.

Dynamics

I’m a big believer in dynamics in a song. Dynamics is when a song’s volume changes throughout the song. But dynamics is more than just raising and lowing the songs volume. The dynamics should be connected to the emotional level of the song.

Think of the song moving through “gears” from low to high, and maybe back again, and each part, whether verse, chorus, or lead break, has a different part being played by each musician. And every song should have points where it “comes down” to establish the emotional baseline.

During a lead the accompaniment should start softly and then support the player as they shift into higher and higher gears during the solo (see the video below to see what I mean). In fact, I find that the rhythm section is what is critical to make this happen. The parts they play can make the lead seem more intense, when actually it’s the backing players that make it happen.

The musical goal of moving through these gears is to create tension and resolution in the song. This interplay between tension and resolution is the basis of all great music. You can learn more about what I mean on this page.

Learning Dynamics

Learning dynamics is not that hard. It’s really just a matter of listening. Start by listening to the great bands and see how they arrange songs. Then as you play with your band mates listen closely to what they are doing.

The point is, that a song should always be creating tension or resolution as the song progresses. The parts being played do that. So when you listen to a song, look for where the song creates tension and where it creates resolution. Then dissect the parts being played by all the instruments.

And remember, sometimes the best part you can play as a guitarist is silence.

Here’s a video that demonstrates what I’m talking about. This is the great young band Southern Hospitality playing a shuffle. Notice how critical the rhythm section is, particularly the drummer, in creating the tension and resolution and moving the song through the gears I talked about.

Notice particularly, how the drummer, Chris Peat, just sits in the groove and stays there… no fills… no pointless accents. This is “playing the song.” And great drummers like Chris are hard to find.

And don’t ever say that The Blues is simple… this is very hard to do and not many bands can do this.

Southern Hospitality Plays “The Palladium Shuffle”