How to Play in Any Style: Listening

Making a living playing guitar is difficult. To be successful as a guitarist you must be able to play in multiple styles, all at a high level. Playing in multiple styles goes beyond playing the correct groove or notes but also includes sound. A guitarist must be able to replicate the vast timbres present in each style.

While talking to a student about this issue I was trying to come up with a “take home” or tool he could use. What struck me was the idea of a listening book.

A listening book is a journal that contains information about each genre you might be asked to play in. Information would consist of tone, feel, chord inversions, solos, scale use, the role of the guitar in the ensemble, and on and on. For example, if I am asked to play something in a Buddy Holly style I can reference my listening journal for Buddy Holly characteristics. I would have recorded guitar tone, chord realization (open chords, barre chords, triads or seventh chords, etc.). This information set me up to replicate Buddy Holly’s guitar style as close as possible.

Here are steps to creating a listening journal:

1) Buy a journal small enough to fit in your guitar case
You want the journal to be portable. If you cannot recall from memory what guitar effects you need for a particular style you would have your journal with you.

2) Keep your information compartmentalized
Have different sections for different styles. Have a section for R & B, Country, Rock, Jazz (listening ideas below). Number each page and create a table of contents inside the front cover. You need to be able to access the information quickly.

3) Changing feel and sound is better than playing verbatim
It takes years to become a chameleon guitar player. Until you gain years of expertise play what you can incorporating as much genre specific information as you can. For example, if you only feel comfortable playing pentatonic scales then do that until you gain the knowledge. Playing a pentatonic scale in a jazz style can work, just don’t fill the solo full of Stevie Ray Vaughn type bends, it is not in the style. Slide in and out of those notes, as that is keeping with the style.

4) Start with the big names
Spend time upfront listening to the big names in each genre. These big name artists do not have to be guitarists, and most likely shouldn’t. How was guitar used on Carol King’s Tapestry record? What was the guitar player doing behind Elvis? The Edge wouldn’t be The Edge without what guitar pedal? Some of the best guitar players are on records you wouldn’t expect. Think here of Steve Lukather’s guitar work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller album. You can learn a great deal by zoning in on the guitar parts on major albums by major artists.

5) Listen intently
We listen to music many different ways depending on our level of interest and distraction. Listen closely for 20-30min to a singular artist and song. It takes many hours of listening before you can pick up the formulas that each style contains. So you also need to listen passively, while driving for example. The point here is listen a great deal to one genre and artist.

6) Where to start
Here are some suggestions to start with:
-R&B (Aretha Franklin, Smoky Robinson, Stevie Wonder – though we could place him in a few other genres as well)
-Classic Rock (Eagles, Aerosmith, Zepplin, Leonard Skynard, Mountain)
-Rock (Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, U2, Guns & Roses)
-New Wave/Contemporary Rock (New Order, Morrissey, Arcade Fire, Radiohead – I could also place them in other genres)
-Country (Vince Gil, Brad Paisley, Ricky Skaggs, Garth Brooks, Willie Nelson)
-Jazz (Joe Pass, Count Basie, Jim Hall, Pat Metheny)
-Smooth Jazz (George Benson, Fourplay)
-Adult Contemporary (Carol King, James Taylor, The Carpenters)

Musical styles are always in flux. The trick to being a successful guitarist is knowing how to sound as closed to the style as possible.

What artists would you add to the list?


Has one comment to “How to Play in Any Style: Listening”

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  1. Cole Rhoades - January 30, 2013

    Julian Lage would be one that I would add.He plays a tune known as “telegram” that is quite amazing! It shows how important it is to articulate why you titled a certain piece/tune the way you did. Plus, a guitarist can pick up several genres in just about 8 minutes of “Telegram’s” insanity.

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