Playing music with your ears.

Pink Floyd’s David Gilour, famous for his feeling and touch on a guitar.

I have been playing guitar since I was 15, so it’s almost 15 years now. Ok, I have to admit that during half of that period, I didn’t spend a lot of time playing, because of what was going on in my life at the time. But still.

I long thought that to be a good player you had to master the technique, and the rest will follow. For years, I learnt all kind of highly technical songs or patterns, especially playing with my band Dream Theater covers. I’m definitely not done with that, because as in every realm, I love digging deep into the technique.

But I remember when I was 18 or 20, listening to an interview of Slash, and hearing him saying: “You’re a good guitar player when the notes you play follow the notes you hear inside your head.” I found that fascinating, but I have to admit I didn’t get what he meant.

if you have a poor technique with a great ability to play with your ear and thoughts, you can still create great and meaningful piece of music. The other way around is not true.

I understand now that all of the great musicians are great because of their ability to transpose their thoughts to an instrument, and it’s probably the same thing with any other form of art. Of course, the more you master the technique and the more you can be faithful to what arises in your head. But even if you have a poor technique with a great ability to play with your ear and thoughts, you can still create great and meaningful piece of music. The other way around is not true.

Training your ear, and teach your brain to transpose what it creates inside itself on a guitar neck is certainly a very difficult task, necessitating hundreds hours of practice. I had a flash a few days ago, when multi-instrumentist Eric Gillette did a live Q&A on Facebook, and insisted precisely on this point. It reminded me all of a sudden about that Slash interview, and made me connect the dots with some stuff I’ve heard by Steve Vai, David Gilmour or Frank Zappa.

90% of the difference between a great musician and a decent musician is made with the connection between thoughts-ears-fingers. 10% is the technique.

After all these years, I should have been able to transpose thoughts easily on a guitar neck, but that’s not the case. Of course, when the melody I made up is from pentatonic scales or other “simple” modes, I can manage to play more or less what I have in mind, but when more complex melodies arise, I have to break it down patiently, and search for the right notes on the neck. That should not be that way, after all of these years.

Starting from today, my biggest musical work will be to connect the notes I create in my mind to the frets of my guitars necks. That’s a required milestone for bringing my playing to the next level.