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When I improvise on the guitar, I rely too much in theory and muscle memory. However, I can do creative vocal improvisations.

I want to be able to let my inner ear command my guitar playing as well.

Is there any specific ear training method for this? Where should I start?

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    Practice, practice, practice. First "hear" the melody inside your head. Then sing the melody out loud. Then sing along with the melody as you are picking each note on the guitar. Listen to jazz guitarist George Benson and rock bassist Oteil Burbridge -- they do this all the time. – user1044 Mar 30 '15 at 14:07
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There are two components involved here. One is indeed ear training, and the other one is knowing your instrument well, i.e. being able to produce any melody as effortlessly as you do with your voice. And for this second part, you do not need to consciously know the intervals as long as you intuitively find the right notes on your instrument.

But anyway, start with intervals. First try to be able to recognize them by ear. Make sure you can play any interval with every possible fingering on the guitar. Then train yourself to produce intervals with your voice. This makes sure that you've really mastered them. Play some random note on the guitar and let it ring. Decide which interval you want to produce, and then sing the chosen interval (up or down) from the note you're playing. Then you check if you're correct by playing the second note of the interval on the guitar. This makes sure that you got it right, but it also makes sure that you're able find the intervals on the guitar.

Another good practice is to play simple melodies that you know well without preparation (and without sliding until you hit the right note). Try to force yourself to avoid patterns that you know well. So e.g., just play the melody on one string or on two strings, play it in different octaves, start the first note with your index finger, with your pinky, etc. Then move on to more complex melodies. Play as slowly as necessary, but stick to the correct rhythm.

Since you're one of the lucky ones who actually have the melodies in your head (you said you can do vocal improvisation), just start a backing track, come up with a melody and sing it, and then figure out the melody on your guitar. If you made a mistake, find out which interval you got wrong, and what the reason was: either you didn't hear it correctly or you knew what it was but you couldn't produce it on the guitar. Based on this information, go back to practicing that interval.

You can do this all day long, even if there's no guitar around. Say you hear a melody (either outside or inside your head), then you just imagine how you would play it on the guitar. If you have doubts, analyze the melody in terms of intervals and see if you were right or not.

One last exercise that in my experience helps a lot for the ear training part is playing the low E string and let it ring (wait, that's not it yet). Then, without looking, you play a random note on one of the higher strings (while the low E still rings out). Now you name the note (and/or its function), still without looking. The octave doesn't matter. So if you happen to hit the 10th fret on the high E string (without knowing, because you didn't look), you should say or think "flat 7". Then you look and confirm you're correct.

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  • I think you are right, it's not just ear training. Thank you for the answer, I will work on that. – Costagero Mar 29 '15 at 19:30
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    I like the exercise of playing a melody on one string and I find it especially fun on a fretless instrument as you focus on feeling the distances rather than guessing where the frets are. – topo Reinstate Monica Mar 29 '15 at 21:52
  • "One of the lucky ones"? Are you saying it's a rare skill to be able to make up melodies in one's head? – MdaG Feb 25 '16 at 15:17
  • @MdaG: I meant that not everybody can make up nice melodies on the fly over chord changes. It usually takes time and practice to hear melodies over chord changes; the more complex the chord progression the more time it usually takes to spontaneously come up with good melodies. – Matt L. Feb 25 '16 at 17:34
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I would call what you want to do - playing melodies by ear. It's easier to do on piano because of the logical way the keyboard is laid out. Ascending one key is always a semitone higher, descending lower.

Piano was the first instrument I learned to play and I quickly developed the ability to play any melody by ear on the piano. With guitar, it took ten times as long to learn where the notes were played.

Guitar fretboard is not as intuitive when you play a melody using multiple strings. Plus, on guitar there are several places to play the exact same note in the same octave. And the string you play the next note on determines which direction you move on the fretboard - up or down, to find the note you are looking for. Then in standard tuning you get tripped up by that darn b string that is not tuned in fourths like the others.

It takes deliberate practice playing on all the strings to train your brain to intuitively know the different places you can find the note you hear in your head. Pick a familiar melody like Happy Birthday that starts on the lowest note in the song. Play the song starting with the lowest possible note on the guitar (low E). Play then melody just on the low E string until you can play it from memory without mistakes. Next start in the same place but play the melody on the low E string and A string until you can do it without mistakes. Then repeat this exercise using the E, A, and D strings.

Then repeat the exercise but use the open A string as the starting note and play it using one, two and finally three strings. Then start on open D then open G string. When the b string becomes a part of the equation, you will notice that there is a relative shift in the position of the notes because it is not tuned in fourths like the other strings.

Next start playing the melody somewhere in the middle of the fret board and play the starting note on the low E string, then proceed by playing the next higher note on the same string and then moving to the A string and using the D string for the highest notes. Then play it by going to the A string to find the note after the starting note which requires your fretting hand to move in the opposite direction. Repeat this exercise starting on the A string, D, string and G string.

Continue playing this melody starting at different places on the fret board (play it in all 12 keys) and using different combination of strings and patterns until you can play this song without mistakes no matter where you start.

By now you should be able to play a different melody to a different song and still find the notes no matter where you start. Once you confirm your ability to do this for any melody, you will be able to translate the melodies you hear in your head to your guitar - in any octave.

This is a process that will take some time. Just add a segment at a time into your practice routine and don't move to the next segment until you master the one you are on. It won't take long to master the single string version and you may be able to skip this on subsequent single strings after mastering it on the low E. Eventually you will get where you want to be.

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    interestingly, I have exactly the opposite view on this - as I learned violin, then guitar way before piano, I find it obvious where notes are going to be on stringed instruments, but really difficult on a piano, with its odd key spacings etc. Even on my guitars with odd tunings, I find a third or a fifth a simple visualisation. – Doktor Mayhem Mar 30 '15 at 17:28
  • still upvoted you though, as it's a good answer :-) – Doktor Mayhem Mar 30 '15 at 17:28
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    @DrMayhem Interesting. I wonder if some people find certain instruments more intuitive based on what they learned on first or because of the way their brain works. To me keyboard seems so much more straight forward because you go north to play a higher note, south for a lower and the distance is consistent for each possible interval. Another interesting theory arising out of your comment is that learning a stringed instrument on a fretless instrument (violin) would require you to learn in a different manner than on a fretted instrument where you could learn patterns based on fret numbers. – Rockin Cowboy Mar 31 '15 at 13:02
  • Except for "one note, one key", I don't think the piano is inherently more logical than guitar. Take for example how the physical distance correlates to the intervals. On guitar (except for the odd B string, or if you use other tunings) a major third is always the same physical distance. On piano? Not so much. C to E is the exact same physical distance as E to G, but they are not the same interval, one is major third and one is minor third. – Johan Oct 31 '19 at 13:37
  • @Johan Good point. I should clarify that it was more difficult for me (having first learned to play by ear on keyboard) to learn to play guitar by ear because of the many locations of a note on a string and the possibility the next note could be north or south of the current note. But if you are talking physical distance between intervals on a guitar, you must take into consideration that each fret is a different width so the distance between intervals will vary depending on the string you plan to play next and your position on the fretboard. – Rockin Cowboy Nov 1 '19 at 18:04
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It seems we're having the same problem here, tapping into the well-fed musical inner ear we all have rather than being stuck in the over analytical and somewhat sterile frame of mind. My own toolbox for that :

  1. Ear training, especially on common melodies, or any melody that just won't leave, even if I have to wait a whole day before testing my solution on an actual guitar neck - very rewarding when you got it right. I used Ear Master Pro on my laptop and Perfect Ear 2 on Android on the go. All in all the single most important factor in improving my musical learning and experience.
  2. Sing while you play. Awkward, but helps bridge the gap between you rational, theory-laden brain functions and the musical ones.
  3. Sing what you play. Slightly different from the previous one, actually read this in Satriani's Guitar secrets : play a random note and sing it. Stay random for a minute or so, then play whatever you want, still singing. Should be out of that penta rut.
  4. Carefully play a cover or a singer line from a song you really know or feel you understand, then build from that
  5. The exhausting, I-have-way-too-much-time Vai way : set up a drone or a progression, and play one hour or more over it. After a while, you'll have exhausted all of your muscle memory moves and be sick of the licks you overuse, and you'll have to play something else. Anything.
  6. Trying to play on one string can also help, as can any hard constraint you put up for long enough

What's more frustrating is when your mind's racing musically but you can't keep up with it. In that case, when possible, stop with the instrument, commit what you can to memory (or sing and record if you can) and then try to transcribe it as if it was any piece of music.

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Maybe get in the habit of singing along with your guitar. Or maybe I should say, play along with your voice.

It seems that when you use your voice, your natural creativity comes out more directly. So if you allow your voice and your hands to track each other, maybe your inner creativity will have an easier time flowing through your guitar.

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