• Learn how to practice
allowing your ear to guide
your melodic sense.
• Create simple and logical melodies
over basic harmonies.
• Understand the pros and
cons of ear- and theory-based
approaches to improvisation.
Click here to download the sound clips from this lesson.
I can’t remember where I first heard the
phrase, “Learn everything and then forget
it.” I know Jaco Pastorius said it, and maybe
three or four others who mattered to me as
musicians. It’s about coming to terms with
and ultimately transcending the mountain of
theoretical knowledge sitting out there—the
Mt. Fuji of expectations, possibilities, secrets,
and ritualized monastic study that promises:
“If you just learn this, then you will sound
good, guaranteed, every single time. But only
if you also learn this … then that.”
The “learn and forget” phrase is meant
to enlighten, but like so many others of its
kind, can just be confusing. How long does
it take to learn “everything?” How will I
know when and how to “forget” everything?
And, most importantly, did Jimmy Page
have to do this?
I’ve spent a good chunk of my life trying
to be a better player by learning stuff.
I practiced what my teachers told me, then
came up with my own way to practice
scales and chords (An Improviser’s OS),
which I practiced a lot. Looking back, I see
much of it was done in the belief that my
ear alone would not be enough, and that to
consistently sound convincing I would need
music theory to back me up—particularly
in terms of the sometimes irritating jazz
mantra, “playing over changes.”
While there may be some truth to that,
things have been coming up lately that suggest
other, deeper realities. Pretty exciting
stuff, actually. Here are some past and current
1. Years ago, I had the honor of playing
in Michael Brecker’s band. To me, he was
music theory central—the vast technique,
the complicated lines, and the contemporary
harmonic content. But right away I saw
that both he and [pianist] Joey Calderazzo
were also playing a lot by ear. They both
had huge arsenals of licks—they traded
them back and forth like baseball cards,
often over the phone— but in between licks
they were winging it, sometimes over complex
harmony. I wondered, “How can these
jazz monsters be playing by ear?”
2. I saw an instructional video by
George Benson on YouTube. As I watched
him struggle to recite the roots of IIm–V7
in G, then effortlessly and fantastically play
over various complex chord changes and
harmonies, I realized the man is basically
an ear player. That’s the George Benson,
folks—the greatest living jazz guitarist, if
such a thing exists. Ear playing, anyone?
3. A Donald Fagen track called “The
Great Pagoda of Funn” is the best recorded
example of me playing over changes using
theory. Sure, I used my ear and every bit of
musicality I had to make it work, but I had
to quickly figure out which scales I was going
to use at the session and stuck to them.
The best recorded example of me playing
over changes by ear is the title track on
saxophonist David Binney’s record, Graylen
Epicenter. I listened to the demo, but didn’t
investigate what the chords were.
I love both solos, but I was able to get to
something more on the “ear” solo—something
that felt like the future of my playing.
4. The biggest breakthrough I’ve had
yet with this thing came recently one night
while putting my daughter to bed. She
wanted me to read a book of lullabies to
her, so I started singing them, making up
melodies. I suddenly realized I was accessing
a developed melodic “ear” that I’d never
paid direct attention to as a player. Direct
access to imagination. The real deal.
When I tried to access that melodic ear
on guitar I noticed the melodies often outlined
basic chord changes: V–I, I–IV–V, and
blues. Blues! Suddenly the concept of playing
changes—which had always seemed like some
kind of arbitrary game to me—made sense.
The “ear” playing I’m exploring now
is not generated by theory or by what my
hands know how to do on guitar. Rather,
it’s generated by the ear then directly translated
through the instrument. Try this:
Take any common tune you know well,
but don’t play—“Happy Birthday,” “Yellow
Submarine,” “Yankee Doodle,” “Somewhere
Over the Rainbow”—whatever. Play the
melody on your guitar. If you can do so
without making any mistakes, you’re a good
ear player. If it’s tough, then it’ll be just as
tough to accurately play something your ear
might come up with.
But this ear-generated melody thing is
different. The only rule it follows is: “What
is the right note to play next?” I always validated
my interest in theory—in bothering
to learn a lot of stuff that countless great ear
players have proven isn’t necessary—with
the belief that it introduced new sounds to
my ear, which would then integrate them.
At this point I don’t believe that always happens
automatically. To hear how I would
practice each approach, visit the online version
of this article at premierguitar.com.
I had the pleasure of having dinner with
[legendary jazz guitar instructor] Mick
Goodrick the other night in Boston, and I
told him of my revelation. I mentioned I
could kill myself trying to play minor IIm–
V7s with theory, but could do it effortlessly,
forever, by ear. He smiled. “Unless you want
to play fast,” he said. I nodded, but all I could
think was, “Why on earth would anyone
want to play over minor IIm–V7s fast?”
Guitarist/composer Wayne Krantz’s evolution
as an artist has taken expansive directions,
from working alongside Randy Brecker and
Steely Dan to creating his own jazz-fusion.
His latest album, Howie 61, blends new
vocals with harmonic acuity to create a
genre-defying, musical vision. For more information,