How to Listen to Your Guitar Playing


Adam Rafferty - How to Listen to Your Own Guitar PLayingWhen a painter works on detail, she is super close up to the canvas. Each brushstroke, texture and shading is accounted for.

That requires serious microscope up close focus!

However, there’s another mode of viewing the canvas which is stepping way back
and looking at the “whole.”

That puts all the tiny details in a different context.

Playing music can be like this too. We can be very close up, and hear minute
details, or we can step back and hear the entire, overall sound.

Listening to detail is good, and stepping back and hearing the whole “mix”
is good also.

To find the “middle way” we have to change listening positions a few times. Go up close and look / listen, and also step back and take in the big picture.

Let’s Imagine 3 scenarios.

Listening Up Close

  • The drums on a Steely Dan record. Perfect up close miking on all drums, perfectly separated in the studio so all the separate sounds can be manipulated in the mix. Each sound is isolated.
  • An intimate jazz club where the singer smoothly sings into the mic, each syllable is heard super clear over the PA as if she’s whispering in your ear. (Think SADE)
  • You fingerpicking in a quiet room.

Stepping Back and Listening (Bigger Picture)

  • 2 overhead mics capturing the entire drum set for a more “live” sound – like jazz & motown records.
  • A gospel singer in church belting it out with no mic, using the acoustics
    of the room.
  • You strumming your guitar with people singing along.

Neither one is “better” – they are just different view points.

Going for It

In my experience, the situations with more “distance” – ( drums with overhead mics and the gospel singer) allows for a more reckless way to play.

It’s not just volume. There is a sound of the “air” that the sound must travel through as well as the actual sound. The unpleasant sounds which are usually high frequencies, die off with distance and become less audible.

The closer mics (or pickup, or stage monitor) – where every detail is extra clear can make you feel more self concious, as every squeak is clearer than you want it to be.

The Challenge

My biggest dilema (I’m getting real personal now) is that I love a smooth intimate up-close sound as if your ears are right up on the guitar, especially the bass notes.

The problem?

It can lack overall “timbre” of the more “going for it” energy and approach and not sound as good from a distance.

  • From 2 feet away, soft playing sounds jazzy and intimate.
  • From 10 feet away the same thing sounds weak and unclear.

On the flip side…

  • Heavy strumming with a mic 6 inches away would be pretty unpleasant.
  • Heavy strumming with a mic 2-3 feet back would capture the sound nicely.

Can you see how the concept of “distance” from the sound changes our perception, much like the painter being up close OR stepping back?

Try This

If you are a fingerstyle player, use your phone and record yourself 2 different ways.

  • from across the room
  • from close up – 2 feet away or so

On playback, what do you hear?

  • Is the bass clear?
  • Melody clear?
  • Is the balance of your melody, bass and accompaniment pleasing?
  • Are any percussion / squeaks / sounds in the proper balance?

The Big Picture

I was recently surprised to record myself practicing and went more into “strum hard, use a flat pick, blast off” mode – and it felt less intimate and warm than I’d like in the moment.

However, on playback (think ovehead mics on drums) there was a “sheen,” a clearer overall timbre and a strength to the sound I did not expect.

It sounded pretty ok!

Next,Try This at Home…

  • Experiment and record yourself from various distances.
  • Set your phone & record from 2 feet away, and then from across the room.
  • What do you hear?
  • What energy sounds best?
  • What does it sound like to a non-guitar player?

There’s no one solution. Each tune or room may need a slightly different approach.

By raising your listening, you raise your concept – and this may push new fresh changes in your playing you never expected!

Any thoughts on this? Please comment below!


I’m Adam Rafferty – a guitar player born and raised in New York City, and currently spending most of my time on the road playing concerts and doing workshops.

I am a lover of all things groovy and love spreading musical knowledge!




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