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Music To Your Ears… Learning Vocabulary

VictorYears ago when I started to play electric guitar I was fortunate enough to have an excellent guitar teacher. The lessons were held in his basement, with old reel to reel (to slow music down), one Telecaster (which he let me play!) a Stratocaster, and a Fender Bandmaster with a Marshall cabinet. Sunday was my favorite day.

It was there that I learned a crucial lesson; to play like the great players you have to learn their “vocabulary”. The idea was that to imitate great musicians (not only guitarists), you must first learn their solos, be able to play these solos perfectly at full speed with the original recording and later chose “licks” (lines, musical sentences, “musical motifs” etc) from several solos and learn how to play them in 14 keys (treating C# and Db and F# and Gb as different keys) over chord changes. Like Pavlov’s dogs, you hear the chord and you play the lick reflexively…at least that’s the goal. Of course we talked and worked on scales, shapes, patterns and arpeggios but to only understand the fundamental of music and the guitar, not as “The” tools used for soloing.

Now I’ve had students who start lessons thinking that if they learn their diminished scale they’ll play like John Schofield or because they know their blues scales they can play like Buddy Guy. That couldn’t be further from the truth. What they don’t understand is that these players are relying on a vocabulary that has a rich history and that they have taken the time to learn it before creating their own.

The first notion that must be understood is that improvisation is never pure. It is not the myth of the musician holding his instrument and suddenly inventing beautiful music while soloing out of thin air, it’s worked out ahead of time. Yes, you read correctly, a soloist is using many pre-prepared licks to create his solo. It’s the same idea as talking, you don’t; always know what you’re going to say ahead of time but you have the words to say it. The great players, regardless of their style of music, have been absorbing vocabulary for years, that it be Jimi Hendrix, Brent Mason or John Coltrane.

These players have been practicing these lines relentlessly over chord changes or songs. So when they are soloing they are using this rehearsed vocabulary to speak and the combination of their musical sentences becomes improvisation. It’s not left to chance, they’re not thinking: “hum, I’m playing in front of 5,000 people tonight and I’m going to explore my Locrian mode”.

srv38For example if you listen to Stevie Ray Vaughan carefully you will hear that he will repeat licks in different solos. I can think of a blues lick that involves the ninth of the scale which keeps coming back throughout his playing. Well, if you know your SRV you know how much of fan of Jimi Hendrix he was and it turns out that Hendrix played that exact same lick. It may vary in rhythm and articulation but so does anyone when they speak. Hendrix probably got it from another player before him as well. It’s an aural tradition that is being transmitted musically.

In articles and interviews Stevie Ray Vaughan talks about emulating his heroes or he demonstrates perfectly how one of them would play a musical passage. He may not have been “formally schooled” in music but he knew and understood the vocabulary that came before him and applied it. Hendrix is another example; one story relates how he and a friend could sing an Albert King solo note for note. Or if you listen to how he played chords you can hear the omni present influence of R&B/Soul and so much more. Brent Mason is another one; in his “Hot Licks” DVD he talks how he got certain licks from different guitarists. These are players who have taken a lot of time learning and imitating great musicians before them, in short, learning vocabulary.

Let’s look at it in another way. You are one of my students and one lesson I give you a sheet with a foreign alphabet on it and teach you how to pronounce each letters. Next lesson you come back and I say: “Please speak in this language”. The best you could do would be to string some of these letters together or even recite this alphabet at an incredible speed but you still would be incapable of speaking this new language. Therefore, scales, arpeggios, patterns and shapes are but a first step in a long journey ahead. Yes they do have a significant place in the evolution of a player but soloing using just these is like a child saying singing his “ABCs”. They’re fundamentals but not the end result. You have to learn the “words” of style to play it. Mind you, don’t misunderstand me, music is not a language, you can’t order beer with it.

This is not to say that great players do not invent their own musical sentences or explore certain scales because they do. The point is rather that before they began creating “their” vocabulary, they had a deep grounding in the tradition of their style(s). Only then does their originality become convincing to us.

Another notion to remember is that you get good at what you practice. If you practice scales and arpeggios, you’re good at scales and arpeggios. You may as well be spending your time practicing vocabulary that you will use in a live situation and this way you are training your brain to react to chord changes in real time.

In my own experience of learning (and teaching) the guitar, I only started to feel confident about my playing when I started to transcribe solos, learning lines from them and using that vocabulary when I was soloing. That’s when I felt my playing was convincing and I knew then that I could participate in higher levels of playing. Check out Terry Downs’ article on the TDPRI homepage to find links to free tools which can assist in applying the approach detailed here.

Victor Guerriero (Voicing 13 on the TDPRI) has been playing guitar for 19 years and has degrees in Jazz Studies and Education.

Les Paul Passes Away at 94

Les PaulNew York, NY…August 13, 2009…Les Paul, acclaimed guitar player, entertainer and inventor, passed away today from complications of severe pneumonia at White Plains Hospital in White Plains, New York, surrounded by family and loved ones. He had been receiving the best available treatment through this final battle and in keeping with his persona, he showed incredible strength, tenacity and courage. The family would like to express their heartfelt thanks for the thoughts and prayers from his dear friends and fans. Les Paul was 94.

One of the foremost influences on 20th century sound and responsible for the world’s most famous guitar, the Les Paul model, Les Paul’s prestigious career in music and invention spans from the 1930s to the present. Though he’s indisputably one of America’s most popular, influential, and accomplished electric guitarists, Les Paul is best known as an early innovator in the development of the solid body guitar. His groundbreaking design would become the template for Gibson’s best-selling electric, the Les Paul model, introduced in 1952. Today, countless musical legends still consider Paul’s iconic guitar unmatched in sound and prowess. Among Paul’s most enduring contributions are those in the technological realm, including ingenious developments in multi-track recording, guitar effects, and the mechanics of sound in general.

Les Paul & GibsonBorn Lester William Polsfuss in Waukesha, Wisconsin on June 9, 1915, Les Paul was already performing publicly as a honky-tonk guitarist by the age of 13. So clear was his calling that Paul dropped out of high school at 17 to play in Sunny Joe Wolverton’s Radio Band in St. Louis. As Paul’s mentor, Wolverton was the one to christen him with the stage name “Rhubarb Red,” a moniker that would follow him to Chicago in 1934. There, Paul became a bona fide radio star, known as both hillbilly picker Rhubarb Red and Django Reinhardt-informed jazz guitarist Les Paul. His first recordings were done in 1936 on an acoustic—alone as Rhubarb Red, as well as backing blues singer Georgia White. The next year he formed his first trio, but by 1938 he’d moved to New York to begin his tenure on national radio with one of the more popular dance orchestras in the country, Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians.

Tinkering with electronics and guitar amplification since his youth, Les Paul began constructing his own electric guitar in the late ’30s. Unhappy with the first generation of commercially available hollowbodies because of their thin tone, lack of sustain, and feedback problems, Paul opted to build an entirely new structure. “I was interested in proving that a vibration-free top was the way to go,” he has said. “I even built a guitar out of a railroad rail to prove it. What I wanted was to amplify pure string vibration, without the resonance of the wood getting involved in the sound.” With the good graces of Epiphone president Epi Stathopoulo, Paul used the Epiphone plant and machinery in 1941 to bring his vision to fruition. He affectionately dubbed the guitar “The Log.”

Les Paul’s tireless experiments sometimes proved to be dangerous, and he nearly electrocuted himself in 1940 during a session in the cellar of his Queens apartment. During the next two years of rehabilitation, Les earned his living producing radio music. Forced to put the Pennsylvanians and the rest of his career on hold, Les Paul moved to Hollywood. During World War II, he was drafted into the Army but permitted to stay in California, where he became a regular player for Armed Forces Radio Service. By 1943 he had assembled a trio that regularly performed live, on the radio, and on V-Discs. In 1944 he entered the jazz spotlight—thanks to his dazzling work filling in for Oscar Moore alongside Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, and other superstars —at the first of the prestigious Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts.

By his mid-thirties, Paul had successfully combined Reinhardt-inspired jazz playing and the western swing and twang of his Rhubarb Red persona into one distinctive, electrifying style. In the Les Paul Trio he translated the dizzying runs and unusual harmonies found on Jazz at the Philharmonic into a slower, subtler, more commercial approach. His novelty instrumentals were tighter, brasher, and punctuated with effects. Overall, the trademark Les Paul sound was razor-sharp, clean-shaven, and divinely smooth.

As small combos eclipsed big bands toward the end of World War II, Les Paul Trio’s popularity grew. They cut records for Decca both alone and behind the likes of Helen Forrest, the Andrews Sisters, the Delta Rhythm Boys, Dick Hayes, and, most notably, Bing Crosby. Since 1945, when the crooner brought them into the studio to back him on a few numbers, the Trio had become regular guests on Crosby’s hit radio show. The highlight of the session was Paul’s first No. 1 hit and million-seller, the gorgeous “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.”

Meanwhile, Paul began to experiment with dubbing live tracks over recorded tracks, also altering the playback speed. This resulted in “Lover (When You’re Near Me),” his revolutionary 1947 predecessor to multi-track recording. The hit instrumental featured Les Paul on eight different electric guitar parts, all playing together.

In 1948, Paul nearly lost his life to a devastating car crash that shattered his right arm and elbow. Still, he convinced doctors to set his broken arm in the guitar-picking and cradling position. Laid up but undaunted, Paul acquired a first generation Ampex tape recorder from Crosby in 1949, and began his most important multi-tracking adventure, adding a fourth head to the recorder to create sound-on-sound recordings. While tinkering with the machine and its many possibilities, he also came up with tape delay. These tricks, along with another recent Les Paul innovation—close mic-ing vocals—were integrated for the first time on a single recording: the 1950 No. 1 tour de force “How High the Moon.”

This historic track was performed during a duo with future wife Mary Ford. The couple’s prolific string of hits for Capitol Records not only included some of the most popular recordings of the early 1950s, but also wrote the book on contemporary studio production. The dense but crystal clear harmonic layering of guitars and vocals, along with Ford’s close mic-ed voice and Paul’s guitar effects, produced distinctively contemporary recordings with unprecedented sonic qualities. Through hits, tours, and popular radio shows, Paul and Ford kept one foot in the technological vanguard and the other in the cultural mainstream.

All the while, Les Paul continued to pine for the perfect guitar. Though The Log came close, it wasn’t quite what he was after. In the early 1950s, Gibson Guitar would cultivate a partnership with Paul that would lead to the creation of the guitar he’d seen only in his dreams. In 1948, Gibson elected to design its first solidbody, and Paul, a self-described “dyed-in-the-wool Gibson man,” seemed the right man for the job. Gibson avidly courted the guitar legend, even driving deep into the Pennsylvania mountains to deliver the first model to newlyweds Les Paul and Mary Ford.

Les Paul“Les played it, and his eyes lighted up,” then-Gibson President Ted McCarty has recalled. The year was 1950, and Paul had just signed on as the namesake of Gibson’s first electric solidbody, with exclusive design privileges. Working closely with Paul, Gibson forged a relationship that would change popular culture forever. The Gibson Les Paul model—the most powerful and respected electric guitar in history—began with the 1952 release of the Les Paul Goldtop. After introducing the original Les Paul Goldtop in 1952, Gibson issued the Black Beauty, the mahogany-topped Les Paul Custom, in 1954. The Les Paul Junior (1954) and Special (1955) were also introduced before the canonical Les Paul Standard hit the market in 1958. With revolutionary humbucker pickups, this sunburst classic has remained unchanged for the half-century since it hit the market.

With the rise of the rock ’n’ roll revolution of 1955, Les Paul and Mary Ford’s popularity began to wane with younger listeners, though Paul would prove to be a massive influence on younger generation of guitarists. Still, Paul and Ford maintained their iconic presence with their wildly popular television show, which ran from 1953-1960. In 1964, the couple, parents to a son and daughter, divorced. Paul began playing in Japan, and recorded an LP for London Records before poor health forced him to take time off—as much as someone so inspired can take time off.

In the 1977, Paul resurfaced with a Grammy-winning Chet Atkins collaboration, Chester and Lester. Then the ailing guitarist, who’d already suffered arthritis and permanent hearing loss, had a heart attack, followed by bypass surgery.

Ever stubborn, Les recovered, and returned to live performance in the late 1980s. Until recently Les continued to perform two weekly New York shows with the Les Paul Trio, even releasing the 2005 double-Grammy winner Les Paul & Friends: American Made World Played, featuring collaborations with a veritable who’s who of the electric guitar, including dozens of illustrious fans like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Billy Gibbons, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Joe Perry. In 2008, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame paid tribute to Les Paul in a week-long celebration of his life which culminated with a live performance by Les himself.

Les Paul has since become the only individual to share membership into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Les is survived by his three sons Lester (Rus) G. Paul, Gene W. Paul and Robert (Bobby) R. Paul, his daughter Colleen Wess, son-in-law Gary Wess, long time friend Arlene Palmer, five grandchildren and five great grandchildren. A private Funeral service will be held in New York. A service in Waukesha, WI will be announced at a later date. Details will follow and will be announced for all services. Memorial tributes for the public will be announced at a future date.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Les Paul Foundation, 236 West 30th Street, 7th Floor, New York, New York 10001.

My Take On It — the Music Biz

MytakeOnItI run a guitar website and that doesn’t make me an expert on anything. But do you think that’s going to stop me from talking about stuff? Of course not. So, welcome to my every once and a while when I feel like it “blog” on stuff I think readers at the TDPRI might be interested in.

Today, I stumbled across this “podcast” on the subject of the music business and its future and thought I’d like to share this with folks here. Since many of you are in the music business either part time, or full-time this is an issue that relates to you directly.

Greg Kot, is music critic for the Chicago Tribune and others, and he wrote a book called Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. In a recent podcast interview on Public Radio International, he enumerates the precise downfall of record labels and why iTunes isn’t their savior.

Greg Kot

Greg Kot

In his interview in the podcast below on — The Sound of Young America, Kot states that the music industry was actually one of the primary causes of piracy. The corporatization of radio, tightly controlled playlists and even the explosion of boy bands in the late 1990s, meant in turn that commercial radio was nearly ruined. There was little or no room for new groups or even genuine out of the box geniuses like, say, Prince or David Birne, and devoid of “good” music, the market simply reacted with Napster and others. It was the only way for people to actually find “good music.”

Kot lays out all the standard points—most artists don’t make money on record sales and the download revolution has encouraged the indie groups and a huge variety of new and exciting acts. Plus he says that the RIAA’s insistence on trying to sue piracy out of existence only led to the public having absolutely no guilt about pirating music. He also doesn’t think that iTunes, is the savior of the music business either.

Take a listen to this podcast below… and then use the comment form below to give me your take on it:

The Sound of Young America

NOTE: I’ve been told that Internet Explorer is not showing the embeded audio player that other browsers are showing in this post. If you don’t see the player above then follow this link: Greg Kot Interview

Slowing Down, Learning, and Archiving Guitar Licks

Terry Downs

This article demonstrates the usage of two FREE software tools that will help you learn and archive guitar licks. There are better tools out there, but you must pay. The lick used here is a fairly simple lick, that I wouldn’t consider it complicated enough to require slowing it down. But I didn’t want to dive into something too complicated for the first example.

Slow that Lick Down
I spent a lot of my early years trying to learn guitar licks. I got to a point where I could quickly copy anything that was of a reasonable speed and was comprised of a diatonic scale. Chromatics, particularly diminished and augmented notes would twist my ears and made it more difficult. Then of course the faster the lick, the harder it was to pick out the notes. I’m better now with diminished and augmented phrases, but speed can be a problem.

The old record player I used had four speeds. 16, 33-1/3, 45, and 78RPM. Slowing 45s down to 33-1/3 didn’t work well at all. None of the 78RPMs had anything I wanted to learn on them. But, slowing a 33-1/3RPM record down to 16RPM was very close to an octave. The comparison note was an octave low, but it was still helpful. It would need to be 16-2/3RPM to be exact. I remember taking my mother’s fingernail polish and applying it to the stepped shaft of the motor to increase the 16RPM section closer to 16-2/3RPM. I added too much and made it worse. I tried sanding it down, but never got it exactly right. 

We are now in the world of digital signal processing. The tempo of a song can be changed without changing its pitch. There are several software tools especially made for this application that work really well, and are worth the money of you do this frequently.

I found a free software application called Audacity. It has an amazing amount of capability for free. A free copy can be downloaded here.

The processing of the audio is comprised of three steps.

  1. The song length is trimmed down to part of the song that has the lick you are trying to learn. This makes for a smaller archival size, and allows you to set your audio player to loop mode so it can be played over and over.
  2. Slow the tempo down. The further slowed it is, the more “choppy” the sound is. I often find that 30% of the original tempo renders audio that is generally useable for learning the lick.
  3. Filter out the unwanted spectrum of the audio. The guitar is in the midrange of the audio spectrum. The bass and high treble can be filtered out so it is not distracting.

The slowed down lick does not sound that good, but it is plenty adequate to learn from. Here is a video demo on using Audacity to trim, slow down, and filter a guitar lick.

(You may want to double-click on the video below and go to Youtube to play this full screen)


Here is the MP3 File of the slowed down lick.

Transcribing Guitar Tablature
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I guess I’m considered by some as an old dog, but I can learn new tricks. The problem is, I forget them! Short term memory degradation is really a tough thing for me. I can remember my 1st grade school bus number, but can’t remember what I did yesterday. There are licks I learned back then that I will never forget. There are licks I learn now, that I document, but look back on my computer a year later and forgot that I documented it. However, I believe anyone should archive licks. Once learned, it is good to go back and rehearse it. 

There are numerous music score and/or guitar tablature editors. Early forms of guitar tablature had a major flaw, since no time notation was included. Most of the current tablature editors allow the user to input the notes in tablature, along with the duration of the note. The software will simultaneously generate conventional music score, and use a MIDI player to playback the notes. Having the ability to playback the music is most valuable. The user can confirm the correct notes and the correct timing.

Here is a concise webpage on tablature.

I recently found Power Tab, and free tablature editor application. It has a few bugs and issues I don’t like, but what the heck. It’s FREE. The free download can be found here.

Here is a video demonstrating how to use Power Tab, documenting the slowed down lick above.
(You may want to double-click on the video below and go to Youtube to play this full screen)

I hope you find this useful.

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