Music To Your Ears… Learning Vocabulary
Years 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”.
For 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.