Asher Guitars WD Music Products Amplified Parts Mod Kits DIY Nordstarnd Pickups Guitar Pickups

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.

Be Sociable, Share!


27 Responses to “Music To Your Ears… Learning Vocabulary”
  1. Fantastic article! The way you have it laid out makes so much sense. Very educational and well written. Thanks for taking the time to put this together!

  2. Voicing 13 says:

    Glad you like it and got something out of it.

  3. BrassNut BrassNut says:

    Ofen when I play beers appear onstage as if by magic……so maybe the musical language you describe really CAN order a beer!

  4. Televised says:

    I am just learning my first solos. Scales and even penatonics are a struggle at this point. This was a very helpful article! I’m not going to abandon my “ABCs”, but I am going to push forward and learn some “licks” before I master the basics and hopefully it all eventually comes together.

  5. Cheesehead Cheesehead says:

    Great article. I’m a forty something guy who took up guitar again five years ago since not playing in high school. Been studying the vocabulary of BB King, Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, SRV, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winters and others. Slowly it’s evolving into my own style…

    • Voicing 13 says:

      That’s exactly what is supposed to happen! Glad you like the article.

      • Cheesehead Cheesehead says:

        Oops.. meant “since high school…”

        I especially agree with what you say about if you practice scales you get good at playing scales – that you really need to practice the vocabulary – and about the importance of transcribing whole solos.

        I spent a lot of time initially learning the fretboard, but since then have really worked on learning solos. I really helps you learn what to play over the changes and work out your own improvisations. The biggest breakthrough is I’m starting to be able to play what I hear in my head and am starting to get a feel for what works and what doesn’t…

  6. I have neve had” formal”music lessons in my life,cant read a note,been trying to play since I was 13(now 56) I know what I like but I dont know how to get there from here as we say here in Texas.I am way too old to start learning now so is there a way to learn to play better easier??
    And I aint got a clue as to what a vocabulary is other than what I speak,,,and not too well either.
    But I do like trying to learn what I hear.

  7. lewis lewis says:

    Eye opening! Thanks.

  8. Great article!!
    You have me thinking in a new path.
    Music is expression so the metaphor works great.

  9. btp226 says:

    Hey david_lewis93, you aren’t too old. I just turned 54 and recently started playing after nearly a 40 year hiatus. Have never taken lessons (wish I could tho) and am doing it primarily with books. You CAN do it, stick with it man, it’s too much fun. Also, keep reading stuff from great teachers like Voicing_13 online with his tips, and it will go alot smoother. ROCK ON!!

  10. stratomite stratomite says:

    I loved this article and I hope you will write more. I have nearly worn out the book/cd called 101 Blues Licks. It takes the signature licks of the best players out of context and breaks them down. I then learned to play those licks in several different keys and how to embellish them in my style. I am amazed at how those same licks come out in my playing.

  11. basschick22 basschick22 says:

    Great article. Thank you.

  12. CradleRock says:

    Great Article, and thanks to you. I’ve been playing on and off for 23 years now, and I used, as a teenager, to play a lot – but my teacher told me not to learn licks! He was a jazzman, and said you’d just end up repeating the same old links over and over again. Don’t have a hellova lot of disciplin these days, but it is very clear to me (as it was before reading this article) that I really DO need to start learning licks. Fortunately I have a lot of books with solos transcribed, and books of licks too, so maybe, MAYBE some day I can and will perform a nice fluid guitar solo in public.

  13. CrankMike says:

    I totally agree with you…well said.

  14. LarsK says:

    I wasn’t aware the that solos derive from scales. Do they only derive from scales? When you say “vocabulary” and “ABC” are you referring to scales? It’s an interesting article!

    • Voicing 13 says:


      It’s a little like the chicken and egg thing. Music theory as often followed after the fact of original creation but at the same time after it’s in place it can affect new creations.

      I am not saying that solos are derived from scales, but the notions of scales, tonality, chords etc…can explain or justify what the musician has played. Of course certain style are more tonal than others and you will find more “scale” material involved. At the same time, it’s often the notes that are outside of the scale (or tonality) that make it more interesting for the listener (and player).

      in terms of vocabulary and ABCs, I am refering to vocabulary as the lines or licks the soloist uses and the ABC the fondamentals of music, scales and arpeggios.

      Hope this helps and please rememeber this is my version of things, it’s not the only way to go.

  15. worthim says:

    I’ve been soloing for about 30 years.

    My confidence really kicked in when I began practicing playing to music I didn’t know. I would find an interesting piece of music, turn it on and simply figure it out.

    After determining the “key” to the best of my ability, I would then build solos on the key or scale pattern. The next thing I do is to find the pentatonic scale and play that in a few variations. After that, I locate transition passages that could be considered “out of key” but are still in context when played quickly through a transition.

    After building on that, I may (or may not) record a few tracks in my home studio and have that as a learning tool as I listen back to it. I have found that listening back and visualizing playing the part is extremely valuable to reinforce the “right way to play” a given part.

  16. City Sirens City Sirens says:

    Victor Guerriero…

    Mais je connais ce gars-là!

    Un gars du CEGEP Vanier!

  17. jrich99 jrich99 says:

    good article. I really like working on SRV stuff like this. For those interested in SRV, google “stevie snacks”. It’s a decent resource for Texas Blues

  18. Dave_Strat says:

    Great article!

    I played for about 20 years in cover bands learning chords and solos by heart, beginning in the 60’s. Over time, those licks became a part of my musical vocabulary and began to emerge in my improvised solos. I learned to play from a teacher who taught music theory and played from sheet music. The last 10 minutes of the lesson, the teacher would show me licks that were prominent in popular songs and teach me how to play them. I began to see patterns on the neck and recognized them as “pathways” to soling up and down the neck. Through the years, I developed a reputation as a good guitar player around town.

    Years later, I bought a book that taught scales, modes, and the theory behind them. That study took me into a new realm that opened up guitar soloing from a scale standpoint. Suddenly, I realized that I didn’t have to be stuck in “patterns” but could use the entire scale to develop solos. It was a that point that I began to improvise without using the locked in patterns I used for years. I began to solo with the knowledge that any note in the scale was musically correct and you were never more than a 1/2 step from the right note! Even it I hit a note that wasn’t in the scale, I could slide up one step and be right back in the groove (do it twice and and it’s jazz).

    I’d encourage everyone to learn the scales and the modes that apply to the music you play. It will open up possibilities that you never imagined. You will begin to discover soling methods that you heard on records but didn’t understand how they were developed or how to go about playing them. Your brain will translate licks that you hear in your mind and your fingers will play them with the new knowledge of scales. Try it!

  19. bytewax says:

    Well I’ve been playing for 10 years and I feel stuck. I know some scales and some modes as well as arpeggios and I know how to build all chords and stuff.. but I don’t know exactly how to solo – I feel i’m overhelmed by so many information when I play… I understand the 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, the circle of fiths, the keys, the blues progressions… but hell I’m very lost… I studied gambale’s technique books but it seems we have to know the entire dictionary to play something simple… and I find myself not truly enjoying music but rather trying to learn more and more that I end up forgetting everything…

    I need some advice because I want to sound good and to solo good… I think I have a strong theory background but I fail simple rythym parts quiet a lot because I find boring to be concentrated in a simple thing… So here I’m asking for u guys advice and help. Tkx

  20. Dave_Strat says:

    Bytewax, soloing for most of us, came from learning the solos to popular songs we covered in our bands. I’d sit next to a tape player and hit play and stop and learn the licks a few notes at a time. Sometimes I’d find out later that a particular solo was easier to play in another position than I had learned it in. This was all before TABs.

    Soloing ability, as Victor said, is speaking through the guitar. All those licks you accumulate through learning and copying other’s solos becomes a part of you. When you solo, you will sound like the people you have copied from. Eventually, you will develop a style that sounds like YOU because you have discovered other side licks and combined them with the ones you learned from the copy method.

    Since you know the scales and modes and have a grasp on guitar theory, all you need is lots of practice with recordings and backing tracks. Once you can duplicate your favorite artists (through TABs), you will begin to develop a personal style. Playing in a group helps because you are forced to learn the solos to the songs the band wants to do.

    Your frustration with theory and how to apply it is understood. The best thing for a top 40 guitar player to do is to let the theory sit in the back of your mind and concentrate on learning what is popular. The theory will come out by itself when you get the mechanics of soloing by using other’s solos to get through a song. You will find yourself changing a note here and there and adding a bend that wasn’t in the original. Eventually your own style will develop. Find a friend who will jam with you. You’ll be surprised how much that will help, especially if your friend is an accomplished soloist.

IMPORTANT:Treat everyone here with respect, no matter how difficult! No sex, drug, political, religion or hate discussion permitted here.