How To Develop Musical Vocabulary
In the previous article I discussed the importance of learning vocabulary for a player regardless of the style you play. Here is a more step-by-step breakdown of the procedure.
The first thing you must do is find musicians that exemplify your style and who possess a great deal of vocabulary. For example, Brent Mason for country, Johnny Winter for Blues, Eric Clapton for classic rock and Bill Evan for jazz. Find a solo that has licks you will be able to use in a variety of situations and that is very typical of the style. Then start transcribing it.
Transcribing is the action of writing down the music that you hear in a recording. For those of you who don’t yet have the skills to write down music in notation form, I would recommend that you create a “tab”. Relying on memory alone will not work and you need to archive your vocabulary.
If the song has lyrics, write them down and learn them; it creates a deeper bond with the piece of music. You must transcribe the melody and the chords, if you don’t have them from a book or from tab. The melody is what helps you locate yourself in a song while playing it (i.e. not getting lost in the chords changes or form) and the chords you will need to practice your solo over, and your licks afterwards.
When doing a transcription, slow the music down to half speed or slower if you need to, again I would refer you to Terry Down’s article. The idea is not “how fast can your ear hear and process the music” but rather “can you hear every note perfectly.” I’ll assume from this point that you have the chords and melody from a book and that you are working on a solo. Now you have to set up your paper.
I am sure they are many different ways to proceed here but here is what I do. First I divide the staves on my manuscript paper into four bar parts. I use pen to draw those lines so mistakes can be erased without having to re-do the layout of the page. Then I write the chord symbols on top of my staves in a different colour ink (i.e. red; visually this works for me). Secondly I figure out how many measures are in the section I am transcribing. After this, I figure out the beat that the solo begins on. This may require that you go back to the beginning of the song at times.
There are no great secrets to transcribing music, you listen to a part or the solo, sing the first note, keep on singing the first note until you find it your guitar and then write it down on paper. Double check it by playing against the slowed down recording and then move onto the second note. At times you will find it easy to write down several notes at once, other times you will be stuck on one note for a little while. You repeat the process until you have finished the entire solo. As a beginner I found at times this process slow and frustrating and kept on wondering if pro’s had a better ear than me or knew something I didn’t. Now I’ve realized that the concept is exactly the same between a beginner and more advanced player. It’s only with time and repetition that you get faster at it.
If you find yourself particularly frustrated by a section, move on to another part of the solo. When you come back to the following day the difficult section is usually easier. Just make sure to count very carefully when you are jumping over a section, you need to be exactly sure when the next part begins. I usually conduct (in a basic way) with my picking hand while transcribing. I find it makes the music easier to see.
It’s also been my experience that when having difficulty, I start analyzing the music and think “it must be this note because of the chord or key signature etc”. This is usually where I make my biggest mistakes. Always trust your ear; just listen to the music until the note becomes clear. This is a process that takes a long time but you just have to keep going at it. The payoff is worth it.
Now that you have transcribed your solo, you must now learn how to play it. The first thing you do is create yourself a backing track. Put your metronome on 2 & 4 (the beat that is often played on the snare drum), play the chords to the song and record it. Don’t play fancy rhythms in your backing track; just hit the chord on beat “1” and hold. The speed at which you record your track is determined by the tempo you need to play the solo at perfectly. There is no such thing as too slow, it depends on you. If you need to play it at 40 bpm to get it perfect, that’s where you start. Once you’re comfortable at a certain speed, move up a couple of clicks on the metronome until you get comfortable there. You keep on doing this until you can match the speed of the original recording. At times I use my notation software to create a backing track because I find it easier to manipulate the track to move up in tempo and it’s therefore less time consuming. Mind you it’s very sterile sounding.
Now this leads us into the problem of fingering; where to play it on the guitar neck? This is what has worked for me but by no means is a rule: try to keep the fingering in the section of the neck that will give you access to highest and lowest note of the solo without shifting position and find what the most solid and comfortable fingering for you. The latter is the most important, which leads me to have position shifts while playing my transcribed solos.
As you progress in speed you may find that a fingering that worked at 120 bpm does not work at all at 180 bpm. You need to revisit this section of your fingering and find a combination that will allow you to play it fast. The more experience you gain the less you have to do this. Once you get to the original speed of the piece, record yourself playing with it. The goal is that you are able to play the solo at full speed by yourself and sound like the original recording.
After you have succeeded in this, you must find the vocabulary in it. Look for licks that will be the most useful for you. In a jazz transcription I will look for a line (lick) that will fit or can fit over a ii-7, V7, IMaj7 progression, while in blues and rock I will look for shorter licks. Always transcribe a lick that you like and find a way of using it. You should find 10 licks before moving onto the next step; this may require several transcriptions. Depending on the style you are working on, you may want to have two fingerings for each lick. This will give you more options while soloing.
Now comes the “Pavlov’s dogs” effect I talked about in the previous article. You play your lick(s) slowly at first over the chord(s) that it/they originally appeared on in 14 keys (treating C#, Db and F#, Gb as different keys). For example, if you took a lick that was recorded over a E7 chord, you play it over a C7, F7, Bb7, Eb7, Ab7, Db7, C#7, F#7,Gb7, etc…until you’ve covered all keys. Then repeat the process with licks 2 to 10 until you can play them at fast tempos. Once you are comfortable with this, change the process slightly; take your ten licks and play them all in one key signature, then move on to the next. The first approach you play the lick over all the keys while the second approach you play all the licks over one key at a time. The idea is that you eventually get to a point where you hear the chord and play the lick “reflectively”, like “Pavlov’s dogs”.
The final step is to take a song with a varied chord progression and play your licks over it in order. For example, take a blues:
On each chord that has a number, play the lick with the corresponding number as you go through the form. Repeat this process with a blues a half step high and one and a half steps lower. This puts the licks closer to a playing situation.
Once you have done all this, try to use your licks in a real life playing situation. I know the process may seem (and is) long but the end result is well worth the work. Music is fair that way; you get back exactly what you put in.