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.
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.