Building Your Guitar Vocabulary

Pick Blocks
One thing that can’t be taught is real-world experience. You just have to get out and soak up what you can to become a versatile player. Becoming fluent in a given style requires a couple of things – immersing yourself in the style to learn it’s particular quirks, and then getting out in the ‘real world’ to put what you learned into action.

The Basics:

Don’t live in a bubble

Get out and play with real musicians. Preferably ones better than you. Nothing is better for your progress than actual feedback and criticism from musicians you respect. A single gig where you leave thinking ‘I suck’ can do wonders to motivate you. Musicians have funny ways of giving feedback – some more direct than others. The point is, don’t sit in your room playing with yourself. Get out there and live it for real. (Or at least invite ’em over…)

Learn the Roots

If you’re trying to learn a certain style of music, it usually pays to find out something about where that style came from. If it’s Blues, learn the different flavors of blues – country blues, delta blues, jump blues, Chicago, Piedmont, Memphis – on down the line. Most importantly, LISTEN to the styles and really try to discern how the musicians play each style. The more styles you understand, the better you can grasp the styles that evolved from them. almost all music is derivative to some extent – nothing new under the sun, as ‘they’ say!

Incorporate Immediately

When you learn a new lick or concept, the best way to make it stick is to figure out how to apply it right away. Don’t just learn licks that you don’t relate to some sort of musical context – figure out the essence of the lick and learn how to move it around to different keys, etc… so you can use it later. If you learn a phrase that works over a certain chord progression, take apart the phrase and progression to see how you can utilize the same concept in other tunes. A phrase learned and played out of context (without an underlying chord progression) is often meaningless – how it fits in a song gives it meaning and power. Inject your own style and flavor and boom! You learned something.

Listen to the Drums

I can’t say how many times I hear players wailing away with seemingly no awareness that they are not locked in with the groove. Every style of music has rhythmic characteristics that you need to be familiar with if you want to really play the style. If you’re playing too ahead of the beat or too behind the beat, or even right straight on top of it, but the rest of the band is somewhere else, it won’t gel. Learn to hear it. And RELAX…tension sucks the groove right out of you.

Back to that Vocabulary thing…

Concentrate on Nuance

One of the telling signs of the lesser-experienced player is lack of nuance. They learn a song or a lick but they are more concerned with just powering through it and getting through the part, not milking it and really making it musical. Plenty of young guns have the dexterity to blaze through stuff, but the lack of nuance makes it sound rushed, forced, stiff, and other terms you don’t want describing your playing.
Slow down and listen close…don’t glaze over the good stuff.

Embrace Your Quirks

Everyone has little weird habits that repeatedly surface in their playing, some good, some bad – usually they end up forming the basis of your style. Even if you are trying to play someone else’s lick, you’re going to slip in those little quirks – let em flow…embrace idiosyncrasies – one day they may set you apart (in a good way).

Black Belt in Guitar

In the martial arts there is a concept called ‘Shuhari’ which translates loosely to Imitate, Assimilate, then Transcend…or Innovate. A beginner learns by first copying the teacher move-for-move. Just like learning licks from another player.

The next stage – assimilation – also thought of as Detachment, is where the student breaks from the patterns and rules and questions their place in the big picture. This is the self-discovery part – on guitar it’s where all the licks and techniques you copy start to (hopefully) make sense in the bigger picture – in other words – how to play musically, not just parroting others licks.

The final stage – Transcendence – is where the rules are irrelevant – what’s right is just ‘known’. The guiding light in this stage is Intuition – Instinct is honed from years of patient practice and observation, and now it all comes together in a natural, fluid way. Effortless action, ready to create.
If you’re just starting out, don’t avoid imitation, it’s an important stage. It gets you on the right track faster than just randomly hacking away on your own. You’ll find that most ‘child prodigies’ go through a really heavy imitation phase, where they emulate a certain hero so closely people wonder if they’ll ever break away. If they really have what it takes, and/or a good teacher, they eventually move into other phases and become great players.

Be a Sponge

If you want to become a more versatile player, open your ears and learn all you can. Expose yourself to all sorts of music – learn to recognize certain styles of playing even within other genres. You might hear jazz licks in a rock tune, just played more aggressively…or blues licks in a metal tune, etc… It’s all out there like a big hodge-podge now… bending the rules is the norm. Be as versatile and open as you can and you’ll get more gigs, more opportunities to play and have fun with it. Soak it up!