Quite a few years ago I was having my weekly lesson with my jazz guitar tutor, and he said something interesting to me…

“If you learn one lick a week, in twenty years you’ll be able to play jazz”.

Now, obviously, he wasn’t being totally serious when he said that. After all, there’s a lot more to learning to improvise than just memorising licks. But the overall idea is this…

You need to constantly expand your vocabulary to improve your improvisation. Just like any other language, without a large vocabulary that you can access immediately with no thought, it is pretty hard to communicate in a fluid and effortless way.

I’ve definitely found this to be true. Over the years of teaching improvisation, I’ve noticed that the students who progress fastest will almost always be extremely disciplined and diligent in learning and mastering not only the licks that I give them, but also licks that they learn themselves from books, DVDs, and other sources. And I should say here…they don’t just dabble with the licks…they devour then.

The Experiment

We’re going to try a little experiment now. It will give you a better idea of just how big your current vocabulary actually is. It’ll also give you some feedback as to whether your current method of learning licks is working. It’s certainly not a scientifically designed experiment (I’m a guitar teacher, not a researcher)…but it can be a real eye-opener!

With that said, I invite you to go get your guitar now and do the following now…

Step One: Decide On An Improvisational Context

This step involves choosing a comfortable context for the improvisation you are about to do. For Example: If you’re a blues guitarist just starting to learn to improvise you might choose to solo over an A-Dominant Seventh chord. (Or, if you’re a bit more advanced at blues, you might decide to solo over an entire 12-bar blues in A, or any other key that you like to solo in).

Step Two: Set Your Metronome To A Comfortable Tempo

Here’s the catch…

For this experiment, you’ll be soloing to just a metronome click rather than a backing track. This makes things a bit more challenging, as you can’t rely on anyone else to make you sound good. It will also help put you slightly outside your comfort zone. This is important, because if you’ve internalised licks well enough, then you should still be able to play them even if you’ve never soloed to just a metronome click before.

Step Three: Turn On Your Portable Recorder

It’s a great idea to have a small portable recorder that you can use to record this experiment. (I like to use either a small mp3 recorder or my phone). Don’t worry about sound quality. As long as the recorder can pick up the metronome and your guitar then it’s perfect.

Step Four: Improvise For 3-Minutes Without Stopping

Turn on a stopwatch and improvise for three minutes in the context that you chose for Step One. For Example: If you chose to solo over an A-Dominant Seventh chord, you would play only licks and ideas that you know would work over that chord.

Don’t try to critique yourself as you play. Just keep soloing. Even if you think that what you’re playing sucks, just keep on going anyway. The aim is to play for three minutes without being overly analytical.

Step Five: Review The Recording

The last step is to listen back to the recording that you made. Write down your observations as you listen to the recording. And by the way, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t like what you hear. The key is to listen and learn rather than use the recording as an excuse to berate yourself!

How Did It Go?

For most guitarists, one of the following often happens…

  1. Their mind goes blank and they find it challenging to play anything. This can often mean they just haven’t memorised many licks…or that they haven’t internalised the licks to the point where they can play them without thinking.
  2. They can solo for the entire three minutes, but tend to repeat exactly the same licks and ideas a lot. This is to be expected for guitar players new to improvising, as they just haven’t had a lot of time to develop a large vocabulary. And to be honest, it can happen to even really experienced players…we all have “off-days”!
  3. The third thing that can happen is they’ll play for the full three minutes, and they will play licks and ideas that relate to each other in a meaningful way. In other words, their improvisation sounds like a complete solo rather than just a bunch of separate ideas that don’t relate to each other at all. In this case, it’s an extremely good sign that the guitarist has a really large vocabulary, and that they have internalised that vocabulary to the point where they can use it in a very fluent way.

What To Do If You Found This Experiment Hard

If you found it really hard to come up with ideas as you did your solo, then it can be really helpful to think about why. Here are a few questions you might like to ask yourself…

  • How long do you practice a lick for before you stop practising it? A Day? One week? A month?
  • How many licks have you internalised to the point where you can play them without thinking?
  • Are you diligent when it comes to reviewing licks that you have previously practised? Or do you tend to move onto new licks without ever going back to old licks to check that you can still play them?
  • Do you work on a lick until you can play it…or until the point where you don’t think you could ever forget it? (There is a huge difference in the results these two approaches will give you!).
  • What approach do you normally take when you learn new licks? Is it truly effective? If you feel that it is effective, then why was doing the experiment difficult?

A Few Final Words

I hope you found the experiment interesting. I know that I certainly learn something every time that I do it.

I should also mention here that it would also be very helpful to do this experiment every few months. That way you’ll be able to get some concrete feedback on just how well your vocabulary is expanding.

That’s all we have time for now. In an upcoming article, I’ll be giving you some ideas to make your lick learning more effective. But for now, just keep on having fun and practising hard!

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