Language and Music

Why musical progress is similar to learning a foreign language…

How many licks did you learn in your life as a guitar player? I guess and hope its a whole bunch of them! Learning to play killer guitar licks and phrases from other virtuoso guitarists brings a huge benefit to your own playing and helps you along the way to become a good musician, no doubt about this.

But have you ever made the following experience? You learned thousands of licks, but when it comes to real life guitar playing like gigging with a band or especially lead guitar improvisation when being together with other musicians or along with a backing track, you really sucked in spite of all these licks? Then you asked yourself:

"What do I have to do in order to rip off these licks without problems and make them always fit perfectly and smoothly into the actual playing context?

Here is what you should think about:
Playing guitar without limitations and with the full capacity of free expression requires a lot of different skills which have to work and function together like the gears in a transmission unit.

Practicing licks is like learning vocabulary when you want to get familiar with a foreign language. Can you communicate with other people if you have learned 4000 vocabs by heart? Probably not, because you lack the capability of using them in an applicative context! You may learn 4000 more of these guys and still you are unable to order a pizza in a restaurant with a properly formulated sentence.

So why would you want to know how to play even more licks if you are not able yet to use the licks you already know in a real musical context? This is the dead road many guitarists walk along always wondering why they make no musical progress even though they practice guitar many hours per week. They know a lot of „stuff“ but they don’t know and especially don’t practice how to use it.

The most effective way to learn a language is by getting into contact with other people, talk to them, have good conversations, read newspapers, watch movies or TV shows or listen to the radio. This way we see how the vocabularies we have learned with a lot of effort are applied in real life situations and also we practice them by using coherently formulated sentences.

Now how can you apply this knowledge to your own guitar practice? Below is a list of things you should do as soon as you have learned a new lick that you really like. These suggestions give you ideas on how to use the things you know like the vocabularies in a real life conversation. Mind that this is not a linear process and that you should use many of these ideas at the same time and that there is no step by step process involved. Starting off learning a language by thinking you must learn 1000 vocabs before you even formulate your first sentence would likewise lead to a lot of frustration and slow down the learning process massively.

You will make way more progress in your guitar playing if you take this advice by heart! Of course you may suck in some areas especially in the beginning, but there is absolutely no reason to worry about this! All professional guitar players have been in your situation one day and have gone through the same frustrations as you. If you don’t experience this on your own you won’t get where you want to be!

So here is what you do if you learn a new lick. Alternatively you can also try these things with licks you already know very well:

  • Find as many different variations of the lick as possible. Following are some ideas on how to do this:
    • Change the rhythm
    • Take away some notes
    • Transpose it into another key or even in another mode
  • Find as many different ways as possible to play the lick on different spots of the fretboard and with different sets of fingers
  • Try to play the same lick over and over again by using different phrasing techniques such as vibrato, bend notes and slides
  • Use different backing tracks and try to alter the lick so it fits well to the music you hear
  • Use a variation of the lick to create your own melody or even create a whole song with it

If you apply these ideas on a regular basis, you will realize that your improvisation skills will shoot through the roof. These things will trigger a whole bunch of creative processes in your brain that will enhance your musical development and help you become the guitar player you always desired to be. Also it helps you to sound similar to your favorite guitarists without becoming a carbon copy of them!

Keep this in mind every time you learn something new and you will enjoy the process of learning songs, licks, riffs and solos way more in the future because you get ten times more value out of one single musical idea by doing so compared to just mindlessly practicing it!

I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope it helps you become who you deserve to be!

About the Author:
Constantin Einzmann is a professional musician, guitar teacher and skilled mechanical engineer. He is the founder of the ShredFactory, a successful music school offering Gitarrenunterricht in Augsburg Germany.