You’ve probably heard from several players that learning licks or lines is an important ingredient to mastering improvising. I’m no exception. It has been proven to me time after time how helpful emulating favorite musicians is to developing as a player. Despite popular belief, we’re not born with music running through our veins. We have to put it there. Only a very very few musicians are “naturals” able to make up their own music without hearing or copying other players. Most of us normal folk need to surround ourselves with music and force feed it to ourselves. After a few short years of copying the licks and styles of our heroes, we will begin to discover our own individual style.
Let me give you the short version of my own learning guitar story. When I was young I never gave the notion of sounding “original” a second thought. I simply wanted to sound exactly like my favorite players. In my late teens and early twenties I practiced over ten hours a day. I’d latch on to the “hot” guy at the time and spend weeks trying to cop every note off his record. Over the next ten years or so I emulated many of the top players traversing from rock to blues and finally spending the most time in the jazz world. If someone came up to me at a gig and said “Don, you sound just like George Benson!” I would happily respond with: “Thank you very much!” I had accomplished my goal.
A few years later when playing a gig in L.A. an excited fan came up to me and said; “Don, I have never heard anyone play like that before! How did you come up with all that stuff?” He insisted that I had a very original style and wanted to know how I developed it. I told him that it just happened all by itself. I explained that sounding like no one else was not my intent, I just wanted to play as well as the guys on my records. I later realized that my style was a natural evolution of learning. No matter how hard I tried to sound like my record collection, I would always end up sounding like myself.
Students of other art forms such as painting or poetry, also find that emulating the styles of the masters paves the way to their own originality. My playing is a mixture of many influences culminating into my own style. (My only regret is not spending more time on horn and piano players.)
I should mention that throughout my years of studying recordings, I paralleled this with an intense study of music theory. All the hot licks in the world would have been useless had I not known what scale or chords they belonged to. Theory can also help you find new ways to use licks that you know. I soon began to superimpose lines over different chords than on the recording. I also changed individual notes, rhythms, added bends, as well as stylistic inflections such as hammer-ons and pull-offs.
And then there is musical style. Who says you have to play lines in the same style, or with the same guitar sound as the original artist? This was my ace in the hole. I often took lines from traditional jazz players like Joe Pass and played them in a jazz/fusion setting with screaming distortion on my Les Paul. I combined maybe a Hendrix lick with a Pat Martino phrase. McLaughlin with Montgomery, etc. You get the idea.
I could name a long list of extraordinary guitar players who all learned to play the same way I did. In many cases, it’s nearly impossible, when hearing them play, detecting who their influences were.
The note-for-note learning of lines from recordings or from books mature in a players mind and soul in the following manner. At first, a new line may feel foreign with uncomfortable fingerings, tricky picking patterns and unfamiliar sounds. After a few weeks of practicing the line, it starts to feel more natural yet still seems a bit mechanical. Several months later the line is comfortable but you still must consciously think of it as “so and so’s lick” to recall it. After a year or so, the line starts to become a part of you. You find yourself humming it and can play it with almost unconscious thought. The line by now has also probably changed a bit. You might be playing it with different accents or maybe changed a few notes or the rhythmic orientation (triplets instead of 8th notes, etc). You may even have unknowingly connected it to another line idea.
And finally, a few years down the road, you may not even remember the specific line as you first learned it. It has evolved to a pure musical thought that you “hear” in your head. And “playing what you hear” is, after all, what improvising is all about.
- Don Mock