Every guitarist should know the importance
of a large vocabulary. You want
to emote—you want to “speak” through
your guitar in any given situation. That
takes a vast, memorized database of licks
that you’ve accumulated and rehearsed a
million times. Or does it?
I’m a big advocate for preparedness, so
I say “Yes!” You should be writing at least
one lick a day, playing it all over the neck in
various keys and grooves, and—most importantly—
working it into your improvisations.
Did that lick “stick?” When you write a lick
tomorrow will you remember this one? I
hope so, but realistically, I doubt it.
You see, we simply don’t remember most
of the licks we write. My suggestion would
be to record them and classify them by
genre and revisit them as situations arise.
Every lick you write is progress and some of
them inherently will stick, but most won’t.
So how do we avoid the following all-too common
You’ve got a gig. You’ve rehearsed plenty.
All your friends are there. The hot chick in
the front row is giving you “you’re a rock
god” eyes (assuming you’re not playing an
instrumental gig). Your amps are finally
fired up to the level they’re supposed to be.
The downbeat drops and whoosh! Crickets.
What little vocabulary you mastered is
seemingly gone with the wind like the
sound guy’s burrito from last night. Ugh!
We’ve all been there. But how do we
avoid this situation while working on
our vocabulary? We develop methods to
deliver creative, stylish, and musical ideas
on the fly as if these ideas have been part
of our vocabulary for years. How do we do
this seeming miracle of musical mastery?
Remain calm. It’s not that hard. The answer
is two fold: concepts and motifs.
For our purposes, we’ll define a “concept”
as a combined execution of technique,
rhythm, phrasing, and dynamics. These are
the basic building blocks of anything cool
and stylish in music. We can further define
these concepts by adding in direction of play
using patterns, shapes, or linear lines.
Simply put, here’s how to build a concept:
Think of a technique, throw some
appropriate rhythm and phrasing (musical
punctuation) on it, then add in “feel”
through the use of dynamics. Easy enough
right? It should be. But it’s these basic musical
elements that we seem to forget when
we step into that performance situation. It’s
not a bad idea to write down “concept =
technique, rhythm, phrasing, dynamics” and
keep that in front of you just as a reminder
to stay musical! Now that we understand
what a concept is and how to keep it in
mind, let’s hand some to the audience on a
silver platter through the use of motifs.
A motif is a repeated concept. Simple as
that. How do you create a motif? Take your
concept, repeat it at different parts of a scale
via patterns, shapes, or directions (linear,
diagonal, cross-fret), and voilà! You’re playing
a lovely, creative, musical line that wasn’t
pre-meditated but still sounds “vocab.”
All we need to have in our minds (in
real time) are those creative concepts. That’s
it. Then, through the wonderful and often
overlooked power of repetition, we link
those concepts to create as long a musical
line as we want. Think of building a chain.
The concepts are the links. You can add
(repeat) links as much as you want to build
as long a chain (motif ) as desired. Our
minds aren’t filled with those specific, memorized
licks, only the concepts. That’s how
we can create awesome lines on the fly and
why our improv can get better in no time!
Okay, enough chit-chat: Let’s put hand
to fretboard and bring this all to life.
First, let’s think of a concept. Let’s pick
some details, like key and quality. How
about G major (Fig. 1). We’ll pair a tripletphrased
rhythm with alternate picking and
a pull-off. We’ll play with three notes per
string, but repeat them in our phrase, thus
having five total attacks on that string. It’ll
sound something like Fig. 2.
Let’s further define the concept by simply
choosing a direction or path to play on.
You can use the shape of a favorite pattern,
a linear line up and down a string, a diagonal
path, or any combination thereof. Let’s
play down a diagonal path that will start on
the 15th fret on the 1st string and go as low
as the 9th fret on the 5th string.
Now all we do is play the concept on
the path, and we’re playing our motif. This
divine musical combo produces our onthe-
fly, creative, musical line that seems like
something out of a practiced vocabulary.
Woo-hoo! For our purposes today, I’m
going to keep things diatonic (all in the key
of G major). Here’s the final result in Fig.
3. You’ll notice the bend to finish the line.
Something different is always nice to break
up the repetition of a motif.
Let’s do one more example. Again, first
create a concept. For this one, we’ll use
A minor pentatonic as our key and tonal
quality. Check out Fig. 4, otherwise known
as the “E” shape from the CAGED system.
Let’s pick tapping as our technique
and we’ll play it with a simple 16th-note
rhythm. Now let’s add direction. Our fretting
hand is going to play the pattern across
the neck from high E to low E. Our tapping
hand is going to tap straight across the
12th fret in the same manner.
Now let’s phrase it. We’ll tap on E, pulloff
to C, pull-off again to A, and then use a
“hammer-on from nowhere” to tap on the
G found on the 8th fret of the 2nd string
(Fig. 5). That’s our complete concept. Now,
we’re going to simply take that concept
and move it down one adjacent string at a
time, remembering to play in the pattern
with our fretting hand and straight across
the 12th fret with our tapping hand. Let’s
add the adjacent string and we get Fig. 6. If
we keep adding on adjacent strings, we get
our motif in full (Fig. 7), again creating a
great, musical line developed on the fly by
just thinking of one cool concept and then
So there you have it. We know a vocabulary
is essential, but being able to improvise
and create lines in real time is paramount.
The truth is that in a performance, it’s
about 30 percent vocab and 70 percent
on-the-fly ideas. Yes, 70 percent is a big
number but hopefully, with the methods I
presented today, filling your 70 percent will
become creative, musical and fun.
has spent the last
13 years touring the world with Steve Vai. He
also teaches at Musician’s Institute (where he
was once a student) and is the creator of Riff
of the Week, one of the premier online guitar
education websites. For more information,