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Fretboard Workshop: Developing Vocabulary - Concepts and Motifs

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.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand how to create and develop musical phrases.
• Learn the difference between a concept and a motif.
• Create a large phrase vocabulary to use when the spotlight is on.

Click here to download sound clips from this lesson's notation.

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 situation?

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 repeating it.

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.

Dave Weiner 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, visit