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When you hear the word "fluent", what's the first thing that comes into your mind? If you're like most of us, you think of someone who knows a language so well that they can "think in" the language. That is, they don't have to formulate an idea in English (let's say), translate it in their head into another language, then speak that phrase. As soon as the thought occurs to them, they talk about it, just like we all do in our native languages. Just think about what's involved in having a conversation in English (assuming that's native for you) - how much effort does it take? None! And that's the goal with music, as well.

It's been said that the two truly universal languages are mathematics and music. This makes sense, since the interrelationships between notes, harmonics, and even the way chords are constructed have their bases in mathematics. Just as π is 3.14159.... all around the universe, middle "C" is always 256 Hz (as far as we know ;-). By the way, as I describe the steps toward musical fluency, I've decided to tell it in the first person - how it happened to me. I'll share a few stories from my students, as well. I want to avoid sounding like I've got "The Answer", because no one does.

When I first began trying my hand at improvisation, the first thing that hit me right off is that I had no idea how to play any real tune on the guitar, one note at a time! I'd heard guitarists on records do it, even seen them on TV, but it seemed intensely complex. (Actually, it is.) I figured that the best way to learn to play like that was to learn their solos, note-for-note, if possible. Also, I was just starting to play with other guys, and I knew that being able to play a well-known solo, note-for-note, would be a major plus for the group. But mainly, it was the only method I could think of.

I immediately saw that trying to pick apart fast guitar solos, while listening at full speed, would be a lost cause, so I started recording my albums on reel-to-reel tape, at 7 7/8 in/sec, then playing them back at 3 3/4. The solos were half as fast, but also an octave lower. It was not an easy process, and the results were barely usable. Now, with AudioTran and the like, this part's become quite a bit easier. But it was when I was learning, and still is, a grueling process.

After a couple of years of working this way, as well as jamming with different people, upgrading equipment when I could, etc., I probably knew around 100 solos that I could replicate pretty well. The more I played, the more a realization started to dawn on me: I wasn't playing the solos because I knew where my fingers were supposed to be at a certain time, or even by visualizing the fretboard in a certain memorized way.

I was playing these solos because I knew them in my head - I had the tune memorized - but the translation from the tune in my head to my hands playing the tune was becoming immediate! I could not believe it!

The first time I realized this, I was in the midst of playing some solo, and I got so freaked out I blew my place in the lead! But I'd do it again in a flash, because that was an epiphany that took me years to fully understand. I'd glimpsed a flash of true musical fluency, where all I had to do was know how it went in my head and I could play it almost reflexively.

BUT - the most exciting aspect of this incredible experience for me was the realization that I might be able to, instead of playing a solo I knew, compose the solo - on the spot - and be able to concentrate completely on the evolving melody instead of how to play it, since I knew that if I heard it in my head, I could play it on the guitar. Wow.

How Do You Know I'm Not Already Fluent? (yes, I've been asked this multiple times!)

I don't. Maybe you are! If so, great; you can stop here and move on. Oh - how could you tell? Piece of cake. Sit with your guitar, with no sources of noise, in a quiet room. Have someone with you who has a pad of paper and pencil. Improvise in any key, at any speed, and sing along with your solo. Have your friend make a mark on a pad every time you don't sing and play the same note. Do it for around five minutes, but definitely not less than three. If you don't get at least 80% of them right, you're nowhere near fluent.

Actually, the fact that you're asking gave the answer - musicians who are fluent are very aware of it, because it's nothing you're born with. Everyone attains fluency the same way - by investing huge amounts of time, repetition, and more time.

OK, How Do I Start?

We start by defining the ultimate goal - to be able to make up a tune to a known chord progression, and sing (or hum, or whatever)  the improvised solo while you're playing it. I suggest staying with the type of music you already have the most experience with, and presumably enjoy the most. Usually, musicians with any improvisation experience are already familiar with the pentatonic minor scale, also called the "blues scale". In the key of C, the notes are C, Eb, F, G, and Bb. Actually, many, if not most guitarists reading this probably visualize the scale according to a diagram like the one to the right (please click it to see the full-size image). So, for now, this is the key we'll work with.

The Program**

It's easiest to understand the concept by looking at the steps through which you'll progress, if you decide that this approach is worth a shot.

1. Find a slow-medium tempo blues solo in the key of C that's not too difficult and which you like a lot.*

2. Using whatever means works for you, work out the solo for the first four cycles (where a cycle is one 12-bar progression). If necessary, use a music-slowing software program like AudioTran or Song Surgeon (see the Practice page).

3. Continue to play along with the solo until you have it down COLD. Go for perfection. If you've ever had problems with perfectionism, this is the time to let it out! (If you doubt this, please check out the quotes in the Practice page about the need for perfection.)

4. Start humming (or whistling) along with your playing. Keep doing it until it feels automatic. This will probably take much longer than you'd think.

5. Turn the balance control on your mp3 player so that the guitar channel is mute, then play and hum along with the solo.

6. Repeat step five, except hum and play your own notes. It will feel scary, disorienting, and really strange. You might try turning off any background music so that it's just you and your axe. It's probably about time you got to know each other a little more intimately, anyway. Think of a little riff, then play/hum it. When you're ready, stop humming.

Revel in the developing realization that all you have to do is improvise a tune with your innate creativity and you can play it as naturally as singing or humming it used to be!

You're there! You'll refine and coordinate these suggestions into your own style, but you'll never again have to experience that panicked feeling of not knowing if your improvisation is headed in a direction you like - because you'll always know exactly what notes you'll play before you hit a single one.

Last point: The immediate question that comes up every time I discuss this is, of course, "How long does it take to become musically fluent?" And the answer, of course, is "It depends." And it really does, on the guitarist's drive to excel, willingness to invest huge amounts of time in something whose payoff is not perceptible week after week, readiness to accept input from more experienced musicians, humility, focus, ability to withstand frustration, strong belief in oneself, and lots of others.

*One solo which I used, and still recommend all the time, is the jam with Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper on the album "Super Session"; the tune is called "Really". It's in "C". You can download it here.
** You may be wondering if singing along with playing is generally accepted as a way to become fluent. Well, there's no governing body setting standards, but I doubt you can find a program that does NOT advocate this method!

Copyright ©2009-2012 - T. Howard Black
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