What’s the difference between a guitar improvisation that makes you beg for more, and one that bores you to death?
Is it the scales the guitar player is using?
Is it the quantity of positions the guitar player can play the scales in?
Is it how fast the guitarist can play?
Or is it the complexity of the solo?
If you answered yes to any of the questions above, let me introduce you to guitar phrasing, the main thing that distinguishes a great guitar solo from one that sends you to sleep.
To explain the concept of guitar phrasing, I’m going to give you an example of how a solo played by a guitar player who doesn’t care about phrasing would look like.
A guitar player who’s improvising all the time like this is basically telling you two things:
- That he knows the A minor pentatonic scale in the 5th position inside out
- And that his main intent is to convince you that he does.
I realized all this, when a guitar teacher told me:
“I know that you know the scale, but I asked you to improvise”
That was my first real lesson in guitar improvisation.
I can’t recall whether my teacher used the term guitar phrasing or not, but what clicked in at that moment was that all those sequences I was practicing on my scales were only meant as an exercise.
That those 1-2-3-4/2-3-4-5/4-5-6-7 etc. exercises I was practicing were a means to an end, not the end itself.
While exercises like these have a lot of value, they only show you what notes to play.
Guitar phrasing is about how those notes are played.
Now, while learning your guitar, apart from your scales and arpeggios that guide you to what notes you play, you should also be working on techniques such as bending strings, vibrato and legato playing among others.
These are all different kinds of guitar phrasing techniques, since they’re all related to how the notes are played.
However, guitar phrasing as a concept, goes even beyond being able to play those techniques correctly.
It’s more of a guitar playing mindset where you are using those techniques to create melodies and, as the name suggests, musical phrases.
When you think in terms of “creating the most beautiful melodic phrases possible” instead of “putting in as many notes as possible, using the right scales” while improvising on guitar, guess what will happen?
You will actually start creating beautiful melodies!
If you know the guitar phrasing techniques that you’re going to use in your melodies well, and if you are actually using the right scale, this simple shift in thinking will completely change the quality of your improvisations.
If you don’t know what scales to use, read this lesson on getting started with improvisation, practice some basic improvisation on one scale and come back to this lesson.
The next lick is also in the A minor pentatonic. Unlike the lick above (the one without phrasing) it uses very few notes. Four in total – three notes are struck and one is bent up to.
Yet, these few notes create a way more interesting melody than the mumbo of jumbo of notes above, albeit being the right notes.
This melody is pretty simple and, as you’ll see below, you can make it more complex if you want.
However, since the emphasis was on creating a melody, it actually is a melody! And quite a pretty one by my books.
What we’ll do next is go into some components you can use to make your guitar solos sound great by applying guitar phrasing techniques.
While the subject of guitar phrasing goes way beyond the topics discussed here, the following are more than enough to get you started in “thinking phrasing”.
- Motif and variation
A motif is a small musical idea that is repeated in different forms, throughout the solo.
Our ears usually don’t like hearing the same thing over and over again.
Yet, they love clinging to something they already know.
Thus, what really satisfies our hearing buds is the repetition of something we can recognize, used in different forms and variations.
Though a motif can be even shorter, in the lick above, each motif lasts one bar.
I use the same rhythm in the first three bars (repetition) as well as play around with the same few notes (more repetition) during the whole lick.
Yet, because of the way those few notes are repeated in a different order, and have different phrasing techniques (string bending, vibrato and legato) applied to them this melody is way more interesting than the first, and actually deserves to be called a melody.
In the last bar, I also changed the rhythm, another variation that can be applied to your motifs.
- Use of long notes
If you can play guitar fast, (click here if you can’t) I’m sure you love playing a lot of short notes like semiquavers and triplets.
It’s fun, isn’t it?
However, if you don’t also include long notes in your solos, the only person having fun will be yourself, not anybody who’s listening to you.
Needless to say, this doesn’t mean you have to play slow all the time.
What it means is that you shouldn’t get lost on speed, while ignoring – among other things, phrasing. And for that you’re probably going to need to use long notes.
If you play this lick very fast, it’s the triplet notes that allow you to show off how fast you can play, but it’s the crotchets and minims in bars 2 and 4 that make it sound like a real melody and not just an exercise in showing off your speed on guitar.
- String bending and vibrato
These two guitar phrasing techniques are, in my opinion, the most powerful of all.
Phrasing is about how notes are played and string bending allows us guitar players to play the notes in a way a singer can, but a pianist can’t.
When you play two notes following each other on a piano, or a guitar (unless you apply string bending) in a melody, as soon as the first note stops being heard, you start hearing the next one.
For instance, here is the note C, followed by the note D.
After the note C is heard for two beats you pick the note D, and in that instant, the note changes from C to D.
If I bend, the note C to the note D though, as soon as I start bending the note C, I’m gradually increasing the pitch to the note D, to the extent that there is no noticeable point where it stops being a C and becomes a D.
This is the way it would be notated, if a composer meant a bent C to D, instead of having them played after each other.
An interesting aspect of phrasing, is to play the same things in a different way, and string bending is one technique that makes this possible.
For instance, in the example above, I can play the note C and bend it to the note D until I reach second beat. Or bend it more slowly so that it reaches the D by the third beat, or by the fourth.
The possibility to vary the speed of the bend gives you a huge amount of different ways you can play a note bent to another.
Another possibility is to delay your bend. That would be, in this case, holding the C for a beat, less, or more, then bending it to the D.
You can even apply vibrato on top of the bend. Or else strike the D again.
There are so many ways to play the same two notes!
The same thing applies to vibrato technique. By altering how wide and how fast you bend the strings during the vibrato, you can get an infinite number of different sounds from the same note.
- Use rests
Silence can really be golden when you’re improvising.
Rests, are, in a way, the commas and the full-stops of music, which I will try to show in the next example:
In the lick above, the rests, together with the bent notes, make it sound like a melody, rather than a group of notes from the same scale thrown in together.
Guitar Phrasing: The Concept
Go back to the first lick in this lesson, and compare it with the ones that follow it.
Do you notice the difference?
If you do, you have understood the concept of guitar phrasing. You have learnt that it’s not a just a matter of what notes, or how many notes you put in, but how you actually play them that makes a guitar solo great.
The next step is application. Pick up your guitar and try to come up with an improvisation that’s within your current abilities.
If you still can’t bend strings and execute vibrato technique correctly, don’t worry, leave them out of your improvisations for now, and practice them separately.
What matters here is how you think, not what techniques you’ll be using.
The more techniques you know, the more choices you have on your palette but if you start thinking in terms of melodies, you will start creating melodies, no matter how limited your choices are.
And as you increase your choices by learning phrasing techniques and improving the way you think about your practicing and playing you will start playing guitar solos that make heads turn, probably sooner than you’re expecting.
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