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Guitar Phrasing—part 1
by Nick Layton
Many times you will hear or read about professional guitar players talking about the elusive topic of phrasing. Guitar teachers talk about it in their lessons and books. We hear about how important it is to have good phrasing and to spend time working on it. Well, what the heck is phrasing anyway? And, if we can define it, why is it important? Before we continue, test yourself here to see if YOU really know what phrasing is and how it needs to be practiced.
My aim with this article is to clear up any confusion about what phrasing is and, more importantly, show why it is critically important to you as a guitar player to develop it. Finally, I will show you some very easy and practical ways to dramatically improve your improvisations and guitar solos almost immediately—just by changing how you approach the guitar and how you think about phrasing.
I once tried explaining this subject of phrasing on the guitar to a non-musician friend of mine. She had heard someone refer to a guitar solo as having “good phrasing”, and she wanted to understand what it meant. Musical lingo doesn’t usually work with non-musicians, so I had to think of a way to relate it to her in simple, everyday terms. After giving it some thought, I decided the best explanation was by way of making an analogy to human speech—something most everyone can relate to, right?
When we speak, we use words to convey meaning to the listener. We combine these words to make sentences. But we don’t only use words and sentences. How we say those words can make a huge difference in both the meaning of what we are saying and the listener’s interpretation of what is being said. If we are angry, we might raise our voice, or if we are sad we might whisper…we may pause for effect or put emphasis on a certain word. We use inflections to give more meaning to the things we say. This process we use when we speak is called phrasing. We all have our own phrasing style or way of speaking and using words. Most often this happens naturally and unconsciously.
In my analogy to my friend, I explained that when I improvise a guitar solo I use the same process I use when I’m speaking with someone. When I am speaking, I first think about what I want to say based on how I’m feeling and the circumstances, then I draw upon my vocabulary of words and put them together to form sentences (or phrases). I use inflections, dynamics, and pauses to make my points clear. The goal is to fully express what I want to say to the listener.
When I play a guitar solo, the same process happens… but instead of using words I use musical pitches, rhythm, articulation, and dynamics. I first think about what I want to “say” on my guitar, then I draw on my vocabulary of ideas and techniques to play the notes based on how I’m feeling as well as the musical context. But I don’t just play the notes. I might play faster to increase the intensity, or maybe I’ll hang on to a note and give it a wide vibrato to add emotion.
It should be clear by now that phrasing, whether in speech or guitar playing, is not so much what is being said but how it is said… or played.
So, how does all this relate to you becoming a better guitar player?
In my opinion, a guitar players’ ability to phrase is perhaps one of the greatest skills he/she can possess because it is directly related to self-expression. Further, phrasing is one of the least developed skills most guitar players have today. As a guitar teacher, I have noticed that most players are out of balance. As they progress to intermediate/advanced status, they usually have good technique but underdeveloped phrasing skills. I have put my students on the spot asking them to play from their heart and improvise a guitar solo. Know what usually happens? They stare back at me with this blank look of confusion and disbelief that I would ask them such a thing. After the blank stare, I’ll usually gently encourage them to just play something. Normally what comes out (if anything) is some mindless exercise or lick.
Herein lies a big problem that most guitar players face in this day and age of internet tab and short attention spans — they don’t know how to express themselves. If you get this, and you understand that self-expression is perhaps the greatest musical goal you can have, you can avoid the fate most of the tab-and-fingers-only players will meet… most of them will either give up from frustration or boredom. After all, how fun is music and playing guitar if you aren’t expressing yourself?
Technique is very important, make no mistake; and learning other people’s songs from tablature has its place. But self-expression happens when your heart, your emotions, your brain, your ears, your thoughts, your knowledge, and your fingers all come together simultaneously. This is a skill you can develop. But in order to do so you must change not only how and what you practice, but also how you think.
It is my belief that, as a whole, guitar players have the least developed phrasing skills of any musicians. The reason I bring this up is because I think there are a few very obvious reasons why this problem exists, and that by understanding the problem we can begin to fix it.
To illustrate what is at the heart of the problem, let’s examine how a saxophone player phrases and compare that to how most guitar players phrase. A saxophone player (or any wind/brass instrument) generates sound by using his/her wind (or breath) which comes from their lungs. This lends itself to a very natural way of phrasing. Why? Because they have to use their wind sparingly or they will run out of breath. There is only so much wind the lungs can generate so they must choose how they are going to use it. They may pause during a musical phrase to get their breath before continuing, and they will usually play a fast passage with one breath before pausing.
This is just like speech. We have to pause when we speak (to catch our breath) and we need to pause to let our words sink in. Most horn players have developed a very natural phrasing style because of the inherent limitations of breathing to sound the notes. Their phrases have beginnings and endings as well as natural timing; they also have lots of dynamics and nuance in their phrasing.
Could it be that guitar players generally have less developed phrasing skills because we usually learn to play with our fingers first? We learn finger exercises and licks and things to help us develop our technique, and these things can be good, but this doesn’t really show us how to phrase and express ourselves. Horn players are doing this from day one.
How many guitarists do you know who rattle off notes incessantly without pausing at all? Some guitarists get a bad rap for noodling too much…and rightly so! Their playing has no natural phrasing to it - no space to allow their notes to sink in to the listener.
Ok, so we have talked about what phrasing is and why it is important, and have determined that most guitar players need improvement in this area. So, what can we do to change this? The good news is that I think we can start improving our phrasing immediately and drastically just by changing the way we think.
The first thing we can do is simply start equating our playing with speech. Think about all the things that make up speech and try to implement them into your playing. Think in terms of sentences when you play a phrase. Try pausing more often as you would if you are speaking. Think about how you can use your instrument to make the notes sound like you are speaking (ie: use inflections, dynamics/volume, vibrato, bending, legato, staccato, etc.)
Secondly, listen to great horn or saxophone players. Notice how their phrasing is usually superior to most guitar players. See if you can apply what you hear to your own playing in your own style.
Thirdly, listen to guitar players who do have great phrasing. Study them, analyze them and use what you learn for yourself. In “Improving Your Phrasing - Part II,” we will look at some specific examples of great phrasing by several guitar players who excel in this area.
In closing, I’d like to point out that if you have begun thinking about these things, you are already ahead of most guitar players. You are on your way to learning how to express yourself. However, it is not enough to know what phrasing is or even to know some ways you can improve your phrasing. The key is application. Knowledge isn’t enough; you must begin to put this knowledge into action. My forthcoming articles will focus on this application process. Also, notice that in the survey mentioned at the top of the article most of the questions revolved around action steps (what you do/practice), rather than the mental concepts (what you “know”).
Until next time, I’ll leave you all with this quote by master motivator Napoleon Hill:
“HAPPINESS is found in DOING not merely in Possessing”
©2008 Nick Layton
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