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Guitar Phrasing—part 2
by Nick Layton
In my first article, “Improving Your Phrasing, Part 1,” I explained what phrasing is and why it is important for guitarists to develop this critical skill. I also showed you a few ways in which you could start the process of improving your own skills.
Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about some of the concepts I presented. I gave you a brief list of things you could do to begin applying the concepts and ideas. In this article, I want to dig a bit deeper into these things, and present some other ideas as well that will hopefully be helpful to you in your quest for greater self-expression.
The idea of equating your guitar phrasing with your phrasing patterns when you speak is a very simple concept. But don’t let its simplicity fool you. This is a very powerful idea that can transform the way you play. Let’s look at a couple of specific ways in which you can use this idea to your advantage.
Breathing your phrases: one of the things that comes natural to us as we speak is the necessity to pause from time to time to catch our breath. It isn’t often that you hear someone rattling off word after word, sentence after sentence, without stopping to catch their breath. However, it does happen and most of us have been on the receiving end of a one-way conversation like that at some point. How did it make you feel? In my own experience, I feel irritated with those types of encounters. No-one likes to be talked “at”. Here’s the point I’m trying to make: How many guitar-players talk “at” their listeners instead of trying to communicate something to them? It would appear that, for some guitarists, the whole goal of their “communication” is to dominate the “conversation,” rattling off every technique known to man at warp speed and without pause. I wonder if these players understand what effect this type of phrasing has on their listeners.
Contrast that approach with a mature player who is, in fact, a virtuoso, but elects to communicate with his audience. For sure, there will be flurries of wonderfully advanced playing – fast runs, lightning-quick arpeggios, etc. – but this will be balanced with musical passages containing beautiful vibrato, emotional note-bending, and rhythmic variation.
I’m not saying that fast, virtuoso playing is unemotional. It certainly is very emotional and passionate at times, and is a wonderful tool for self-expression. However, it is only one piece of the puzzle. One of the biggest problems some inexperienced players have is that they use their technical skill to cover up their poorly developed phrasing skills. In other words, they play fast constantly to try to mask the fact that they lack the necessary skills to truly communicate and express themselves. This is a shame, but it is correctable.
Okay, so hopefully you’ve decided that you do not want to be a guitarist who talks “at” his audience with very little to say. Let’s try this breathing exercise together. The point of this is to demonstrate that there is an inherent natural flow to effective communication. There must be words, notes, and substance, but there also must be space and rest.
Step 1: Take a seat in your usual practice space. You should be sitting upright so that you can breathe properly. Inhale deeply as you would when you are getting ready to say something important. As you exhale, try and sing a little melody until you run out of breath. Give this a try before continuing.
Did you do it? Most likely, your melody wasn’t very long. Don’t worry if it wasn’t the greatest melody in the world. Perhaps it wasn’t even an original melody…. that doesn’t matter.
Step 2: Repeat Step 1 four (4) times in succession. The 1st time, sing a melody. Then pause, and inhale. As you exhale, make your 2nd melody an attempt to “answer” your 1st one. The 3rd time, sing another new melody, and the 4th time, attempt to answer the 3rd melody. This process is called “call and response.” Many great blues singers and guitarists have mastered this technique.
If you’ve done this, you now have four (4) bars of naturally-flowing music that you composed, and you didn’t even touch your guitar.
Practice doing this in as many music situations as possible. Here are a few possibilities: the next time you are composing a song or melody, try this breathing method first. Sing your melodies along with the chords. Do this over and over until you find a melody you like. Then grab your guitar and learn the notes. Also, be creative with this exercise; don’t just blandly spit out a melody. Use different rhythmic groupings, inflections, and dynamics. Use your imagination!
Another valuable thing you can do is study the phrasing styles of other guitarists. You should also spend time studying artists of other instruments, but for now, let’s stick to guitarists.
Now that you are more in tune with the elements that make up effective phrasing, it will be much easier to recognize these elements in the playing of others. Put on a CD of one of your favorite guitar-players. Choose a solo that you particularly like. Does the solo have a natural ebb-and-flow to it? Are there fast and slow passages? Where do the natural pauses occur? Do you feel as if the player is playing “at” you, or do you feel as if the player is communicating with you?
Before wrapping this article up, let’s analyze a solo together. Keep in mind that my observations and thoughts may be different than your own. That’s okay. The goal is not for you to think like me, but to make your own value judgments based on what you like and don’t like. As you do this more and more, you’ll find that the things you like start popping up in your own playing. This is great! You might want to keep a notebook of your thoughts as you listen to various players. You will surely get many ideas for your own phrases, just by listening. Sometimes you may want to transcribe some of the things you like, and other times it’s just cool to listen and soak it in.
Let’s listen to Eddie Van Halen’s solo in the song “Panama” from the album 1984. Whether you like Eddie or not is irrelevant to the purpose of this study. Allow me to make some observations.
- At (CD time) 2:05, the solo begins with a Chuck Berry-style phrase which has been “Van Halen’ized”. Notice the bent note at 2:08 which serves as a kind of “pause” before the flurry of notes to follow from 2:09 to 2:11.
- Notice the bend at 2:11 which is the end of the preceding phrase, and serves as another short pause in the action.
- The next phrase from 2:12 to 2:15 has all kinds of phrasing ideas, using tapped notes on bends.
- Check out the staccato phrasing and rhythm of the line beginning at 2:16 and leading into the breakdown section at 2:18.
- From 2:19 to 2:53, we hear Eddie playing some very seductively laid-back phrases, using a mixture of lead and rhythm guitar passages. Notice the effect this passage has upon you. For me, this section is perfect, because it balances out all of the many notes that preceded it, and contains some very vocal-like phrasing.
Eddie’s solo on this song reminds me of what it’s like to take off in an airplane. At first, there is a lot of speed and excitement, followed by a bit of turbulence until finally the airplane reaches altitude and levels off.
In the next article we’ll begin exploring how to improve your phrasing by using advanced technique in a musical, melodic way. See you next time!
I have prepared a FREE text and audio lesson on Phrasing for you. You can download it now Here.
©2008 Nick Layton
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