Remember that kid in high school that would never shut up? This was the kid you avoided at all costs, because you knew that once they got you cornered and started talking they'd never stop. Sad though it may be, no one liked that kid.
So what does this have to do with playing guitar? Allow me to explain. The kid had no idea how to carry on a conversation. There was no give and take, no room for anyone else to get a word in, no awareness that anyone else had anything to say. In musical terms, we'd call that terrible phrasing.
Phrasing, in musical terms, deals not so much with what you play as it does with how you play it.
Another common metaphor that is helpful in understanding guitar phrasing is relating music to written language. Imagine reading a book that has no punctuation, no capitallization, no paragraphs or chapters. I can't imagine anyone spending more than a couple minutes trying to read this book. The same principle applies with music. A guitar solo that consists of two minutes of non-stop 16th notes will lose the audience pretty quickly. Music is a medium of communication, therefore it's our job as musicians to speak to our listeners through the music we play. The more articulate, the better. Great phrasing is the single biggest factor in making you sound like a pro.
Now that we've defined phrasing and discussed its importance, let's look at six practical steps we can take to improve our phrasing on the guitar.
The first step to improving your phrasing is to sing what you play. This is one of the most common pieces of advice I've heard given to guitarists, but one of the least actually used. I think the reason this advice is so often neglected is because it's just plain hard! This is the fastest way to test your knowledge of scales. It's one thing to memorize patterns up and down the fretboard, but it's another thing altogether to know the sound of the scale well enough to improvise with it vocally.
Another huge benefit of singing what you play is that it forces you to break up your musical ideas. Eventually you're going to have to stop singing and take a breath. And just like that, your phrasing improved!
Sometimes the quickest way to improve in any area you're working on as a guitarist is to set extreme limitations on yourself. One of the most effective methods I've found is to limit yourself to only one string. It's amazing how something so simple will slow you down so fast! This exercise forces you out of your old familiar scale patterns and box shapes.
Try something simple to start off with this technique. Create a simple loop on just an A minor chord. Then spend 2 minutes soloing on the high E string. Now spend 2 minutes soloing on the B string. Continue across all six strings. By the end of this 12 minute exercise, you'll have all kinds of new ideas for how to play over an A minor chord, plus your fretboard knowledge will have improved.
Rhythm is such an important element of music (some argue it is the most important element) yet it is often overlooked by guitarists. The temptation we all face is to spend all of our practice time working on note choice. With all of our options in terms of scales, modes, arpeggios, altered harmonies, etc., it's no wonder we spend so much time focusing on note choice. But here's the thing...a simple melody played with great rhythmic vitality sounds better than a super advanced melody played with sloppy rhythm. This is true every time. Guaranteed.
Here's an exercise to get you on the right track rhythmically. Take a simple rhythmic motif - let's say 8th note triplets followed by a quarter note. Fire up a loop or backing track that you're comfortable with. Spend a couple minutes improvising a solo, but only using the rhythmic motif of 8th note triplets followed by a quarter note. Each motif contains only four notes, so you'll have to be creative with them.
After that, choose another rhythmic motif that's a bit more complex or out of the ordinary for you. Do the same exercise with this new rhythmic motif. If you add this to your practice routine, it won't be long before you notice that you're giving just as much thought into your rhythms as you are your note choices. Brilliant.
What do I mean by texture? Glad you asked.
I'm willing to bet that 99% of the time you start into an improvised solo, it's the same old default single line stuff. Am I right? I know it's far too often the case for me. Try starting off with a different texture - octaves, double stops or a chord melody. This will send your solo in a new, exciting and potentially frightening direction.
You'll be surprised at how big a difference just a little variation in texture makes. It really doesn't take much to make your playing stand out from the crowd. Listen to the great jazz, funk, blues and country players if you want to hear texture variation in action.
Dynamics refers to variation in volume in music. In other words, how loud or soft you are playing. Amateur players have a tendency to play in a monotone fashion, never changing their dynamics at all. One easy way to develop dynamic variation in your playing is with scales. Take a familiar scale pattern that you are very comfortable with. Play the scale starting off at a very low volume and try to steadily increase the volume until you are at the top of the scale pattern. Then steadily decrease the volume on your way back down the scale pattern. Try to be as drastic as possible with this exercise. Then experiment with more subtle variations. It's far more difficult to decrease volume steadily than it is to increase it, so be aware of that while you're practicing.
Articulation has to do with the clarity of the notes you play. This involves many guitar techniques such as:
Here is an exercise to help you improve your articulation. Find a simple melody that is easy to play like "Mary Had A Little Lamb". Choose one of the techniques listed above as see how you can use it to dress up this melody. Try playing the melody as smoothly as possible once, then as staccato as possible after that. Try putting string bends wherever you can in the melody. See how many variations of this simple melody you can come up with just by employing these tried and true guitar techniques.
I saved the most important tip for last. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that music can be learned and mastered simply by reading books and articles on the matter. As helpful as these resources can be, music is an aural art form. Listening to one great song can teach you more than a thousand articles about guitar playing.
Over the last couple of years, my practice time was cut significantly compared to my college days. However, I did a lot more listening than ever before in my life. My chops have stayed about the same, but my phrasing has improved dramatically due to the active listening I've done. Active listening involves full engagement with the music. This is not the kind of listening you do when you're driving down the road with your friends. It's best when you can use a nice pair of headphones or good speakers and limit your distractions. Listen for things like dynamics, articulation, how the players respond to each other, textures, rhythms, tone, etc. Some of my favorite players to listen to in terms of phrasing are Brent Mason, Michael Thompson, Allen Hinds, Michael Landau, Robben Ford, Tom Bukovac, Carl Verheyen, Pete Thorn, Jimmy Bruno, Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour. I could go on and on, but this is a good start.
One more word of advice - don't listen only to genres, players and instruments you like. Branch out. You'd be surprised at what you find yourself actually enjoying.
So there you have it - 6 things you can do to improve your phrasing right away. Take your time with these tips and don't get frustrated when you don't become Michael Landau overnight! These things take time, but I guarantee you that if you put in the work with these 6 tips you'll be a better guitarist and musician because of it.
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