The Importance of Leaving Space (and/or Mean What You Say)

Musical phrasing is a big deal. A really big deal in fact. One of the easiest ways to instantly improve your phrasing is to simply play less...leave some space. This is easier said than done, especially for guitar players. It makes sense that it would be this way. I mean, most guitar players get their start learning to play chords and strummy rhythm guitar parts. Add to that the fact that most of us learn alone in a room, thus forcing us to fill up the space with notes.

But what happens when you learn to leave some space in your playing? Here are a few observations off the top of my head.

  • You have time to actually think about what you're playing. Let's be honest...it's easy to turn on auto-pilot and fall back on the tried and true patterns that have worked in the past. Engage your mind in a fresh way and say something musically.
  • You are freed up to listen to the other players. This is very much related to the first point. When your playing is filling up all the space, you'll miss what your bandmates are doing musically. This is especially critical when playing with a keyboard player or with another guitarist. Get a feel for what the other players are doing, then find a part that fits by varying the rhythm, texture or range.
  • Your band as a whole sounds tighter. When you're listening to your bandmates and being intentional in playing parts that fit, your band as a whole sounds much better. The more players there are, the more important this is. With each additional player in a band, your piece of the sonic spectrum shrinks. A friend of mine relates it to pieces of pie - the size of the pie never changes, but as you cut it to serve more pieces the size of each piece goes down.
  • Your parts stand out more. Playing music is a lot like carrying on a conversation. Some people dominate the conversation making it hard for anyone else to get a word in. Others pay attention to what everyone else is saying and offer a well-placed and well-worded comment, question, etc. Strive to be that guy in your band. People will listen.
  • You become much more valuable as a guitar player. The biggest result of leaving more space in your guitar playing is that you'll become much more valuable as a player. Singers will want to work with you. Other guitarists will want to work with you. Keyboard players will want to work with you. Producers will want to work with you. Your playing will be marked with maturity, and people notice that.

    If you want to hear an absolute master of guitar phrasing, head over to YouTube and search for Michael Landau with James Taylor. Check out any of the concert clips that show up in the search results. Listen to how Michael Landau's fills and licks complement the melody of the songs. Listen to how his guitar parts interact with the other band members' parts. If you're feeling really adventurous have a go at transcribing some of his licks.

    At your next gig or rehearsal, be intentional about leaving more space in your guitar playing. It may feel awkward at first, but stick with it. Progress always feels that way.


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