Introduction To Phrasing

In my teaching I often help guitarists that are very frustrated with their guitar soloing. They have been practicing scales, arpeggios and other musical materials for a long time but still feel that they lack the ability to solo in a musical way. Often they think that the answer is to just keep on learning new scales and arpeggios. Unfortunately this approach rarely works. What I recommend to them usually is to spend a lot less time on learning things like scales, and a lot more time on working on phrasing.

I've got to say here that phrasing is a vast subject. (There have been whole books written on it). So what I intend to do with this article is to give you a very quick overview of it. I will definitely be going into more detail in future articles, but this is only meant to be a little taste of this wonderful area of music study.

What Is Phrasing?

Well, it's probably best to start with defining what, in my opinion, a phrase is...

Guitar Phrase Definition

I like to think of a phrase like a sentence of a language. In English, and I'm assuming other languages, words are combined in a way that makes sense. It's the same idea with music. A phrase is a combination of notes, rhythms and articulations that make musical sense. Obviously making “musical sense” is a very subjective thing, but what I'm trying to say is that a phrase is more than just a totally random collection of notes, rhythms and articulations. (Just like a sentence in a language is more than just a random collection of words).

Now that we've looked at my definition for a phrase, let's look at my definition for phrasing...

Guitar Phrasing Definition

The What, When, How Of Phrasing

It's quite helpful to break down phrasing into three key elements...

  • What: The word “what” simply means what notes you decide to play when you solo. In other words, your note choice.
  • When: The word “when” stands for when you play the notes. So this is anything that involves rhythm and overall timing.
  • How: The word “how” stands for how you play the notes. This is the articulation that you use to play each note.

Let's now take a look at each one in a bit more detail. [Side Note: Don't panic if I use any terms that you're not currently familiar with. I'll be talking about them in future articles. But until then, just Google anything you're not sure of.].

What: Note Choice

While the notes you decide to play are a very important part of phrasing, often guitarists put too much time into this area. They spend year after year learning new scales, arpeggios and other note choices, but totally neglect working on their rhythm and articulation. This is a major problem because you could know all the scales in the world, but if you neglect the other two elements of phrasing, you're not going to make music anytime soon. It's a bit like someone memorizing words of a language without ever working on trying to use those words in conversation!

As you can imagine, there are a vast number of things that you could work on in this area. Rather than overwhelm you, here are a couple of basic things to get you started...

  • Take scales and arpeggios that you already know and start practicing them using different melodic patterns.
  • Start doing ear training on a regular basis. There are many books and courses on this subject, and I feel that it is an essential part of learning to solo in a musical way. (It's going to be hard to solo melodically if you have lousy pitch perception!).

When: Rhythm

This is an immensely critical area of study, and in some ways I think it's the most important element of phrasing. Because of this, I recommend putting some serious time into the study of rhythm. There are many things that you could work on, but here are just a few things that you might begin with...

  • Learning and internalizing different rhythmic motifs. (A rhythmic motif is a short rhythmic idea that you can use while soloing).
  • Mastering basic note values such as whole-notes, half-notes, and quarter-notes.
  • Mastering the common subdivisions of a beat such as eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets, and sixteenth notes.
  • Learning to play both the straight and swung versions of eighth-notes and sixteenth-notes.
  • Learning to play rhythmic ideas that are of a specific length such as 2-bars and 4-bars.

Like any bit of advice I could give you, please don't treat the list above as gospel. Exactly what areas of rhythm you decide to focus on will depend on things like your musical goals, your specific playing weaknesses, and the type of music that enjoy playing. (It's probably not worth spending the time developing a great swing feel if you love death metal but hate jazz!).

How: Articulation

This is another really important area to work on, because your articulation will affect greatly how each note you play sounds. For Example: If you take a guitar lick and play it picking all the notes, it will sound very different than when you play the exact same lick using hammer-ons and pull-offs.

So, what are some things that you could study in this area? Here are a couple of things to get you started...

  • Learning to master different guitar techniques such as alternate picking, sweep picking, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, harmonics etc.
  • Learning to gain better control over dynamics and accenting. This means that you should develop the ability to play notes that vary in volume from extremely quiet to ridiculously loud (and everything in between these two extremes).

Like working on rhythm, how you decide to work on your articulation will depend a lot on your own musical taste and goals. For Example: If you love jazz guitar, then you would have to work on your accenting in a very different way than if you love metal guitar. The reason is that if you accent the notes you play how a metal guitarist would, then you're not going to sound very jazzy!

Learning From Music

Although working on the three elements of phrasing in a structured and methodical way is a great idea, I still feel that music is probably going to be your best teacher. What I mean by this is that I feel that the best way to learn how to phrase is by analytically listening to, transcribing and learning to play the guitar solos that you love.

Transcribing is a great way to develop your ears and it also helps you learn about phrasing in a real-life musical context. You'll also find that the phrasing approach that your favorite players use will tend to “rub off” on you as you begin to transcribe and learn their solos.

A Few Last Words

Hope you enjoyed this quick introduction to phrasing. It's a fascinating thing to learn about, and is the key to soloing in a musical way. So start working on the what, when and how of your soloing, and start making music!

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