Music is about the spaces between notes.
That means the space in time (rhythm) and the space in pitch (melody). But there’s something else that makes those spaces come to life.
For years that term seemed elusive to me. It seemed like the special sauce the legends used to craft their timeless parts. I found it difficult to even get a good definition of what phrasing even is.
The best definition I’ve found comes from a wonderful lesson on phrasing from Jazz Advice. It encompasses note choice, rhythm and the guitar techniques used to articulate the notes. To paraphrase:
💡 Phrasing is the construction, placement and articulation of a musical phrase.
Defining phrasing is the first step to improving it. Below, I’ll outline 5 practical steps that you can take to start improving your phrasing.
Let’s dig in.
Step 1: Groove with One Note, then Expand
Rhythm makes music feel alive.
Half of your phrasing is rhythm but it’s something that’s easy to forget. We think of playing lead and rhythm guitar as two separate things. But our phrases need rhythm to sound interesting.
Luckily, we have an innate sense of rhythm. We just need to get that into our phrases.
Create a One Note Groove
With the drum loop playing, make some noise! Seriously! Improvise a simple one bar rhythm by verbalizing some drum sounds.
Something like this:
💡 Need some rhythmic inspiration? Find a backing track from a genre you’re unfamiliar with. Trap, Jazz, Latin, Funk…
You can do this without any backing track, but sometimes they help. Here’s a drum loop.
And here’s a one chord vamp using Gm7.
Whether playing to a track or by yourself, the next step is to pick one note on the guitar.
Play that one note to the rhythm that you came up with. Groove on it for a while.
Maybe – but that’s part of the challenge here. Try to make this one note interesting by adding a few guitar techniques. Here are some ideas:
- Mute only some of the notes
- Add some funky accents
- Experiment with picking loud versus quiet
- Try all downstrokes with the pick
- Try all upstrokes with the pick
See Exercise 1 in the video.
Once you’re grooving along on your guitar, begin expanding the exercise.
Add Notes as You Groove
Expand your one-note groove to include a second note. Spend a few minutes jamming along with the track but now with two notes. Experiment with placing the new note it in different spots.
After a few rounds, add a third note to the groove. You are now playing three note phrases that have rhythm.
Step 2: Use the Voice First Approach to Phasing
I was into thrash metal during my formative years as a guitarist. Fast riffs and blistering solos. There wasn’t much room between the notes at least in the tunes I was into. I still listen to some thrash here and there. But, I’ve learned to appreciate the space of other styles like the blues.
When you look at singers and horn players phrasing, there’s an in-built space for one simple reason.
Guitar players are free to play every subdivision of every bar. But a singer, harmonica player or saxophonist must pause to take a breath.
How to Let Your Voice Guide Your Phrasing
- Begin by playing a reference pitch from your guitar. Then match that tone with your voice, even if you’re not a singer or don’t have perfect pitch.
- Hum or sing a simple melody, starting with the reference pitch and keep the melody to a few notes. Simplicity is key, at least in the beginning. This melody should be completely improvised. Make something up!
- Locate the notes you sang on your guitar. This may involve some trial and error as you experiment with notes. Keep singing as you do this – let your voice lead the way, not the guitar notes.
- Sing the melody while playing it on the guitar.
- Repeat this process, adding a second melody, and eventually, play both phrases together.
You’ll develop an expressive and natural feel to your phrasing by letting your voice take the lead.
See this in action in Exercise 2 in the video.
Step 3: Control the Dynamics
Ever hear a band play full out, super loud and then abruptly downshift to a whisper?
How about a build from quiet to loud?
I bet you have and I bet you even remember specific examples because those moments have impact. Controlling the dynamics like this makes parts memorable.
Full band stops and builds play with the extreme ends of loud versus quiet. Try this in your phrasing. But also try toying with the subtlety between those extreme ends.
Let’s take a look at how to start building this into your phrasing.
How to Control the Dynamics in Phrases
Start with a simple tune or melody – the one from Step 2 will do nicely. Try playing it as quietly as possible.
After a few tries, accent the first note in the melody. It should pop out and be noticeably louder than the other notes. Don’t accent with maximum force though. Aim for 60% of max attack to leave a little headroom.
That’s subjective I know, but try to make the note louder without picking it as hard as you can.
💡 Practice Tip: Flatpicking? Keep your picking technique in place. Don’t loosen your grip on the pick or you’ll lose control. Just pick softer with your normal grip.
As you keep practicing, move the accent to different notes of the melody.
Now, here’s the fun part – building to full volume. Repeat the phrase placing the accent wherever you like. Then as you loop the part build the intensity by increasing the volume a little bit each round.
This exercise helps you get inside the dynamic range and harness it to go from a whisper to a scream.
See this in action in the video.
Step 4: Limit the Number of Notes per Bar
Sometimes the most impactful moments in music come from what you don’t play.
It’s a bit like the theme of one of my favorite books, “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown.
Less, but better.
In that spirit, we’ll shrink your options with this next phrasing technique.
Limit Yourself to Using Just Three Notes per Bar
You only get three notes to play. Not three different notes played as many times as you like. I mean, you can only pluck a string no more than three times.
Any three notes. Any order. Any rhythm.
💡 Bonus: Bends are allowed!
How are you going to make that interesting?
That’s the challenge!
Constraints like this help you focus on the emotion of the phrase versus playing fancy guitar parts. It pushes you to make every note count. It pushes you to be expressive. It pushes you to play less, but better.
See this in action in Exercise 4 in the video.
Step 5: Listen to the Greats
Think of phrasing, especially linking multiple phrases together as telling a story. One of the best ways to understand this is to listen to great storytellers. Not just great guitar players.
Great Guitar Players Known for Expressive Phrasing
BB King was a master at tasteful phrasing. He could make his guitar sing with so much feeling. By listening to his music, we can learn how to make our guitar sound like it’s telling a beautiful story. Phrase by phrase.
David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, crafted masterful solos. Solos you can sing and that take you on a journey. His playing is full of examples of less, but better.
You don’t have to look far to find jaw dropping jams by John Mayer. But some of his best moments showcase his restraint from overplaying in favor of space.
Take Guitar Phrasing Inspiration from Other Instruments
Miles Davis’ playing can help us learn how to speak through our guitar. How to make our music tell stories.
Listen to singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith, and Aretha Franklin. Every song by great vocalists is a lesson to help us hear what expressive phrasing sounds like.
Action Items for Improving Your Phrasing
Listening to the greats is perhaps the best way to learn great phrasing.
But for a practical way to demystify (some!) of what they do, try the strategies we covered here.
Start with these action items:
- Improvise a one-note groove to a drum loop. tk-link
- Expand to a short melody, keeping the rhythm from the one-note groove
- Sing a separate, second melody and play it on the guitar
- Mix in short three note phrases
- Jam these phrases varying the dynamics
These steps will help you find and express your own unique voice on the instrument.
Good luck and…