Improving Your Phrasing. Part 1

My aim with this article is to clear up any confusion about what phrasing is and, more importantly, show why it is critically important to you as a guitar player to develop it.

Ultimate Guitar

Many times you will hear or read about professional guitar players talking about the elusive topic of phrasing. Guitar teachers talk about it in their lessons and books. We hear about how important it is to have good phrasing and to spend time working on it. Well, what the heck is phrasing anyway? And, if we can define it, why is it important? Before we continue, test yourself here to see if you really know what phrasing is and how it needs to be practiced.

My aim with this article is to clear up any confusion about what phrasing is and, more importantly, show why it is critically important to you as a guitar player to develop it. Finally, I will show you some very easy and practical ways to dramatically improve your improvisations and guitar solos almost immediately just by changing how you approach the guitar and how you think about phrasing.

I once tried explaining this subject of phrasing on the guitar to a non-musician friend of mine. She had heard someone refer to a guitar solo as having good phrasing, and she wanted to understand what it meant. Musical lingo doesn't usually work with non-musicians, so I had to think of a way to relate it to her in simple, everyday terms. After giving it some thought, I decided the best explanation was by way of making an analogy to human speechsomething most everyone can relate to, right?

When we speak, we use words to convey meaning to the listener. We combine these words to make sentences. But we don't only use words and sentences. How we say those words can make a huge difference in both the meaning of what we are saying and the listener's interpretation of what is being said. If we are angry, we might raise our voice, or if we are sad we might whisperwe may pause for effect or put emphasis on a certain word. We use inflections to give more meaning to the things we say. This process we use when we speak is called phrasing. We all have our own phrasing style or way of speaking and using words. Most often this happens naturally and unconsciously.

In my analogy to my friend, I explained that when I improvise a guitar solo I use the same process I use when I'm speaking with someone. When I am speaking, I first think about what I want to say based on how I'm feeling and the circumstances, then I draw upon my vocabulary of words and put them together to form sentences (or phrases). I use inflections, dynamics, and pauses to make my points clear. The goal is to fully express what I want to say to the listener.

When I play a guitar solo, the same process happens but instead of using words I use musical pitches, rhythm, articulation, and dynamics. I first think about what I want to say on my guitar, then I draw on my vocabulary of ideas and techniques to play the notes based on how I'm feeling as well as the musical context. But I don't just play the notes. I might play faster to increase the intensity, or maybe I'll hang on to a note and give it a wide vibrato to add emotion.

It should be clear by now that phrasing, whether in speech or guitar playing, is not so much what is being said but how it is said or played. So, how does all this relate to you becoming a better guitar player?

In my opinion, a guitar players' ability to phrase is perhaps one of the greatest skills he/she can possess because it is directly related to self-expression. Further, phrasing is one of the least developed skills most guitar players have today. As a guitar teacher, I have noticed that most players are out of balance. As they progress to intermediate/advanced status, they usually have good technique but underdeveloped phrasing skills. I have put my students on the spot asking them to play from their heart and improvise a guitar solo. Know what usually happens? They stare back at me with this blank look of confusion and disbelief that I would ask them such a thing. After the blank stare, I'll usually gently encourage them to just play something. Normally what comes out (if anything) is some mindless exercise or lick.

Herein lies a big problem that most guitar players face in this day and age of internet tab and short attention spans they don't know how to express themselves. If you get this, and you understand that self-expression is perhaps the greatest musical goal you can have, you can avoid the fate most of the tab-and-fingers-only players will meet most of them will either give up from frustration or boredom. After all, how fun is music and playing guitar if you aren't expressing yourself?

Technique is very important, make no mistake; and learning other people's songs from tablature has it's place. But self-expression happens when your heart, your emotions, your brain, your ears, your thoughts, your knowledge, and your fingers all come together simultaneously. This is a skill you can develop. But in order to do so you must change not only how and what you practice, but also how you think.

It is my belief that, as a whole, guitar players have the least developed phrasing skills of any musicians. The reason I bring this up is because I think there are a few very obvious reasons why this problem exists, and that by understanding the problem we can begin to fix it.

To illustrate what is at the heart of the problem, let's examine how a saxophone player phrases and compare that to how most guitar players phrase. A saxophone player (or any wind/brass instrument) generates sound by using his/her wind (or breath) which comes from their lungs. This lends itself to a very natural way of phrasing. Why? Because they have to use their wind sparingly or they will run out of breath. There is only so much wind the lungs can generate so they must choose how they are going to use it. They may pause during a musical phrase to get their breath before continuing, and they will usually play a fast passage with one breath before pausing. This is just like speech. We have to pause when we speak (to catch our breath) and we need to pause to let our words sink in. Most horn players have developed a very natural phrasing style because of the inherent limitations of breathing to sound the notes. Their phrases have beginnings and endings as well as natural timing; they also have lots of dynamics and nuance in their phrasing.

Could it be that guitar players generally have less developed phrasing skills because we usually learn to play with our fingers first? We learn finger exercises and licks and things to help us develop our technique, and these things can be good, but this doesn't really show us how to phrase and express ourselves. Horn players are doing this from day one. How many guitarists do you know who rattle off notes incessantly without pausing at all? Some guitarists get a bad rap for noodling too muchand rightly so! Their playing has no natural phrasing to it - no space to allow their notes to sink in to the listener.

Ok, so we have talked about what phrasing is and why it is important, and have determined that most guitar players need improvement in this area. So, what can we do to change this? The good news is that I think we can start improving our phrasing immediately and drastically just by changing the way we think.

The first thing we can do is simply start equating our playing with speech. Think about all the things that make up speech and try to implement them into your playing. Think in terms of sentences when you play a phrase. Try pausing more often as you would if you are speaking. Think about how you can use your instrument to make the notes sound like you are speaking (ie: use inflections, dynamics/volume, vibrato, bending, legato, staccato, etc.)

Secondly, listen to great horn or saxophone players. Notice how their phrasing is usually superior to most guitar players. See if you can apply what you hear to your own playing in your own style.

Thirdly, listen to guitar players who do have great phrasing. Study them, analyze them and use what you learn for yourself. In Improving Your Phrasing - Part II, we will look at some specific examples of great phrasing by several guitar players who excel in this area.

In closing, I'd like to point out that if you have begun thinking about these things, you are already ahead of most guitar players. You are on your way to learning how to express yourself. However, it is not enough to know what phrasing is or even to know some ways you can improve your phrasing. The key is application. Knowledge isn't enough; you must begin to put this knowledge into action. My forthcoming articles will focus on this application process. Also, notice that in the survey mentioned at the top of the article most of the questions revolved around action steps (what you do/practice), rather than the mental concepts (what you know).

Until next time, I'll leave you all with this quote by master motivator Napoleon Hill: Happiness is found in doing not merely in Possessing

Visit and join his free newsletter to receive an excerpt from his latest phrasing course Innovative Arpeggio Phrasing for Advancing Metal Players, including text, tab and mp3's.

Nick Layton is a professional guitarist/composer living in Vancouver, WA. His debut CD entitled Storming the Castle is available now and features epic metal songwriting and virtuoso guitar playing. Send questions/comments to

2008 Nick Layton All Rights Reserved Used By Permission

98 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice....opened my eyes to somthing i knew was their but I just ignored it. Listen to Joe Satriani, he is big on this!
    i bleed metal
    Silas S Thompso wrote: I don't believe rattling off notes is bad. It can be if they are not clear. But guitar players like marty Friedman, MAB, Glenn Tipton, Chris Poland, Jeff Young, can be play fast while phrasing. When you are conveying anger in a song you have to play fast to extend the effect of your furiousity
    I always say that too. I completely agree that phrasing is crucial, and I also think that the author of the article agrees that speed has its place. But I think what he's saying is that you can't just play flurries of notes non stop. Anger plays a big role in my playing, but there is more to it than that. You have to convey emotion through all the phases of anger. So, speed doesn't necessarily convey anger all that well all the time. Playing slowly can demonstrate anger just as well as playing quickly can. And I think that goes for an upbeat feeling too. You can definitely convey happiness with speed, but a lot of people don't. Sorry for the rant, I lost focus about 4 words in so... I hope some of you understand what I'm trying to say. End of rant.
    David Gilmour is one of my favorite guitarists, mostly because of his phrasing. His solos are almost like an entire song in themselves.
    Good article. For me the one of the greatest exponents of masterful phrasing was Paul Kossoff. One of his most famous solos, from All Right Now, is technically quite simple; However his use of bends and his unique vibrato (well, almost unique, Angus Young nearly manages to replicate it) give the solo it`s special sound. Kossoff used pauses and space; He didn`t play fast, but had a very soulful technique.
    It's also because many players learn shapes instead of notes first. Guilty. Great job.
    Nick Layton
    Ricardo, send me an email with some specifics and I'll try and help. Just to be clear...I love technical playing, and I have a lot of that in my own playing, so I'm not in any way discounting the use of chops. All I'm saying is that technical ability and good phrasing don't always go hand in hand with some players...
    Phrasing in a solo? Carlos Santana /dispute The article was awesome, though. It's stuff like this that helps people better understand theory's concepts by putting it into terms we can relate to instead of trying to appreciate it as a math-type equation. Nicely done.
    thats whats missing lol that piece of the puzzle. a vocabulary and a bag of trix are useless until we have something to say
    Ricardo Melo
    Great article; each time i play my guitar, i try to do what you say but i need to improve my technique and study so much to know with what scales i can "play" to get the sound i want. Could you send me some information? thanks.
    my personal favorite is Paul Gilbert! From Metal over Hard Rock to Blues, he does it all very well, he's worth checking him out.
    Amazing, I am so ashamed to say I had never heard of Phrasing before but now that I read this I realize this is exactly what I had been looking for to actually improve what I write more than my actual hand technique, I was so worried about being faster, learning to sweep, tap, and all these things I forgot to learn the really important thing, Phrasing.
    Great article. My first time to read one of yours.I thinks Ive found my new sensei
    Excellent. Another teacher who doesn't understand the glory of technical playing. I can't stand people who think what they prefer is better. Some people enjoying shredding, so you don't? That's fine but stop getting butt hurt because you can't do it and say there's no soul to it.
    Does resting/bending/vibrato when your fingers get tired count as phrasing? Lol. This article was nice, and being self taught, I've tried to solo from the heart and not the fingers. I guess I'm the opposite of most players and want to play based on emotion, and not focus on technique and say "look what I can do!"
    TheNthDimension wrote: Nice article, but still can't get over the Tom Hess thing. Why is everyone linking to his articles?
    maybe because the guys who write these articles have learned something from Hess. Or maybe its because these really good players writing here believe that the Hess stuff is valuable for the people who read their columns at UG.
    Nick Layton
    Joe is a master at legato phrasing...a topic I'll be covering in depth soon.
    Smokey Amp
    Great definition and background, but the actual advice was pretty limiting. I'll be looking out for Part II, though. I personally think I have some concept of phrasing, but I'm sure it could be improved, like all aspects of my guitar playing.
    Honestly though, listen to some buckethead, especially soothsayer, but it's all good, he can phrase amazingly and play extremely fast, but keep pouring his soul into it while playing extremely fast, epic win.
    Michael McGee
    Interesting article, Nick! Definitely helped me to put in to perspective why I solo too much, I need to breath! Now if only I can adapt this concept to my conversations!
    Neo Evil11 wrote: this sucks, improving your phrasing? The guy has only told what it is and how we suck at it, how is this improving our phrasing then?
    Read it again.
    I've never heard of this before and this article was fabulous Thank you!
    Neo Evil11
    this sucks, improving your phrasing? The guy has only told what it is and how we suck at it, how is this improving our phrasing then?
    I agree with this lesson completely, as I'm in the position of constantly learning covers to improve my technique, but bypassing the one thing that I truly want to do, which is express myself through my guitar, I want to pour emotion into these notes. If anyone wants examples of good phrasing, listen to Soothsayer by Buckethead, my favorite guitarist by far. I say we should all follow this, everyone who is in my position, I want to see a revolution, I want to see all the rising stars playing from their very souls, forget the catchy tunes that win chart positions, expressing yourself is what really matters. Let's create the revolution.
    Nick, whatta great article and it's so cool that you wrote about this subject. Because today I see many guitar players only worried about speeding, just firing huges and unlimited scales over and over again and..that's all folks. One day I realized that now I don't want to listen to a guy showing how fast he can play. I prefer to listen to a guitar player that has something to tell me. My 6strings-heroes; -Hendrix -Stevie R. Vaughan -Steve Vai -Kenny Burrell -Steve Howe
    Sudaka wrote: what the hell is a legato and a staccato?
    I am not 100% sure about legato, but staccato is short notes, like you have a quarter note, but you cut it off real short.
    thanks for that. the whole talking analogy helps a lot. cant wait for part 2.
    timbre wrote: Good article, looking foreward to more! Recently I've been listening to Joe Bonamassa, superb phrasing in the Blues genre.
    Seriously...Joe Bonamassa has awesome technique and phrasing! If you have not heard of him, do yourself a favor and check him out now!
    Shor-T Zero
    What's really ironic is that I'm actually the opposite of the writer's typical students...I know phrasing and how to use it, but I'm not very good at the "super fast" crap. Great article though. I'll be working on phrasing as much as I do any other exercises now. top notch.
    Slash's solo from Sweet Child O'Mine has some good phrasing as well as Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd. That's actually the reason why I love those songs so much.
    Good article, looking foreward to more! Recently I've been listening to Joe Bonamassa, superb phrasing in the Blues genre.
    I sometimes do the speaking excersise, for example I start with one greeting lick and continue with an anwser to that lick.
    Nick Layton
    I'm glad most of you guys got some value from the article. Part 2 is on the way soon. Thx for the feedback.