What is phrasing?
Before writing this article, I spent some time thinking about the various different definitions of 'phrasing' I've heard from different sources over the years. There are lots of articles about phrasing on the internet, and there's definitely some useful stuff out there. However, the articles I found were often pitched at a level that I think less experienced guitarists might find hard to understand or apply. As well as that, I found lots of articles which plunge in without first explaining what phrasing is!
In this article I want to provide a clear explanation of what phrasing is, and then demonstrate how phrasing can be practised in a fun way with an example creative exercise.
So what is phrasing? The Collins Encyclopedia of Music defines a phrase as;
- 'a unit of melody, of indeterminate length'
In guitar terms, that means a phrase can be thought of as a coherent collection of notes, such as in a lick or riff. So if a phrase is a lick or riff of some kind, is 'phrasing' just the act of building a lick out of some notes? That's only part of the answer.
Again, from the Collins Encyclopedia of Music;
- 'phrasing concerns not only the articulation of complete phrases, but the articulation of their details.'
The important line here is 'the articulation of their (phrases) details'. Phrasing is also about the way you play something - it's about things like the dynamics, rhythm, note choice, ornamentation and articulation.
A guitar lick can be phrased in an unlimited number of ways for many musical possibilities. Practising phrasing is extremely beneficial for your improvisation skills, general soloing ability and overall guitar sound.
At this point I want to demonstrate a fun, creative exercise you can use to work on your phrasing. I'm going to take a basic guitar lick, and come up with a couple of different phrasings of the idea, based on the styles of three great guitarists. I'll do that by simply by incorporating phrasing ideas these guitarists often use into my own playing, and I'll explain the changes I've made so that you can follow my process.
To begin, have a listen to lick I'm working off. It's just a very simple, quite uninspiring pentatonic lick I thought of off the top of my head. In the video file below I've put all my licks together, starting with this first template lick (0:00 - 0:05).
Jimi Hendrix example (0:08 - 0:15)
In this example I've remained faithful to the basic outline but I've overhauled the phrasing of the lick. I'm still in the key of E minor and I'm going for a heavy blues rock sound.
Although I'm playing basically the same thing as the original, the phrasing is quite different and this shows in the end result. There are half step bends, grace notes and double stops in there as well as a distinctive Hendrix-esque double string bend at the peak of the lick. I've also played with the note choice a little as well, where I use both major and minor thirds in the melody.
Eric Johnson example (0:18 - 0:25)
Though still in the key of E minor, this phrase is more of a departure from the original lick. In this example, all that really remains of the original lick is the bare outline I've taken quite a lot of liberties with things like the rhythm, note choice and the way the notes are ordered. I've ornamented the original lick quite heavily.
I've replaced the plodding ascending E-G-A-B-D line of the original with a snappy E-G-B-E sequence which I play with a sweep. I then quickly descend the E minor pentatonic scale in tenth position with a short sequence, before a five note lick where I skip strings to create a wide interval sound characteristic of Johnson. I've also added in a note from the E natural minor scale, F#, the major second, to add some melodic interest.
'Dimebag' Darrell example (0:27 - 0:34)
In this last example, I've really let myself get creative with the original lick. Although it sounds very different to the original lick, I did still use that as my starting point. I've included this example because it's a demonstration of how much you can do with this simple phrasing exercise if you think outside the box a little and run with the idea.
This lick is full of classic Dimebag Darrell guitar mannerisms, including fast chromatic lines and overbending the strings. Note choice wise it's mainly the Blues Scale for this lick, with an added major 6th from the Dorian mode.
Summary, practice suggestions and final comments
In this article I took a basic, middle-of-the-road pentatonic lick and rephrased it to the style of a couple of my favourite rock guitarists. I did that by mimicking the kind of phrasing choices that Jimi Hendrix, Eric Johnson and Dimebag Darrell might make in a soloing context. These were just examples you could easily do what I just did for any guitarist that you like. You could use my template lick, or, even better, invent your own from scratch and work from there.
The benefits of this exercise won't become apparent until you try it out for yourself. This isn't an academic exercise, It's a creative exercise where you learn best by doing. So what can you use this exercise to help with?
Improvisation this is a big one. If you find yourself playing the same licks over and over, or if you find that you're meandering around scales to little effect, you can put this lesson to use right away. If you record yourself improvising, you can listen back to your licks and see which ones can be improved. If a particular section isn't sounding great, go back to the drawing board and look at the phrasing.
Learning from other guitarists of course, anyone can go out and learn a bunch of licks and solos written by other guitar players. But where does this leave you really? You'll have a bank of licks taken from other people's songs that you won't necessarily know how to implement in different keys, styles and musical contexts. Studying a musician's phrasing is a much deeper way of absorbing their sound into your own.
Guitar tone and sound In a way, studying phrasing is studying why things sound good. By thinking about your own phrasing and the phrasing of your favourite musicians, you're developing the quality of your own sound. Whether you want to sound like another guitarist or work on your own personal guitar style, studying phrasing is a great way of achieving these goals.
Download the TAB
I've written up the TAB for these licks. You can download them going to: www.guitarlessonsinglasgow.com/phrasing
About the author
Chris Bannerman is a full-time RGT registered guitar teacher, who specialises in Rock, Metal and Blues playing styles. He is based in Glasgow, Scotland.
Visit www.guitarlessonsinglasgow.com for more information on Chris and to check out his free newsletter.