Guitar Phrasing: Step by Step

A humble guide to using passing tones, blue notes, and other tasteful chromatic concepts to expand your phrasing vocabulary.

Ultimate Guitar
Fusion shredder Guthrie Govan has described his approach to improvisation as (and I'm paraphrasing here) "blues... using chromatic notes to 'fill in the gaps'." Though the typically modest master of jazzy shred greatly understates the scope of his abilities, I have found his concept of playing notes not associated with a particular mode or key to be a great inspiration for my own phrasing, improvised or otherwise. I'd like to use this column to introduce a few of these ideas via scales and licks.

Like many guitarists, my first exposure to chromaticism (defined here as "step-by-step" movement, moving through a sequence of notes one semi-tone at a time rather than familiar scalar patterns) was through the blues scale (Figure 1). This fantastic little sequence contains a sharp fourth (or flat fifth) degree, bridging the fourth-fifth gap within an otherwise ordinary minor pentatonic. For the burgeoning lead guitarist, playing this scale ascending and descending in at least two octaves against a I-IV-V backdrop is a useful exercise in hearing how passing tones (in that they "pass" between two scale tones) or "blue notes" can "make sense" in a given harmonic context.

Figure 1: A minor blues scale, ascending

Of course, just as many guitarists are acquainted with chromatic movement vis-à-vis the common (though perhaps less musical) backstage metronome warm-up (Figure 2). In this exercise, each of the four fretting fingers plays a note one semitone, or half-step, up from the preceding note.

Figure 2: Chromatic warm-up exercise, ascending

Most of the ideas presented here will proceed from the first example and emphasize musicality, since very few licks outside the world of jazz consist of extended chromatic passages. Obviously, fans of jazz could very rightly argue that such sequences are indeed quite musical, though explaining why and how could generate another two or three columns worth of content (ahhh, perhaps someday...) Anyway, my goal is to make these concepts as accessible as possible to any and all guitarists looking to add a bit more "spice" to their phrasing.

"Filling in the Gaps"

One method of adding passing tones to lead lines or melodies (and one which I regularly employ to this day) is to target the space between any two notes on a fretboard that are separated by one fret. Let's look at the last six notes of a G major scale, beginning on the third fret of the B string, on an ascending three-notes-per-string pattern (Figure 3).

Figure 3: G major scale starting on D (3rd fret, B string), ascending

Above, we have two ideal locations for adding passing tones: between the 5 and seventh frets (in other words, the sixth fret) on both the B and e strings. Doing so gives us a flat seventh (on B) and a flat third (on e). We could then play the following lick (Figure 4).

Figure 4: G major chromatic lick

Of course, the same concept applies to minor shapes as well. Take a look at the following E minor shape (Figure 5); it neatly employs elements of the warm-up exercise shown at the beginning of this column while staying in a familiar "box" scale pattern.

Figure 5: E minor lick using passing notes, descending

Some of the more observant readers who are still with me at this point are wondering why neither the blues scale nor the two examples I provided end on these passing tones. In many styles of music, ending a musical phrase on the fourth degree of the root note is considered sonically unpleasant: the two tones seem to "clash," so players tend to avoid the interval of a fourth entirely. The same concept applies here: unless one is targeting specific chord tones over a changing progression making use of devices like extended chords which would consist of these passing notes in their construction, ending a lick or phrase with them (or "lingering" on the note) might produce a rather jarring effect. They are "passing" tones for this reason: they quickly pass by the ear as the phrase or melody progresses. As the aphorism goes, "there are no 'bad' notes, just bad resolutions!"

I'll finish this section by presenting one of my favorite ways to incorporate the "fill in the gaps" concept, resulting in a very angular, jazzy, "outside"-sounding lick. This six-string sequence begins on the tenth fret of the E string, and follows a three-notes-per-string pattern. It outlines the E minor scale, beginning on the seventh degree of the scale (D).

Figure 6: E minor sequence


Thinkin' about Intervals

Another way to approach and apply more passing notes is to simply try and play conflicting intervals in sequence; for example, we could run from a root to a major third, then play a minor third before ascending further up the lick, incorporating passing chromatics with each string change. This gets us closer to the idea of "outside" playing, where notes from noticeably different keys weave in and out of a musical phrase to create some very interesting sequences. Here is a phrase I developed in E minor to illustrate the concept:

Figure 7: "Outside"-sounding sequence

To add even more depth and complexity to passages like Figure 7, I suggest incorporating diminished patterns à la Shawn Lane to take the lick even further off the ground before resolving. Thank you for reading; I certainly hope you've found some useful information here. Please leave feedback so I can improve my lesson writing, and feel free to ask for clarification in the comments section: I usually respond to questions there. Good luck!

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Good lesson and good timing for me. My guitar teacher has been demonstrating this lately.
    Jacques Nel
    Good work on this lesson. There is a lack of lessons which physically describes where the differences are between scales e.g. "method of adding passing tones to lead lines or melodies (and one which I regularly employ to this day) is to target the space between any two notes on a fretboard that are separated by one fret" Well done on this, hope to see more such lessons
    steven seagull
    This isn't really about phrasing, this is just choosing notes. Phrasing refers to what you do with the notes, not the notes themselves. You can phrase the exact same sequence of notes many ways depending on technique, timing, articulation and dynamics.
    wut am i even reading. Note selection is just as much a part of phrasing as are applying vibrato, bending, trilling, arpeggiating, etc. Why would musicians draw a distinction between jazz phrasing and blues phrasing? You can apply the exact same timing, feel, articulation, and techniques to two sequences in the same key starting on the same note and still end up with differentiated passages with the addition or exclusion of certain tones. For example, I could say: A) "Your comment sucked." Or... B) "Your opinionated response to my column betrays an incomplete understanding of the concept outlined above and has therefore forced me to correct your misgivings in the hope that you will think before dragging down the collective IQ of other online communities in the future." See? I could deliver either example in the exact same tone, articulation, dynamic, and timing, yet still produce a completely different sentiment within the listener vis-à-vis the inclusion or exclusion of morphemes.