Introduction To Guitar Phrasing

Learning to phrase is an essential thing if you want to make music when you solo. In this article we'll take a look at the three key elements of phrasing.

Introduction To Guitar Phrasing
22

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...

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...

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 offon 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!

About the author: Craig Bassett is a professional electric guitar tutor currently living in Melbourne, Australia. To get more free articles and lessons designed to help your playing, then be sure to subscribe to his electric guitar newsletter.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Abacus11
    Great article! Too many beginners get caught up in the "let's play as many notes as quickly as possible" rut and never really go anywhere with their lead playing. Guitar solos are meant to be part of the song that they're in. The best leads aren't fast, random show-off (wank) sessions they're more like songs-within-songs. Good job. PS - If you're new to writing your own leads... READ THIS!
    Steyr9001
    Good article on something that doesn't really get enough attention, especially for such a (generally)metal community as UG. Not to downplay being able to play fast and intricately, like some people often do, but look at any of the the really prominent guitarists in metal and tell me they can't phrase like a god. Speed isn't everything, it's just really cool.
    joey456
    I think you should do a few articles on scale theory. I've been playing for about 6 years now (Mostly metal, obviously) Anyways, By the end of my 4th year I was a good player, I caught on very fast and was jamming the entire Ride The Lighting album no problem, People were asking me to play in their bands left and right. I started my own band with a few buddies as lead guitar player and when I started to write a song I would start spewing shit and my guitar just seemed like some alien weapon that I had no clue how to fire. I got into the mind set that I was never going to get any better an I had hit my peak. Then I found scale theory. After about a few months of studying hard, it was like typing in a cheat code an instantly knowing every scale. I ended up sticking to the D major scale and not using any others. I thought this was a bad thing at first, but then I pumped 5 pretty decent songs out, each of which sounded completely different and that's when it hit me, if I can pump out 5 unique and good sounding songs with just one scale and not exceeding the 12th fret, God only knows how many I could write using the whole spectrum of scales and notes. Once I started to delve into a few other scales I noticed my writing solos skill was nonexistent, don't get me wrong I have the speed and coordination, but I just didn't know how to make it all flow together. That's when I came across this simple article. It was like a slap in the face moment. Now my soloing has taken off. Thank you sir for contributing these simple rules into my playing. You have given me the final piece of the puzzle. Sorry for the rant!
    gypsyblues7373
    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.
    Soooo true, especially when I hear people talking about how they've done everything they can with the minor pentatonic and they're bored with it and want to learn something else. Usually the reason they're so bored with it is because they're only playing about 1 percent of what they could do with it, if they'd only work on their phrasing. Instead, they go chasing other scales or modes, and their phrasing with those sucks just as bad too.
    led_sevenfold
    Kirk hammet is still trying out the minor penatonic scale after 30 years so hes the goto guy on this, metallica jokes aside, i do agree with this
    MaggaraMarine
    Soooo true, especially when I hear people talking about how they've done everything they can with the minor pentatonic and they're bored with it and want to learn something else. Usually the reason they're so bored with it is because they're only playing about 1 percent of what they could do with it, if they'd only work on their phrasing. Instead, they go chasing other scales or modes, and their phrasing with those sucks just as bad too.
    Yes. And the majority of rock solos only use the minor pentatonic scale. Scales don't make you sound like somebody. How you use them makes you sound good.
    gypsyblues7373
    Exactly . I don't think I've ever heard anyone dismiss, say, David Gilmour as a pentatonic wanker. Because his phrasing is impeccable, so he can squeeze more out of half a dozen notes than most people can out of 20 or 30.