The Number One Formula to Immediately Transform Your Lead Playing

Discover the number one proven strategy you can use to supercharge your soloing now.

Ultimate Guitar
There are many facets of lead guitar playing: from speedy alternate picking to epic sweeps, kickass string bends to brilliant melodies, there is always something new to work on. In fact, it can often seem like there is too much to work on. So many different areas to improve, so little time... What do you do? It can quickly become overwhelming.

But, what if there was one area you could work on that would help develop all parts of your lead playing? One area that would make you sound like a better player within just an hour or two?

Thankfully, there is, and that area is phrasing.

Many people approach the guitar (and many other instruments) with the viewpoint of "Well there's the notes I play, and the rhythm I play them in." Unfortunately, this view isn't quite complete. If you want to become an unstoppable lead guitarist who creates captivating solos on the spot then you need to focus on how you play the notes. Not just the pitch. Not just the rhythm. How they are played.

The Ironclad Formula for Epic Phrasing

Phrasing is how the notes are played. It includes elements such as string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons, pull-off's, slides, picking dynamics... And many more.

The key to great phrasing is not learning as many of these as possible but to learn a few of them incredibly well. If you can play one note with jaw-dropping vibrato, and finish it off with a badass slide down the neck to end on a fat open E, no-one is going to think "yeah, but he didn't do any pull-off's". In time, of course, you should aim to become great at all of these elements, but in the beginning it is far more productive to focus on one or two and get them great.

Now, when learning any new phrasing element, there are two things which must be accomplished:
  1. You must be able to play the technique itself on its own, out of context, in a variety of positions on the neck. For instance, if you are learning how to add vibrato to string bends in solos you must first be able to add vibrato to a string bend when playing on your own, without any backing or context.
  2. You must be able to then apply that skill to real playing situations, integrating it with your other skills and learning to use it in context. Without learning to do this, the skill will be useless - however good your pull-off's are, if you don't use them then there is no point!
It is not necessary to get a particular phrasing technique to absolute mastery before applying it - in fact, doing so is usually a bad idea, as it will take you forever to actually use anything! Instead, you should get it to the point where you can play it well and fairly accurately, and then continue to develop it while learning how to apply it in a real playing context. This will ensure you use the skills you develop and thus get the most progress in the shortest amount of time.

The Unstoppable Strategy for Mastering the Two Stages

Thankfully there are specific methods you can follow to master the two stages of any new phrasing element.
  1. To get a hold on the first stage, be 100% sure of what it is you want to accomplish. For instance, if you were learning how to add vibrato to a string bend (as in our previous example) you would need to know exactly what motion you should be using, along with what the technique sounds like when done well (so that you have a goal to work towards). Then it is simply a matter of doing slow, controlled repetitions of the skill until it becomes natural. Focus on making the movement easy, and make it sound as close to professional standard as you can.
  2. To accomplish the second stage, there is one simple exercise you can use. Put on a backing track (there are many to be found on YouTube) and solo over it using just that phrasing element - that's the only way you're allowed to go between notes! Then, once you've got a hold on that, start incorporating the other phrasing elements you know and integrating it all together.
Once you've done those two exercises for a while you'll have a great grasp of the new phrasing technique you are learning, and be able to play more exciting solos!

Uncovering New Epic Phrasing Elements on Demand

So what happens when you've learned string bends, and pull-off's, and hammer-ons, and good vibrato... What then? What if you're soloing still doesn't sound breathtaking?

Well, don't be worried. There is still one more step in the phrasing formula that you need to master, and that is finding new phrasing elements. You need to be able to find and create you own awesome ways of going between notes if you are to become a jaw-dropping lead guitarist.

Once again, however, there is nothing special going on - there is a specific method you can follow.

There are two proven methods you can use to find and create your own bad-ass phrasing techniques:

  1. Take two notes on the fretboard, preferably on the same string, two or three frets apart. Then, see how many different ways you can go between those two notes. Remember - you are only allowed to use those two notes! Bending to other pitches is fine, as is using the notes in between (as long as they are not paused on or used to create a melody), as long as you start and finish on those two main notes! Do it for ten or fifteen minutes and you're guaranteed to play something that will surprise you. Aim for 50 different variations! (yes, 50! It really forces you to be creative and try out combinations and techniques you may not have tried before). You can then do this exercise with other notes, maybe on different strings or further apart. This will enable you to apply these new phrasing elements in context. It is helpful to record what you are doing on a phone or tablet (or any other device with recording facilities), so that you can listen back and see what really works.
  2. Listen to your favorite solo and pick just two or three notes from it (preferably slower ones, as they generally have more interesting phrasing elements). Then, learn the notes (either by using tab or picking them out by ear - I would recommend the latter) and see how close to the record you can get them. How similar can you make them sound? Aim to get them sounding as close to the pro as possible. This will force you to try out new elements and help you to get in the head of the professional, allowing you to dissect their phrasing style and apply elements of it to your own playing.
There is another secret advantage to trying out the above elements - they will help you to create your own style! Phrasing is a vitally important aspect of having a unique style on guitar, and developing it and discovering new possibilities using the above methods will greatly help in making your playing stand out.

Now go and have fun practicing phrasing, and make your lead playing sound bad-ass!

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14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Listen to great blues players and you'll understand phrasing
    Blues or otherwise, listen to and imitate players whose vibe you like. Phrasing is a place where you can really wear your influences on your sleeve.
    Ehhh not that useful, the idea of phrasing could be much better presented. For me the most useful thing was listening to like dance tracks on youtube and soloing on top of them, they typically stick to one major scale so it's pretty easy to find the root and then start expanding and coming up with new ideas on top of that. It also helps that typically there's no guitars so there's a nice clean frequency for you be on top of.
    Or... you can just search for guitar backing tracks. Type "deep purple backing track" on Youtube, see what happens!
    Using a different genre of music to do this on is kind of my point... In using something like dance music you're solo'ing and improv'ing on something that's not inherently designed for a guitar to be there. And with backing tracks you don't quite get the sense of vocal melody; but with dance music you can often try and borrow phrases from the vocal lines - which should really be the goal for any solo from guitar (for an emotionally driven solo at least). In trying to add guitar to a different genre you start to increase your musical vocabulary very quickly, especially if you consider yourself a 'rock' or 'metal' guitarist. Trying to add something like metal guitar to dubstep really starts to open your presence as that genre is very different in its presentation of sound whilst actually being quite similar in its construction and melody. Another reason for doing this to a 'foreign' genre is that it opens your ears up to instrument placement and tone. For me, improv'ing and so on to dance/dubstep/electronica really taught me how to position my instrument in a mix as well as how to add to a mix using different instruments.
    Nah, dance music doesn't inspire me as much as a blues track.
    That's the point. This is about expanding your horizons and experimenting with styles you're not used to. It's a challenge. Or you know you could widdle around the pentatonic scale
    that's me.. unfortunately stuck in a couple of pent boxes. All good advice. Work in hopefully = work out john m
    Then stick to a Blues track. Anthony1991's point is perfectly valid as it involves getting out of the comfort zone - and while it may not really change your life or something, it may at least get your creative juices flowing and make you less of a "boo hoo the only genres that are good are the ones I like" person, which is ALWAYS a great improvement.
    Did you ever see me say that only the genres that I like were good? Don't just be a presumptuous sour willy for the sake of it. @christian, I'm always open to expanding my horizons as long as it's a quality track I'm playing to.
    True, phrasing is the often overlooked but essential part of interesting playing. You provided some basic leads on how to improve it and the rest is upon each player's creativity. Good article.
    Man, you guys are harsh - 5/10? Ridiculous. All good ideas here, you just have to do the work...
    I hate articles that take the '5 tips to instantly make you better at X' approach
    dm790909 · Mar 13, 2016 12:50 AM