Phrasing For Dummies

Taking you through the most important part of lead guitar from 0 to hero.

Ultimate Guitar
I'm here to talk to you about why your solos don't sound as good as your guitar heroes. The most important thing about your soloing is its phrasing. Let me say that again. The most important thing about your soloing is its phrasing. (I owe this insight to both Scott Henderson, and Resiliance - thanks mate, much appreciated, credit where credit due) Right, what's a phrase? Well, what's a phrase in English? Yup, a collection of words. Well, a collection of notes then. So, how you, you use words to put across the message you want? Well, you say the words. 01. With the right tone (whether or not you have God's own amp is irrelevant, I mean do you make the note wail, or "shhhhhh" it, or do you make it fast and staccato and loud?) 02. With the right rhythm (talk really damn fast all the time, you sound like a retard, we all know that. You need to space the words right, and that includes commas, full stops, even those long pauses at the ends of sentences that are written . Like this one) 03. With the right dynamics - you play the wrong note too loud, you sound like you're shouting at the listener. Do you want to shout when you shouldn't? **** no. You want to whisper sweetest love to your girl sometimes. That's a lot to absorb, and I know I may seem like a hypocrite to some right now - but I'm working on my phrasing too. As should everyone. So, for phrasing. You need dynamics, tone, and rhythm. And a lot more. You actually also need a bit of repetition. Read this paragraph: So anyway this elephant escaped from the zoo and then I was like eating and ice cream and then I shot him and then this girl and me made sweet love and then I played the funk for people and then I did your ma hahahahahhah Annoying, isn't it? Well, that's because it's a pile of ****. A lot of people solo like that. They start with a bit of preamble and they're trying to talk really fast and show off, and then they forget to make sense. They just use any old words and then speak ****. Slow the **** down. Come up with a coherent musical idea; use it - even if as you're starting lead, it might be as simple as three unison bends and then some vibrato on the blue note! It sounds good if you just mean it and phrasing will help you sound like you mean it. Especially if you do. They use no structure. They start with one idea (or phrase, in this case) and then just warble along in the same scale finding new ones. Don't. Stick with it a bit. Even if it's a boring idea and you want rid of it, spice it up a little. Think, "****, those three notes were boring. How can I help?" - try raking a few strings and then adding vibrato to them. Make it like that boring first sentence that leads to a murder mystery. Build it, and then go to a new idea. Build a whole paragraph, and then you can move onto a new one. Notice the paragraph I wrote you was full of random shouting? Yes, that was both deliberate, and annoying. That's akin to the people who realize their solo is eating dogs' plums so they think, "I know! I'll play the next bit really fast/vibrato-y/with a huge bend and that'll rescue this solo." It won't. Don't do stuff without a musical reason - don't think that means you can't be spontaneous, if you just FEEL "that" note is perfect, play it. But don't just randomly break out huge sweep picking lines or huge bends that go nowhere and come from nothing. Now, check out this paragraph, from a book called Gormenghast, which is pantcreamingly well written, although I'd rather show you how he describes rooftops, this random quote from the net will do: "The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture, were built with gray slabs of stone and were the personal concern of a company of eighteen men known as the 'Grey Scrubbers'.... On every day of the year from three hours before daybreak until about eleven o'clock, when the scaffolding and ladders became a hindrance to the cooks, the Grey Scrubbers fulfilled their hereditary calling." Notice the fancy language - imagine all those big words without the commas and punctuation separating them - now imagine a shredder playing huge impossible licks at 250bpm. Funny how they sound alike, eh? Notice how it starts with an interesting, complex sentence - The walls of the vast room which were streaming with calid moisture - what does calid mean? My dictionary on word doesn't recognize it, but I know it means that its cold, it's wet, merely from context and phrasing. An example, perhaps, of how a wrong note, played right sounds great. Notice that you start with the walls, you set the scene - you let people understand you're about to describe some walls, in a vast room. Comma. Let the idea sink in. Now, we find out they're built with these slabs of grey stone and that the grey scrubbers take care of them. Notice the smooth transition from idea to idea. Wallswallsgrey scrubbersgrey scrubbers. It's a transition phrase there. It's logical, flows well, but leads distinctly into a new idea. Structure, phrasing, dynamics, rhythm, all there, in the right amounts. Now, don't expect to write brilliant solos from the start once you know this. It takes practice to improve, just like anything else, but it will really help to know. So, help with phrasing, after all this talk about it? See how few notes you can make an idea with. It should be one! Then bump it up to two notes, and see what you can do with that. Then play 2 notes over a backing track - hundreds more ideas. Keep going at these exercises till you aren't just churning out the licks you know already. Another idea - call and response. Play a short lick, let it hang a little on a tense note - reply to it. Make a conversation. All these language metaphors bring up this obvious idea - talk as you play. Try playing I love you. Soft, sweet phrasing, I'd probably be boring and play it crotchet, crotchet minim (in a count of 1, 2, 3, 4 then the first note takes up the first beat, second the second, and then the last two beats are taken up by the last note, 2 notes, and one twice the length as the others), with some gentle vibrato. Nothing wrong with clichs - they became clichs because they're damn good ideas. Play **** you! - I think 2 aggressive screaming pinch harmonics with massive bends and vibrato on them. How about Bap bap doo-wap bedap bedap? Some jazz scatting there. Anyway, the ideas are limitless there. Once you get a sentence down, try a conversation. Another easy device is the Ready, steady, go! - Short phrase, short phrase, short phrase that continues. Let me illustrate again, I may have explained that badly. Imagine a big black woman gospel singing I just, I just, I just wanna LOOOoove you baby, Woaahhhhhh! That's what I'm talking about! But seriously. While clichd once again, everyone recognizes this idea and because of that, everyone can use it effectively, you aren't playing groups of 9 over a 4/4 backing or anything crazy. Use this kind of idea to lead into your monster riffs and everyone knows what's coming. For the more adventurous, there's odd note groupings. Instead of triplets, play quintuplets, groups of five, for example. These give really interesting unfinished feels, I know Paul Gilbert uses them occasionally, but he plays them too fast for my ear, and I prefer them kind of slower. Septuplets (groups of 7) sound slightly too fast but still in time to my ear, which makes them interesting in a way, I don't like them personally, but that's all a matter of taste. Here's a great tip I only really discovered recently. Bend slowly. Bends start somewhere, and go somewhere. Don't hurry them. Name me a famous Slash, Vai, or Malmsteen bend bent so fast that it's practically not there - hard to, isn't it? Yes, those bends have a time and place too, but bend slowly and see the feel it creates. Vibrato. Get a good one, damn it, do you know how good damn fine vibrato sounds with even decent tone? Head over here. Rests! Don't be scared of not soloing. Phrasing is as much the space between notes as the space they take up. Here's a great example I stole from Berkley online - hold up your hand. You see the space the hand takes up, but you can also see the negative space that's between your fingers, and you can change the shape of THAT with your positive space. So in other words, be leaving tense notes hanging without resolution leaves you with harsher negative space, playing straight 16ths leaves you no negative space (except staccato ones, which are really interesting listening), either creating a irritating guitar wank feel or frenzied noise, depending on your genre, tempo and feel. Ah, but can you get away with shredding and phrasing, or is good phrasing restricted to the blues? Well, ****ing duh. Of course you can. I never said don't play really damn fast. But feel the beat. Listen to No Boundaries (Speed Lives) by Michael Angelo Batio, or any of his other songs. Notice the ridiculous speeds. The insane technique. Notice also, that he uses many clever ideas to keep his music from being boring (to me) - for example, tremolo picking a single note in an alternate picking run gives the ear a little something to latch onto, and is an underused idea, in my opinion. He follows the beat strongly (or sometimes not at all) with his sweeps in Speed Lives (1:25 into the vid available free from - he follows the beat so strongly that despite the fact it's straight 16ths, the really strong quarter note feel still comes through. And the neoclassical solo in there is straight 8th notes in places, but a few trills and another instance of strongly following the beat is why you don't sound as awesome as Michael Angelo. Or perhaps you want to go Vai bonkers and really go mad like he sometimes does in his solos (a dotted 64th note and then some really weird shizzle, in some crazy instances). Not that I can help you out much at that level, but that's another idea for you. Here's a link back to Berklee, I owe them now, lol. Some great tips in there, and guess what? It's also an example of how you can learn to play better from other great instrument players. Don't restrict yourself by learning from guitarists. Allan Holdsworth is greatly influenced by horn players, and putting the feel of an 80s, smooth, sexy, saxophone solo into your playing is nothing to be ashamed of. Anyway, we haven't even really started on note choice properly yet, and I don't think I can really cover it properly, but Cas and the other theory Gurus have... Don't worry if that all goes over your head yet, as here are some simple ideas about melodic thinking relating to phrasing, or just some real basics to help beginners - Well, firstly, if you're playing a bunch of chords in the key of Em, play the solo in Em. Simple, but some people don't realize that's how it works. Em, Cmaj, Dmaj. There, in the key of E, play E minor over that. Muck around. Right, that's a great way to find melodies you like - mess around. You ever heard of the word play in a context other than guitar? Like running around and having fun with other kids? Play your guitar. Then you can start with all this developing idea stuff. Or perhaps you have a melody in your head? Figure it out, why not? If it sounds boring once you figure it out, meddle with your tone a bit! And add some interesting vibrato or just hit the notes with conviction, if it's a good melody, it might need some good playing to get it out. Imagine if Steve Vai had simply picked all the notes in the main melody of For The Love Of God, rather than all those slides and with all that vibrato. Sound ****, wouldn't it? And if you're messing around, keep it slow, you get me? You want a melody, not a blur. Blurs with melody will come with time. Till then, you want to sound great without shred? Do what I've told you. Seriously, if you take this advice to heart and follow, you'd own me. Because you'd sound better. Seriously. What else regarding note choice? Well, learn how things sound over another. If you play Em blues scale over Em7, what does it sound like? Play with all these idea. E Phrygian over E major sounds Spanish, no joke! A lot of it is instinct, and that comes with time and practice. So do both. Spend time with your geetar, and practice. But remember to play too. Anyway, peace out, have fun, stay safe, *any other clichd goodbye*, lots of love, -Freepower.

129 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice dude, relating the soloing to talking was a great idea, thats how I think of solo pieces in music generally, so its cool to know someone who thinks the same way. Most people are justl ike WTF when I say something this. 10/10.
    great article and your theory that a conversation is comparable to a solo is great and one that i have never considered. Except when having a conversation, silences are akward, yet in a solo, the silent parts are as important as the actual notes as u have explained. Also conversation can change moods easily for example u can be talkin to someone happily until u find out something bad which is said whilst talking to that person and ur mood suddenly changes. Does that happen in a solo??? I know i am being picky and focusing on the negative of the article so ill end in saying good article
    Jeff Beck = god of you and of phrasing. Learn off of this man! He is the masta!
    Pretty good...kinda long. Focuses a lot on people talking rather than actual phrasing in music, but good metaphor anyway.
    o ya wanna **** it **** it all night long long long long long allll night all night lall ngiht lONNNNNG
    Well done Freepower, this helped me a lot. This and "speed building" are probably the two most useful things I've seen on UG. Now if you could only help me with the dreaded Cmajor...
    good observations about comparing phrasing and conversation. Next time, throw in tab examples of what you mean.
    Im irish, lol. Everything's up to the player, but im trying to help them out - whether to alternate pick or not is up to the player, but you wouldnt debate the usefulness of that being taught to a begginner - and phrasing>picking. And of course we learn by improv and our mistakes - "A lot of it is instinct, and that comes with time and practice. So do both. Spend time with your geetar, and practice. But remember to play too." Why'd you think i said to "play" and all that other stuff?
    listen mate, im aussie like u alright...listen right...ur talking COMMON SENSE mate, talkin about showing off and tryin to define phrasing.....u basically gave us a definition mate ;0lol. we know we have to make breaks etc..but its up to the player mate...u cant define it. The art of improvising cannot be restricted like what u described mate, one learns to improvise with mistakes, even when shredding mate... wat u guys tink?
    I like the ariticle, great analogy it makes it so much easier to understand...keep it up!
    so many people are to stuck up and too self centered to except good or help when they get it. This is one of the better soloing articles ive read and im really gonna use it too!
    I can play a solo. My problem is I CANT THINK OF ONE. I've come up with one and it ok. But I am gonna use this to try and come up with something. thnx GJ great article
    Yeah this was pretty good, my teacher taught me in a simlar way. Blues soloing was heavily built on the 'conversation' technique.
    great article. pointing out the similarities between speech and music got the message across really well. good work.
    Bulletbass man
    god im confused i get what your saying oh its a great article but all the speach anologies confuse me.
    So anyway this elephant escaped from the zoo and then I was like eating and ice cream and then I shot him and then this girl and me made sweet love and then I played the funk for people and then I did your ma hahahahahhah Annoying, isn't it?
    thats kinda funny when you think about it. It sounds like something a crappy emo band would sing about. OK article though.
    wow... I never thought of it like that... thanx for the words of wisdom, keep them coming, great article
    Odd writing style. BTW,a guitarist who is great at creating conversations with his guitar is Satch. Just listen to Always With Me, Alway With You.
    might sound noobish but what do ' & clichd' mean? yeah it's a really useful post ty
    this is the best lesson I have ever read. it really makes you think. I've never even considered it like that before. dude, you ****ing rock.
    captain Trips
    pentagram_man63 wrote: not bad although it seems strange to compare conversation to a solo...
    Comparig conversation to soloing is the best analogy I've ever heard on that topic, it's relevant on so many levels
    pentagram_man63 wrote: not bad although it seems strange to compare conversation to a solo...
    where have you been?
    isn't it e minor that sounds spanish over e phyrigian 'cause they're both minor? someone smarter than me answer please
    Like your music this was inteesting, not for everyone, but most definitely for me.
    beutiful article, if you can play the way you can write we got a new guitar god!