Why Your Guitar Influences Are Great and Why You Are Not Great

This is the difference between being a great guitar player and being an ok one.

Ultimate Guitar
And no it has nothing to do with natural talent. Most great guitarists were made, not born. And the very few who had some natural talent were not naturally talented in every single area of music. They had challenges and things they weren't good at just like everyone else has including you.

In other words: No matter how bad you think you are or how little talent you think you possess, as your influences became great then so can you!

But when you listen to your influences and you try to write something there seems to be something that they have that you do not.

Think about your favorite guitarists. Whether you listen to shred guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert, Dimebag Darrell, Jason Becker, Uli Jon Roth etc. Or blues guitar legends such as Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan and David Gilmour they all seem to have "something" that separates them from the rest of the guitarists in the world. These guitarists have many differences and all of them have (or had) their strengths and weaknesses but all of them have the ability to be expressive.

Most people listen to these guys and wonder "what is it that makes them so great!? How are they so expressive in their playing while my playing is not anywhere near as amazing? What am I missing?" If you are thinking this, then you are you are not as good as you want to be.

But you will be pleased to know that there is one thing that all these guitarists have in common. Again they all have differences but this is one thing that no great guitarist does not have. Currently you do not have this and therefore you are being held back.

Well what is that thing? Well as mentioned it has nothing to do with talent as creativity and the ability to be expressive can be taught.

Is it guitar technique? No. At least a certain amount of guitar technique is essential for expression, but this is not the thing I am talking about as this alone will not make your guitar playing sound awesome. After all, how many guitarists have you seen who had a lot of technique but their playing did not not say anything? So obviously having the technical abilities of any of your influences will not make you an expressive player.

Is it knowing a lot of guitar scales and arpeggios? Well this helps, but scales don't make your playing sound expressive alone. They are merely tools for self expression. And to sound expressive on the guitar you need to know the core of what makes a phrase sound good, not have more tools to use. Learning more scales won't fix the problem. It would be like having a painkiller to try and fix your illness. The painkiller can be useful to have on your path to recovery, but it doesn't directly solve the problem.

What is that thing that solves the problem? What is the difference between your influences guitar playing and yours?

The answer is: they have developed phrasing.

This is the difference between a guitarist who plays a lick that sounds expressive and a guitarist who plays that same lick and sounds amateurish.

Some of you might be saying to yourselves "What is phrasing? No one ever told me about this. Not even my teacher told me this."

Well, no I am sure no one has. Years ago this was just something that developed naturally over time. Due to the increase in the usage of tablature, a guitarists ability to create a great phrase for the most part has become a thing of the past, sadly.

Even most guitar teachers today are either unaware of guitar phrasing or do not know how to develop it.

No wonder it is not talked about.

Phrasing is the ability to create great phrases. The most important thing you need to know about phrasing is that it is not the lick you play but how you play that lick.

Of course the notes you use is a factor but by far not the most important one. The phrasing nuances you use within the lick is what makes the lick sound good, not just playing more and more notes. Most guitar players either change the lick or add more notes to the lick as they believe this will make the lick sound cool. But this clearly doesn't work, otherwise you would already be a great guitarist. (We all would be.)

But isn't phrasing just developed naturally over time? Well yes to an extent this is true. You will come to like certain ways of playing over others as you evolve as a guitarist. That is why no guitarist, or musician is the same.

The guitarists above sound great but they have differences in terms of phrasing. Like Dimebag Darrell and Yngwie Malmsteen, both of which are very expressive in their playing but sound completely different.

Naturally you will come to like and dislike certain phrasing over time but you will evolve and improve much faster if you spend some practice time to specifically develop your phrasing.

At that point what you should do with your phrasing is not something I can tell you, as you are the only one with that answer. What I do with my phrasing and what you do with your phrasing will definitely have some difference as we are not the same guitarist. However, I can guide you and give you some ideas that will help you on your path to developing your own personal phrasing.

How to Develop Your Phrasing

Create a short lick (no more than 8-12 notes) and practice creating variations of that lick. Start off by creating at least 10-20 variations. This will force you to be creative and expressive without changing any notes of the lick. This is key to expressive playing.

But some of you are probably thinking "How do I create a variation of a lick?" There are many phrasing elements we could discuss that goes beyond this article. And therefore there are endless possibilities for variations.

But for now, start thinking about:

Your Vibrato and Bending

Vibrato is perhaps one of the most expressive techniques out there, as is bending. However most guitarists either use out of tune vibrato which sounds bad, some don't use it at all and those that do always to a vibrato on the last note straight away. With bending most guitarists just bend upwards and do not do anything else with bending. Here are some ways you can create a variation of a lick just by changing the way the vibrato and bending is done.
  1. Use vibrato on a note other than the last note
  2. Bend into the note you want to play and delay the vibrato.
  3. Instead of doing a narrow vibrato do a wider slower vibrato (Gary Moore was a master at this!)
  4. Manipulate the bends in different ways. Instead of always bending up like everyone does why not bend down?
  5. Bend and release instead of just bending alone.
  6. Instead of just doing half step bends, do whole step bends 1 and a half step bends, quarter bends (blues bends). Vary how wide or narrow the bend is. You can even bend from an outside note into your target note. Marty Friedman does this a lot.
  7. Combine these ideas together in different ways. (Eg. Bend and release and delay the vibrato)
I have just given you many ways you can create a variation of a lick. You may even be able to create more than 10 with these ideas alone. Phrasing is such a massive topic that goes way beyond the examples I have just given. However this should get you started on the path to mastering your phrasing.

Guitar phrasing is very important, but that is not the only thing you need to know to become a great guitar player and musician. If you want to become a great guitar player.

23 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Whilst I agree with a lot of this article, there is one HUGE factor you have completely missed out: When you listen to your favourite artists, you are ensnared by the magic of them. In business terms, this is called branding. So naturally, when you listen to their works, you adore it, love it, and as a creative you will wish you could write like that. It's why Slash can play bum notes and out of tune guitars yet gets away with it. How many of us have started bands and tried to write riffs as good as our heroes only to find we throw most of them away thinking "that doesn't sound as good as [INSERT BAND HERE]"? When you make it, it doesn't feel as magical because it wasn't made by your heroes, it was made by you, and unless you're on mountains of coke stroking your own ego it will never be as good as your heroes to you. Not only this but most the time, you are just making a guitar part and not thinking of the drums, bass, and vocals, and how they help drive a song. A song isn't just guitar riffs. A good composer knows how to work with all the instruments, not just their own.
    Another big issue a lot of players have is trying too hard to emulate their heroes instead if developing their own style. It really helps to learn material of all different types and a lot of different solos. You can then pick which aspects of different players you like most and start forming your own style
    Yeah I agree (mostly). You do get occasionally bands that emulate their heroes and get some success from it. The best example being Airbourne. Usually however, the success of these bands is very limited to an at best situation where you tour lots at small shows and scratch a living. The bands that really stand out from the crowd and gain success are the ones who innovate by mixing their influences and creating something new. I will get flamed for this but Bring Me The Horizon are a good example of this with Sempiternal. Korn is another great example for their early works. etc. Then you have bands that are so 'out there' that their innovation alienates audiences and they are stunted by their own creativity (in regards to success in business terms).
    I was actually talking about personal skill but it does apply to bands too. Vary your influences and you might be able to make something new and cool instead of just being generic metalcore band #302. Seriously play some Steely Dan, play some Mastodon, play some fucking Taylor Swift. Don't let yourself become a niche player because you limit yourself so much.
    Music, along with art, literature, etc is simply an expression of human emotion and feelings. The key to sounding great is simply playing how you feel. Let your joy, your frustration, your sadness, your anger come out in your music. No one wants to listen to music that is technically fantastic but is cold and emotionless. Feel it.
    Well, to be perfectly honest... the impression I'm getting from this article could be summed up in one sentence: "try out different stuff and develop your own style". The last part about vibrato and bending has some cool ideas, but otherwise... it's kinda repeating the same thing for several paragraphs, sorry. Would be a far better idea to give more different examples or ways to experiment. And one more note for the "out of tune vibrato which sounds bad": sometimes supposedly "bad" technique can be enormously expressive. There are plenty of pretty damn good guitarists out there with some aspects of their technique that would make a lot of teachers die on the inside (my first thought: Steven Wilson and his chord strumming with his entire arm ), and that also makes them who they are. If it's comfortable for you, and it sounds the way you want - it's good.
    This last part is so true. Another perfect example is Marty Friedman's picking technique, there are so many people bitching about it.
    "no wonder it's not talked about", "not even my teacher told me this" and "well, no I am sure no one has". Really? You are hanging around with the wrong crowd or try doing a search for 'phrasing' on here or even google.
    i think i might honestly a bit better at guitar than some of my influences but then again i forgot that this site is for metalheads who dont actually write songs and just wank their fretboard all day long. another pointless article, hurray
    I think you might be a bit better than some of your influences if you spent less time on the internet being a cocksucker for absolutely no reason and more time practicing. Another pointless comment, hurray.
    Good post. I know a lot of guitarists who feel with/struggle with this issue. I haven't played in a few months, and I am by no means a great guitarist, but they would always ask how do I sound so expressive when I play? I could never really answer them, but now I have a this article to show them the way.