The guitar is a wonderfully versatile instrument, which means that there is a wide range of playing styles, techniques, and methods possible when playing it. Part of learning to play the guitar well is learning to use phrasing well, but many guitarists are confused about what guitar phrasing is, and other guitar players do not know how to use phrasing well.
Guitar phrasing is the way a guitarist chooses to use notes to convey a musical idea, feel, or sound. Phrasing is the use of techniques, timing, note choices, and note placement that defines the unique voice of a guitarist. Phrasing is improved by practice and emulating great guitar players.
The term ‘phrasing’ in the context of playing guitar is somewhat ambiguous, but there are some definitions that can be applied to the confusing term. Learning to understand guitar phrasing and how to improve the phrasing that you use is the key to advanced guitar playing, including solos, riffs, and licks. Let’s explore guitar phrasing and learn some tips for improving phrasing in your playing.
What is Guitar Phrasing?
If you have heard the term ‘guitar phrasing’ and are wondering what it means, you may come across several definitions, and not many of them will make much sense. The truth is that guitar phrasing is a somewhat ambiguous guitar term that is used to describe certain aspects of the way a person plays the guitar.
Guitar phrasing can be summarized as the individual voice of a specific guitarist. The definition of the word ‘phrasing’ is the way something is expressed, or it could mean the way something is put into words.
When a person speaks or writes a sentence in their own words, the phrasing that they use is the way they speak, their choice of words, and the way they explain something in context. The same is true for guitar phrasing.
Guitar phrasing is the way a guitar player strings together the notes they are using in a musical context. Phrasing is the way the notes are used to convey emotion, the way they are used in the timing of the music, the sound they produce altogether rather than the individual notes played, and the way the guitarist physically plays the notes.
This will define the unique style and voice of the individual guitarist, and this is why the phrasing that a guitarist uses is so important. Without using good phrasing, melodic guitar playing sounds lifeless, undefined, and without purpose. Guitar playing without good phrasing is like a sentence that is phrased poorly: difficult to understand and hard to listen to.
To be clear, the notes that are used when playing guitar solos, riffs, licks, or other melodic lines should always be strung together in a musical way, but the phrasing of how those notes are played defines the small accents, timing choices, stylistic elements, specific note choices, physical note locations, and the overall feel of the musical line.
Let’s talk about phrasing a little more before we move to how to improve guitar phrasing techniques in general.
Is Guitar Phrasing Important?
Discussing guitar phrasing is somewhat challenging, as it is very difficult to clearly define what exactly guitar phrasing is. If something is so difficult to define and mostly subjective, is it even that important?
The truth is that guitar phrasing is very important. Phrasing is what defines the unique tone and voice of a guitar player. Phrasing is what sets guitarists apart, and phrasing defines the style and demonstrates the musical ability of guitar players, regardless of the music that they play.
Phrasing defines everything, including critical aspects of playing, such as note choices regarding pitch and physical location on the fretboard and minor decisions, such as where to place vibrato during a lick.
The use of phrasing is how certain guitar players are able to turn a seemingly mundane musical line into something iconic and wonderful to listen to. The great guitarists that all other guitar players look up to are all masters of phrasing and have defined their own stylistic phrasing to convey their own unique voice on the instrument.
If phrasing is unimportant to you, the unfortunate reality is that your guitar playing probably sounds uninteresting and predictable.
Phrasing is important because it can be different for every guitar player. It is these incorporeal elements of playing the guitar that make the instrument great, and the unique ability of individual guitar players to master and hone these skills and elements of playing demonstrates the talent of each player and sets the good players apart from the bad players.
Examples of Guitar Phrasing
Understanding what guitar phrasing is can be a challenge, which means the best way to demonstrate the use of guitar phrasing is to identify some common examples that every guitar player can recognize.
To avoid trying to describe guitar solos in written form, or explaining licks played by great players, let’s rather examine some more theoretical examples of guitar phrasing.
A good example of phrasing is a guitar solo. A solo is comprised of a string of notes played one after the other, usually in the melodic form, and the way that solo is played regarding the timing, note choices, physical locations, and techniques used to execute the solo is the way the piece of music is phrased.
If a solo is played in a particular way, using specific notes and a certain combination of techniques such as bends, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, it will have a feeling that is produced by playing the solo in this way.
If the exact same notes are played, but the guitar player changes the techniques used to play the solo, the phrasing has been changed, which will entirely change the way the piece of music sounds.
The same is true if the solo is played by using the same notes but is played in a different area of the fretboard. The guitarist will have to change their finger positions in different ways, and the specific quality of the strings used will be different. Thus, the phrasing of the solo will change even if the note pitches remain the same.
This is the best way to describe an example of guitar phrasing, and it is easily demonstrated when a guitar player performs a live version of an iconic solo, but the solo sounds slightly different, even though the overall theme of the solo is broadly the same as the recorded version.
The guitarist has simply changed their phrasing during the live version, which is what gives the live performance a different feel and sonic quality in comparison to the recorded solo.
How to Improve your Guitar Phrasing
Now that we have a better understanding of what guitar phrasing is and how guitar players use phrasing, we can move forward with some methods for improving the phrasing that you use in your own guitar playing.
Learning to improve the phrasing that you use while playing melodic lines on the guitar will drastically improve the way your music sounds and will teach you to listen to yourself while playing, which is an invaluable skill that every guitarist should have.
These are some practical ways to improve your guitar phrasing:
Explore Different Scale Shapes
Most guitar players get stuck in one phrasing simply because they favor certain scales and scale shapes more than others.
For example, guitarists who favor pentatonic scale shapes tend to favor phrasings that suit those shapes. By simply learning to play the scales that you already know in different shapes and different places on the fretboard, you will naturally begin to explore different phrasings as well.
Improve your Musical Timing
A significant aspect of phrasing is timing. The timing in which you play your notes determines the feel of the music.
Many guitar players struggle to improve their use of phrasing because they struggle to vary the timings that they use. Learning to understand timing subdivisions within key signatures and individual rhythms is vital for improving phrasing.
Learn to execute notes in different timing structures and learn to play in time well, and you will find yourself using a wider range of phrasing techniques as a result.
Practice Advanced Techniques
Phrasing can also be limited by the technical ability of the guitarist. Learning to use advanced techniques to a greater level will improve the phrasing that you are able to use.
Most guitar players stick to what they know, and if they are comfortable with specific techniques, their use of phrasing will be built around those techniques. Learning and practicing more advanced techniques will help you to develop a more varied and interesting use of phrasing on the guitar.
Listen to the Greats
A very effective way to better your guitar phrasing is to simply listen to the guitarists that have already mastered the art of phrasing.
Take the time to listen to masters of phrasing such as BB King, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, David Gilmour, John Meyer, Derek Trucks, and Jimi Hendrix. Listen to the great guitar players who play the same musical genres that you enjoy playing.
Listen to the way these masters play their guitar, listen to the way they use notes, timing, and techniques, and try to play their music yourself.
You will soon learn to identify the phrasing that makes their guitar voice unique. Try to incorporate their phrasing style into your own playing style, and over time you will develop your own musical voice.
This is a fantastic way to improve your phrasing, as it will take you out of the musical boxes that you have built yourself into and bring you into a new world of interesting musical techniques and sounds.
Listen to your Playing
A simple way to improve your guitar phrasing is to listen to yourself playing the guitar. There are two ways to achieve this effectively: simply be aware of the way you sound when playing the guitar, and record yourself playing the guitar.
Learning to listen to the notes you play is a skill that many guitar players overlook. It is critical to listen to yourself while playing the guitar, as this will help you to improve the way you play.
Recording yourself while playing the guitar will help you to identify the phrasing that you use and will highlight some areas where your phrasing can be improved. Listening to a recording of yourself playing the guitar will help you identify the weak spots in your playing, which will give you a direction for improvement overall.
Practice with Backtracks
Part of learning to use guitar phrasing well is playing the techniques and phrasing styles that you are practicing in a musical context. It helps to use what you learn in a fresh way without having to conform to a specific song structure or solo form.
This makes practicing your phrasing with backing tracks an ideal way to improve your phrasing and guitar-playing skills.
There are several free backtracks available for streaming on platforms such as YouTube and Spotify, and using these services is the ideal way to practice.
Find a backing track in a musical style that you enjoy playing in and one that is in a key that you feel comfortable playing in. Take the time to learn the key and chord progressions of the track, and then practice soloing and improvising over the track.
Try to push the boundaries of your current phrasing, and experiment with playing in ways that you have never tried before. If you find yourself playing in the same way or playing the same things that you usually do, stop playing and try something new.
This is a highly effective way to better your overall guitar playing and skills while quickly developing and improving the phrasing that you use while playing.
The phrasing that you use as a guitar player is your fingerprint, your specific and unique voice. Understanding how to use phrasing to your advantage will make you a better guitarist and a better improvisational, but this skill takes significant time and practice to master.
Practice your phrasing as much and as often as possible, and listen to your sound while playing. Play with backtracks, listen to guitar greats, play with other musicians, and always try to break any boxes that you have built into your guitar playing. This will always lead to better-sounding phrasings and techniques overall.