Guitar phrasing is the art of expressing oneself through their guitar. Instead of playing straight scales or arpeggios, for example, guitar players can come up with melodic and emotive guitar phrases and licks that add more interest to the music.
It is guitar phrasing in both rhythm and lead guitar solos that helps define the feel of a song. Phrasing can add tension, dynamics, mood and timing to a piece of music.
Different guitar players tend to have a preference for how they phrase their licks and what techniques and scales they favour. Every guitar player is unique in how they choose to phrase guitar parts. Take a look at the table below of guitar players and their signature phrasing techniques;
What techniques do your favourite players use in their phrasing often?
You can think of guitar phrasing as being similar to talking. When having a conversation or giving a speech we use many different techniques with our voice to add interest. We accentuate certain words, pause after others, use dynamics to create textures and vary our pitch even within sentences.
Main Components Of Guitar Phrasing
All the scales and techniques we’ve learnt so far blend well together. The minor scales and pentatonic scales are used heavily in western music, especially all types of rock music. The techniques we’ve learnt all fit within the scales and give us many tools to help shape and utilise various musical aspects of the scales.
Musical phrasing does have some commonalities across genres that help us to play and write interesting guitar phrases. Listed below are the common element that are found within guitar phrasing;
Melodic bends, either half step or whole step bends. Bending to a minor third is also nice! Check out some blues rock guitarists such as Hendrix, Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan to observe the bending masters. Practice bending in key!
Watch how other guitarists wobble the string when they sustain a note. Each guitar player will have their own style of phrasing their vibrato. Aim for a nice and even vibrato and practice it on sustained notes and on bends. Can also be used on chords!
Adding dynamics to you solos can really help to shape them and take you to new places. Dynamics refers to playing softer and harder to create a dynamic range in your playing. This can be really effective, especially when you build it into a song, such as a soft solo followed by a harder and louder solo!
Rests are another great tool for guitar phrasing. This can mean leaving a short gap between notes, maybe half a second or so, or it could be longer, one or two bars. The blues is a great genre for hearing gaps in guitar solos to create some great guitar phrasing. Check out the Foo Fighters song ‘Outside’ for a great example of a modern rock song with a great spacey solo from Joe Walsh!
Can be used similar to rests but sustain the note instead. Sustained notes can be short of longer and they are a great way of adding melody and phrasing to a guitar solo. Without rests and sustained notes guitar solos would just be a collection of notes!
Slides are another handy little technique that can add interest to you guitar solos. They are more subtle that some of the aforementioned tools but they do help to add character to your playing. Try slow slides, fast slides, slides from above and slides from below. Try sliding from one or two frets away and across long distances!
Adding accentuated notes can really drive the rhythmic aspects of your playing. Accentuated notes are notes that you play louder than the other notes. It works very with acoustic and overdriven guitars. It can be achieved with distorted guitars too, providing good technique!
None of the above are essential or even needed for guitar phrasing, but they are common and they do help to create interest in your playing. Think of the opening riff to Sweet Child O mine by Gunz N Roses. There are no rests, bends, dynamics, slides or vibrato in that riff, but there is a ton of melody and interest in the notes that Slash chooses to play.
There are some simple exercises we can do to get us away from the scale and techniques exercises that we’ve learnt so far.
Guitar Phrasing Exercises
Lets take a simple guitar scale and play around with it to create phrasing ideas. I will give you a simple backing track below for you to try some licks out with!
Backing Track in A minor
The Scale Shape - A minor
OK, lets add some rests and gaps in this and see what we come up with. Remember to practice along with the backing track!
Phrasing idea 1
Phrasing idea 2
Phrasing idea 3
As you can see it is easy to come up with phrasing ideas just by leaving gaps between notes, thereby creating rhythmic displacement and new phrases.
We can also get similar results by sustaining notes instead of leaving gaps;
Let us move over to blues guitar phrasing to look at bends and vibrato. These are very useful techniques for creating emotive and interesting phrases.
12 bar blues is a great place to start when learning guitar phrasing. Some of the best blues player such as BB King and Albert King use simple but effective phrasing to express themselves. Blues licks also tend to be saturated with bends, vibrato, gaps and melody, therefore making them a good starting point for playing around with scales, techniques and phrasing ideas.
Use the blues backing track below to test out the blues phrasing licks that are tabbed out after!
This time we will take a simple guitar lick in the first position of the blues scale in B minor and come up with some new phrasing ideas!
B minor blues scale 1st position lick
OK, so let’s take this simple phrase and come up with three different variations from it. See how many you can come up with. Also, practice this lick at both slow and fast tempos with the backing track!
Phrasing idea 1
Phrasing idea 2
Phrasing idea 3
Notice in the licks above that I sometimes change a note that we sustain on, like the last note in the first bar of each lick. The note I change it for is always the root, 3rd or 5th interval. These are the most melodic intervals for any chord! Over time you will be easily able to find these intervals no matter what chord or key you are playing in. You will also be able to land on notes that are in the next chord within a sequence, thereby further developing your style and solo structures!
There are a hundred different ways to play the above licks and all of them would be right! You will over time develop your own style and preference for techniques.
Try playing along to the backing track and seeing what other ideas you can come up with!
How To Phrase Guitar Solos
Guitar solos can be built in many different ways. We can categories guitar solos into three main camps;
Of course, a combination of all three is possible too. Written guitar solos are solos that have been written note for note and are played the same every time. Some solos are also based on a theme from the song, such as copying the chorus vocal melody. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana is a good example of this and it is a great method if you have a catchy chorus!
Improvised solos are as the name suggests; the guitar player will improvise a new solo each time. In the studio, a guitar player may have several attempts at improvising over their latest song and pick the best one for the track. It is common for guitarists to improve a few solos and then the producer/engineer stitches the best parts from each together to build a complete solo.
A guitarist may also base the improvisation around a loose theme and use that as a starting and returning point throughout the solo.
You can also include a vibe in your solos that will influence how you phrase parts of your solo. I always remember my guitar teacher teaching my the solo from Rainbow’s ‘Since You Been Gone’. He said it had a drunk vibe to it, and every time I hear it I think of a drunk Richie Blackmore playing the solo. A vibe could be something like aggressive, driving, uplifting, laid back etc.
Think of a vibe that fits your song or backing track and aim to incorporate it into each guitar phrase or part of the solo!
How you phrase your guitar solo will be up to you and what you want to achieve. You could copy the vocal melody and expand upon that, write a bluesy and soulful solo with lots of bends and feel. You could write a technical guitar solo with lots of arpeggios and speed picking!
Phrase a solo in a way that compliments the songs rather than to show off your latest techniques. This can be hard for new shredders as the aim can sometimes be to play as fast as you can. Over time though, players learn to appreciate the construction and taste of a good guitar phrase, and solos become more about feel than about techniques.
Guitar Phrasing Ideas
Some of the points I mention above are good phrasing ideas. Suggestions like copying the vocal theme or improvising help give us direction and ideas. Other things that can help give you ideas is using other scales or building a solo around a certain technique or theme.
Go through each of the below suggestions and play around with each idea on your own and along to a backing track. Explore their possibilities and keep them in mind when playing in the future.
Different Scales For Guitar Phrasing
Knowing a few different scales means that you have more choices when it comes to guitar solos. Not only that, but each scale has its own flavor and therefore makes us play differently to get the most from the scale. It’s these varieties that add spice and character to our lead playing. Although we haven’t covered guitar modes in this course, they are a great resource for variations on the major/minor scales.
Try playing along to the backing track below with an A minor scale. Also, add in the major sixth note every now and then to create new phrasing ideas. Just by adding the major sixth you are playing the A Dorian mode, which is the second mode of the G major scale!
A minor Scale
A minor With Added 6th (A Dorian Mode)
Soloing Around A Theme
Using a theme is another great idea for a guitar solo. The theme can be an existing theme from the song you’re writing for, or it can be a new theme that you create for a solo. You can come back to the theme as many times as you need. You could start the solo with the theme and then end it with the theme.
The guitar gods of the 80’s did this a lot. Players such as Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and Yngwie Malmsteen Built whole guitar songs around themes and melodies. Check out Steve Vai’s For The Love Of God for a great theme to play around!
Knowing Guitar Intervals
Guitar intervals refers to the distance between two notes. It is therefore really beneficial to know our intervals well. By knowing them we can better choose the notes that we play in guitar solos and phrases.
If you don’t know you intervals you can start small. The power chord contains the root note and one other note. That other note is an interval of a 5th. So now every time you are playing a root note in a guitar solo you know where the root is and the 5th.
From here you could learn where the 3rd is, the 4th, 2nd etc. Learn the sound of each one again the root note. Try to see what they sound like in guitar phrases. I’ve built many guitar phrases off of each, such as basing my phrases and theme around the 2nd note before going back to the root.
Also, Bends tend to work best when bending to a specific interval. Bending from the 4th to 5th interval sounds great, as does bending from the minor 7th to the root.
Improving Your Phrasing
It takes time to get confident with phrasing, whether it’s playing other players solos or writing your own. Whereas the techniques and scales that go into guitar solos are easy to practice and develop, phrasing is more personal and emotion based. Therefore, you will get better over time and you can do things now to speed up that process!
Listen To Other Guitar Players
Start with your favorite players and see how they build their licks. You may start to notice the length of their phrases is similar, or that they often star before the beat, for example. Get some guitar tabs for their solos and practice the licks and aim to mimic their style and way of approaching the guitar.
It is also good practice to expose yourself to as many different genres of guitar playing as you can. This will expand you awareness of what is possible with guitar phrasing.
Practice in One Position
Limitations can bring about many creative solutions. For example, Peter Gabriel decided not to use cymbals on his third album, Melt. These kind of limitations can actually focus us down and give us direction.
With guitar phrasing I would recommend spending time practicing in one place on the guitar neck. The first position of the minor scale for example is a classic pop/rock/metal position. Try not going outside of this position and see what you come up with. If anything, it will get you more comfortable in this position!
From here, find another position on the neck and play within that. Then you can join the two together and have two different set of notes for phrasing off of!
Try Different Genres
Opening oneself up to new genres and possibilities is a very healthy thing to do as musicians. Backing tracks on YouTube are a great way of exploring new genres. You will find that different genres inspire you to do different things with your playing. For example, an upbeat rock track may inject you playing with grit and guts. A laid back jazz track may force you to leave more space and explore subtle note choices.
A good tip; when trying out new genres, try to adapt your guitar sound to that genre if using an electric guitar. By changing your overdrive settings to be stronger or weaker you will be experiencing new sounds which will force you to play different.
As we have seen from this lesson, it isn’t too hard to come up with phrasing ideas so long as we remember about rests and spaces between notes. It’s these rests and spaces that give us melody and phrasing. If we were to play a continuous scale shape or technique, there wouldn’t be much melody or phrasing. By including space, rests and sustained notes we create new phrases.
Also, knowing some music theory such as scales and intervals gives us more options for note choices. Being able to slip a modal phrase into a solo really adds character and style to your lead playing. Knowing intervals helps to broaden our options for choosing notes to land on and sustain.
Listen to other genres and instruments to gain new inspiration and ideas for phrasing and composition possibilities. Widening our musical tastes really does help us to grow as musicians and lead guitarists!