One of the things that set great improvisers apart from mediocre ones is their phrasing.

Think of phrasing as your ability to communicate your musical ideas on guitar in clear, concise way rather than simply firing off a barrage of notes and seeing what sticks. So here are a few ideas on how to improve your phrasing.

Listen to Players with Great Phrasing

Back at
Music College the enigmatic Dave Kilminster told us that if we wanted to hear
some good phrasing we should go listen to Robben Ford as he was, in his
opinion, the absolute master of phrasing. I’ve been listening to him ever since
and I have to say that there are few that come close. Other players with great
phrasing are undoubtedly David Gilmour, Richie Blackmore, Eric Clapton
pre-1970, Hendrix, Peter Green, Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons, George Harrison,
Jeff Beck, John Scofield, among many others too numerous to mention. Listening
to what you want to learn is often overlooked in favor of copping licks, so
spend some time absorbing what the greats do without trying to learn their
exact licks and you’ll soon hear the benefits, everyone’s phrasing is unique.

Stop Running Scales

Phrasing is
the opposite of running up and down scales. If you’re accustomed to doing this
on a regular basis then you’re going to have to fight with your hands to get
them to do something other than play the next note in the scale. Once you know
where the notes are in the scale, there is little point running scales over and
over unless you’re doing it for the purposes of improving your technique. You
can combat this by practicing scales up and down single strings or two strings
at a time as this will force you to come up with melodic ideas instead of
ripping through the scale. It’s strange that you would hardly ever rip scales
up and down a single string (horizontally) as it looks ridiculous and
amateurish but many players find it perfectly acceptable when applied across
the fretboard (vertically).

Less is more

practicing your phrasing you ideally want to reduce your options as this helps
you to bring out the sounds you want rather than ploughing through two or three
octaves worth of notes trying to find them. I recommend practicing in one
octave (comfortable) patterns on the top four strings as this area of the
fretboard is by far the most used during a guitar solo.

Let your Ear be Your Guide

You’ll find
that when you reduce your options your ear will become more interested in what
you’re playing. This is because it can now cope with the amount of notes you’re
throwing at it and can start to have an opinion on where the melody’s going,
instead of being dragged along in the wake.

Leave it out

Taking the
theme of reduction a little further, not all notes are created equally in any
given scale so it’s a good idea to start leaving notes out or focus on certain
notes in the scale in order to bring out the sound a little more. The chord
tones are obvious targets for strong phrasing (R, 3, 5 for major chords, R, b3,
5 for minor chords, R, 3, 5, b7 for dominant 7 chords and so on). If you apply
this to the modes you’ll want to bring out the tones that characterize each mode,
the #4 for Lydian, the 3 and the b7 for Mixolydian, the b2 for Phrygian and so
forth. You don’t have to sit down and religiously memorize where all the chord
tones are in a scale, a good awareness of them, and more importantly their
sound, will help your ear locate them on the fly.

Riffing on the Spot

If, as John
Scofield says, improvisation is speeded up composition, why not imagine you’re
writing a riff in the moment? Riffs are very similar to phrasing in that they
both need to be resolved to make sense, or at least have some kind of answering


Learning to
play blues lead guitar is an excellent way to improve your phrasing, as well as
many other aspects of guitar, as the blues is based heavily on tension and
release. Your lead lines will need to resolve (unless you want to create a lot of tension) thereby guiding you to think in
terms of phrasing, the great thing about the blues being that you don’t (or
shouldn’t) have to play a ton of notes to lay down a great lead.


Silence is Golden

As I mentioned
in the introduction to this post, phrasing is like having a conversation, be it
with your audience or with other players, and silence is just as important as
speaking. Silence, or the absence of playing, gives the audience time to take
in the ideas you’re trying to communicate. Silence also creates tension and
draws in the listener. You would eventually get tired of a one-sided
conversation or someone who talked endlessly without taking a breather. The same
is true of improvising; an endless barrage of notes can be technically
impressive but won’t hold the attention of the listener, unless you’re at a
Yngwie Malmsteen concert by choice.

Question and Answer Session

A great way
to practice phrasing is to get together with another lead guitarist (leave your
egos at the door), put on a backing track and have a question and answer session. This is where one
player plays a phrase and then the other tries to answer it and vice versa. It
really makes you think about what you’re playing for two reasons, a) you’re
responding to a stimulus and b) you’re involved in a ‘conversation’.

At the end of the day, music is a language so it pays to communicate well.



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