Blues Phrasing: Teaching Your Guitar to Speak
Music is a medium of communication. There’s something inherent in each of us that recognizes and responds to music and allows us to connect and understand one another, despite language barriers. As guitarists, we speak to our listeners not only through what we play, but how we play. The more articulate and emotive we are, the more effectively we’re able to express ourselves.
When thinking about phrasing, and blues phrasing in particular, as it relates to the guitar, it helps to consider how we speak. We use words to convey meaning. We combine these words to make sentences. But it’s not only word choice that gives meaning to what we say and how the listener interprets what is being said, it’s also how we say those words—the modulation in our voices and the rhythm of our speech. If we’re angry, for instance, we might raise our voice and speak with pointed words. If we have a secret to convey, we might whisper it in haste. We may pause for effect or to take a breath, and put emphasis on certain words to give them added meaning. The way we use words when speaking is called phrasing.
To further understand this concept, let’s imagine what it might be like to read a book that has no punctuation, no capitalization, no paragraphs or chapters. A passage might read something like this: There were dead faintly seen in offices to either side he climbed out over a fallen wall and made his way slowly toward the voices in the stairwell in near dark a woman carried a small tricycle tight to her chest a thing for a three year old handlebars framing her ribs they walked down thousands and he was in there with them he walked in a long sleep one step and then the next there was water running somewhere and voices in an odd distance coming from another stairwell or an elevator bank out in the dark somewhere. You get the picture. Pretty tiresome and confusing stuff, no? Well, the same principle applies with music. A guitar solo that consists of two minutes of non-stop sixteenth notes will sound like a bunch of gibberish, and you will eventually lose your audience. It takes phrasing to make your sound interesting and meaningful.
When it comes to soloing, most guitarists focus on what to play instead of how to play. Fact is, the nuances of phrasing, how the notes are played, is the most important aspect of creating dynamic guitar solos. So why do so very few guitarists learn to develop this key element of their playing?
And what exactly is blues phrasing anyway?
Phrasing, as it applies to language, is defined as a word or a collection of words that the mind focuses on momentarily as a meaningful unit, and is preceded and followed by pauses. In musical terms, it refers to the grouping of notes in a line of music into distinct phrases. Phrases can contain any number of notes, possibly even a single note played in a distinct rhythmic fashion. To think of phrasing in vocal terms, it is a length that doesn’t exceed what the lungs can handle. What fits in the space of a breath. Blues phrasing is instinctive—it isn’t just something you understand, it’s something you feel. It’s the punctuation of music. The lifeblood of a song. The beginning of the subjective and interpretive aspect of being a musician and making music. Blues phrasing is what distinguishes a solo from just a bunch of scales and arpeggios. It’s what you do with all those notes and licks you already know.
A rather bloated yet oddly vague definition, but phrasing is an inexact term. Music can be abstract and there is often more than one definition and/or correct answer to any question on blues phasing. We’re dealing with the expression of ideas here. Ideas that change and are interpreted in different ways.
Most beginning guitarists concern themselves with everything but blues phrasing. Consequently, many of their solos sound nearly identical to one another. Often times when we become frustrated with our soloing, we think the answer is to keep on learning things, like new scales, when what we really need to work on is our blues phrasing. While notes are a very important part of phrasing, guitarists too often get wrapped up in them. You can know all the scales in the world, but if you can’t play those notes with dynamics, rhythm, and articulation, your solos will be dull and lack meaning. It’s a bit like memorizing words of a foreign language but being unable to use them to converse. You must connect to the music if you are to speak through it. Let the words feed through your fingers and out your strings.
Unfortunately, guitar phrasing is something that is rarely taught well or learned effectively. As a result, most players lack the ability to fully express themselves on the guitar. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of phrasing, blues phrasing, is instinct, which comes with time and practice. There are many things you can work on to help with blues phrasing though. Here are a few suggestions and basic exercises to get you started.
First of all, when learning to solo, don’t copy someone else. You don’t speak exactly like the person next to you, do you? Everyone has a unique voice and perspective, and this is what needs to come through in your guitar playing. Dig deep.
Start equating your playing with speech. Think about all the things that make up speech and try to implement them into your playing. Think in terms of sentences when you play a phrase. Try pausing more often as you do when you are speaking. Think about how you can use your instrument to make notes sound more like speech by using inflections, volume, vibrato, bending, legato, staccato, etc.
One of the best things you can do to create better guitar solos is to listen to and carefully study your favorite singers. Learn every little nuance of their vocal phrasing and vibrato, and most importantly, the musical contexts in which they made various phrasing and vibrato choices when singing. Notice the difference between their vocal phrasing (how they sing their notes and phrases) and your guitar phrasing (how you play your notes and phrases). Then listen carefully to how these singers construct their phrases and compare that to how you create your guitar solos. When you start to pay attention to this, you’ll probably make some very cool and powerful observations that you can apply to your own guitar solos. Intro to Blues Phrasing
You can also improve your blues phrasing by actively listening to some of your favorite guitarists. Many of us make the mistake of thinking that music can be learned and mastered simply by reading books and articles on the matter. As helpful as these resources can be, music is an aural art form. Active listening involves full engagement with the music. This is not the kind of listening you do when you’re driving down the road with your friends. Use a good pair of headphones or good speakers and limit your distractions. Listen for things like dynamics, articulation, how the players respond to each other, textures, rhythms, tone, etc. And don’t limit yourself to only the genres, players, and instruments you like. Branch out.
Another idea you might try is call and response. Play a short lick, let it hang a little on a tense note, and then reply to it. Make a conversation of your phrases.
Work on bending slowly. Bends start somewhere and go somewhere. Don’t rush them. There is a time and place for fast bending, but try bending slowly to hear and feel all that bend has to say.
Work on vibratos. They add life to sustained or held notes that would otherwise sound vapid. Vibratos intensify the impact and the emotion of the music and help give it character. The best time to apply a vibrato is when the note is going to be held for a period of time. Slide your finger back and forth rapidly along the string within one fret. Even though the finger is not sliding or moving outside of the fret, the sound becomes slightly sharper when you move it towards the nut of the guitar, and flattens when you slide your finger towards the bridge of the guitar.
Develop dynamic variation when playing your scales. Dynamics refers to changes in volume. Amateur guitarists tend to play in monotone, never changing their dynamics at all. Take a familiar scale pattern that you are very comfortable with. Play the scale starting off at a very low volume and try to steadily increase it until you are at the top of the scale pattern. Then steadily decrease the volume on your way back down the scale pattern. Try to be as drastic as possible with this exercise. Then experiment with more subtle variations. It’s far more difficult to decrease volume steadily than it is to increase it, so be aware of that while you’re practicing.
Articulation brings your music to life. It involves many guitar techniques like bends, slides, legato, staccato, vibrato, hammer-ons and pull-offs. To help you improve your articulation, find a simple melody that’s easy to play, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Choose one of the techniques listed above and use it to embellish and enhance the melody. Try playing it as smoothly as possible once, then as staccato as possible after that. Try sneaking in a few bends wherever you can. See how many variations of this simple melody you can come up with.
Let the notes breathe a little bit. Slow down the phrase and maybe stop playing all together. The silence in music is just as important as the music itself. Silence, or holding a note a little bit longer, draws the listener in and creates a sense of anticipation.
Change the meaning of a song by accentuating certain notes. For instance, thinking in terms of speech now, consider the phrase “Take me there.” Three short words. But if you accentuate and put emphasis on different words within that phrase, the meaning drastically changes. “Take me there.” “Take me there.” “Take me there.” If you say those phrases out loud, accentuating the italicized words, you’ll hear the difference. The meaning of the phrase changes. Now apply this to your lead playing. Stress a few notes by making them louder or softer, longer or shorter, and you will change the whole context and meaning of a phrase.
Phrasing is a vast subject and one worth devoting time to in your practice sessions. I’ve only scratched the surface of the concept here to try and give you an idea of what blues phrasing can do for your music in terms of self-expression. Do yourself a favor and delve further into it.
Killer blues phrasing is what stands between you and greatness.
Give a listen to what Anders Mouridsen has to say about phrasing in his tutorial, Intro to blues phrasing.
Blues Phrasing, blues phrasing, blues phrasing