Approaches To Phrasing On The Guitar

In this article I'd like to share some of my ideas and approaches to
phrasing on guitar. It will probably be very useful and informative for
those of you who've never learned how to phrase and play a good solo on
guitar, be it a written or improvised one. The good news is that you
don't have to be a shredding, virtuoso guitar player to learn the topics
covered in this article. All you have to know is a simple pentatonic or
major scale, in one position or over the whole neck - it doesn't matter.
Of course, if you are one of those who like to play fast solos, this
article will be very informative too.

Why did i write about phrasing? Well, through all the years of my
teaching experience i've noticed that most guitarists always
learn to play scales, and try to play as fast as possible, but they miss
one very important point of guitar playing and that's phrasing. So what
is a good phrasing, you may ask? It's simply a means to play some melodic
idea with a good rhytmic sense, thus creating a nice sounding solo (or
riff). The simplest way to start to learn phrasing is by looking at
some blues guitarists.

Now, take a look at all those famous blues guitar masters like
B.B. King, Albert King, Eric Clapton. Do they ever play at the speed of
light, ripping through scales all over the neck? I don't think so! What
they're doing, actually, is playing quite slow and soulful. They may
throw in some fast licks here and there, but most parts of their solos
are played slowly with great melodic and rhythmic feeling to them. They
are placing the notes into specific places of the measures, those
places that'll guarantee the solo will sound good. And that's what I
want to show you in this article! I'd like to teach you which places of
the measures (you may also call them bars) you should accentuate and
which ones you shouldn't. I want to show you where in the measures you
should put your notes to make them sound good.

The way I approached phrasing in the beginning was to learn which beats
in a measure are more accentuated than the others, and I suggest you
learn it first before you go on. So here's a little rhythm theory lesson
that will get you on your way to becoming a better soloist!

In a 4/4 meter you've got four beats in one measure. According to
rhythmic theory the first and the third beats within a measure are the
stronger ones, and the second and the fourth beats are the weaker ones.
For example:

          beats:     str  weak str  weak
                      >         >
                       ONE 4/4 MEASURE

So, this is one measure. Now if you go on with the music, and come to the
next measure, the same things happens there too, but: all the beats in
this measure are weaker than the beats in the first measure. For
example: beat 1 in the second measure is weaker than beat 1 in the first
measure but it's still a strong beat. For this reason the first measure
is called a strong measure and the second measure is called a weak
measure. See example:

  beats:   str  weak str  weak  str  weak  str  weak         
            >         >           >         >
               strong measure       weak measure

If you go on and add more measures you'll get the same situation there
too, that is: the strong measure follows the weak measure and so the
weak measure follows the strong measure!

How can this knowledge help you with your phrasing? We come to the point
right here:
Try to create your own melodic idea within the two measures using the
following rules:

  • In the first (or every strong) measure you'll place the first tone
    of your solo on the first beat (it'll be a good idea to tap you foot on
    beat one and three as music goes on). After that, you add more tones to
    the first tone, and play through the measure any way you like, but try to
    keep a simple blues-swinging rhythm with simple eighth- or quarter-notes. You may also place a longer note on beat three as well. Just try
    to accentuate the first and the third beats in all strong measures. Try
    to play nice melodies staying in only one position on the neck in the
    beginning, don't let your fingers fly all over the neck. You may do this
    when you've mastered the simple rhythms first.
  • In the second (or every weak) measure, don't begin to play
    through the measure on the first beat, it's better if you begin to play
    after the first beat (maybe just after the first beat or on the second beat). Play through
    the measure this way and don't try to place longer notes on beat 3.
    Instead, try to accentuate the weak beats in this weak measure, that is:
    beat 2 and 4. When you come to beat 4, try to play some kind of
    "backup" that'll lead to the first tone in the first measure.

When you begin at the new, following two measures you just follow these
rules again. Simply place the longer notes on the strong beats in the
strong measures and play the longer notes on the weak beats in the weak
measures. Try to play ideas that will develop the first idea you've
played. You may, for example, change the rhythm a bit, add more tones or
play the old idea backwards. When you feel that developing the old idea
is getting boring (it usually occurs after six measures) the come up
with a new one and develop it.

When you're getting comfortable with these ideas you may look at these
other rules:

  • You don't have to always build your ideas within only two measures.
    For example, you may take four measures and assume that the first two
    measures are strong, and the next two measures are weak and play your
    solos according to the rules above. Now you'll accentuate the strong
    beats in the first two measures and the weak beats in the last two
    measures. There are lots of other possibilities, so experiment with them!
  • Learn what anticipations are and learn to include them in your
    solos. Try to anticipate strong beats in strong measures and balance
    them by anticipating weak beats in weak measures. Combine anticipations
    with simplier rhythms!
  • Learn more complex rhythms (polyrhythms, rhythms with rests, etc.)
    and throw them into your solos. Great jazz improvisers are masters of
    this! Learn from them!
  • Treat the strong measure as a weak measure and vice-versa, and see
    what happens!

Happy phrasing!

Sebastian Kalamajski, a guitarist from Sweden, began his music studies when he was seven years old by learning how to play piano.

Sebastian is currently studying for M.D. as a biomedical scientist. His new, large (370 pages) digital book is just being published on his web site.

Sebastian Kalamajski