One of the most frequent questions my guitarist friends ask me is how they can improve their phrasing. In improvised music, phrasing refers to the musician’s ability to articulate his or her solo around melodic lines, or phrases. If you picture the solo as a story, the musical phrases are the sentences that convey the information necessary for the story to have meaning.
If the soloist lacks the ability to create tangible musical phrases, the solo will fail to arrest the listener’s attention. Instead of sounding like a compelling story, the solo will sound like incoherent babble. We call that noodling in the music business. Of course, there are some situations in which babble might be appropriate–for comedic or psychedelic effect, for example. Sometimes, the lack of phrasing is a legitimate form of phrasing.
Phrases are Intentional Musical Statements that Give Your Solos Meaning
The key is to use phrases to build the musical narrative you want to share with your audience. Phrases are defined as much by melodies as they are timbers (or the sonic quality of the notes you play). Sparse notes drenched in reverb might set a melancholic mood, twangy staccato notes may give a sense of urgency, while heavily distorted shredding will convey confidence and power.
There is a phrase for every musical situation, and there is no right way to go about creating and assembling phrases. You might play a melodic line, or riff, that you’ve memorized, then let your fingers explore the fret board at a frenetic rate, before settling into some bends that pull on your heart strings… The possibilities are endless.
Learning Melodies Gives You the Tools to Make Your Own Phrases
So how do you learn a skill that is inherently dependent on personal tastes and abilities? There are a number of ways, the most important (and boring) of which is learning melodic lines from other musicians that you enjoy. As painstaking as it may be, deciphering and memorizing melodies from your favorite songs is the single best way to improve your musical vocabulary.
Once you have some of these memorized melodies in your toolbox, you’ll be surprised at how often you can deploy them in different contexts. This leads me to another exercise for improving phrasing: repetition and alteration. If you have a cool lick that works in a given harmonic and rhythmic context, practice repeating it with slight tonal and rhythmic variations. When you make a mistake, repeat it and try to alter the rest of the remaining notes of the phrase to make it resolve to your liking.
Get Comfortable With the Unknown and Feed Off Randomness
Mistakes are important, as they frequently lead to new ideas–perhaps more frequently than consciously driven creation. Most of us, however, like to sound good when we play guitar and are thus averse to taking the kinds of risks that lead to mistakes. Worry not, there is an exercise for that.
When my friend and mentor Ben Shelton was teaching himself jazz guitar in high school, he used to lay on his bed at night with the lights off and play with his … guitar. Called the “random note game,” the exercise involves soloing over a familiar tune and routinely moving your fingers to an unknown spot on the neck. You’ll end up hitting some weird notes. Practice your ability to get back into known territory without using your eyes.
Improve Your Phrasing by Privileging Time over Pitch and Tone
Another method, which Ben Shelton also taught me, is called the single note solo. Play over a backing track, and use only one note to build a solo. I believe music exists in three dimensions: time, pitch, and timber. Most guitarists focus only on the latter two dimensions–hitting the right notes and achieving good tone. The single note solo forces the guitarist to focus exclusively on time, much to the relief of his or her band mates.
You should practice the one note solo until you are able to create a musical story with only one note. Teach yourself how to build tension and release by varying your rhythms. Let the note ring for a while and feel it’s power, then feel how the mood changes when you play dense clusters of notes. Once you can reliably create musical narratives with one note, add another one. Once your two note solo is decent, practice the three note solo, etc.
I’m convinced that not a single person I’ve taught this method to actually does it–otherwise, I would have noticed a quantum leap in their soloing abilities. The exercise is hard to accept, especially for guitarists who already have decent chops. But the truth is, you will never be a good soloist until you can take a ripping solo using one note.
Still not convinced? Check out Johnny Guitar Watson’s solo on Those Lonely, Lonely Nights, which starts at 1:25. But start listening a bit before the solo starts so you can appreciate the context.
Speaking of context… context is everything. Solos do not exist in a vacuum–they are anchored to the song (and to some extent, the time and place) in which they are played. Johnny Guitar Watson’s approach to the solo from Those Lonely, Lonely Nights may sound ridiculous in a different song. Or maybe you think it sounds ridiculous as it is. And that’s a fair assessment.
Our tastes as musicians are relatively unimportant, what’s more important is our ability to get audiences to listen to and appreciate our subjective emotions and ideas. The best way to get listeners’ attention and potentially gain their appreciation is to lay out our musical ideas in a series of cogent phrases that effectively tell our personal stories.