It's Not What You Say, But How You Say It

  For this post I thought I'd talk about phrasing.  It sounds pretty simple but phrasing can actually have a big impact on your playing and your lines.  It doesn't require any new information about scales or note choices, rather it's all about where and when you play. 

  Maybe you've never spent much time thinking about phrasing.  Maybe you've hit a plateau in your playing and you don't have loads of time to learn new material and a way to make old ideas sound new again sounds like it might be the ticket.  Whatever the case is, I hope my thoughts here can be helpful.

Behind Bars

  Where are you placing your phrases in terms of beats in the bar?  For example, do you often start your lines on beat 1?  Is this something you've ever given thought to?  One thing that can help to make your lines sound fresh is deliberately attempting to start your phrases at different beats in the bar than you would typically tend to do.  

But how can you practice this without a drummer?  

Good question!  Allow me to make a suggestion.

  Metronomes can be very helpful tools for this type of exercise.  If you're totally new to practicing your phrasing with a metronome, you can start by finding a metronome that will accent every four beats with a different sounding click.  

  This way, by thinking of each click as a beat in the bar, you will be able to clearly hear where each new bar begins (it begins on the "accented" or different sounding click).  Now you can try to start your phrases on beats other than beat one, or you can even try to begin phrases in between beats (the spaces in between beats are often called "off beats").  You might find that some of your go to phrases, things that you always play to the point where you'd rather not fall back into them, will sound very different if they're placed on an off beat rather than directly on the beat.  And if it's a phrase that you're used to hearing on an off beat, it might sound cool to try placing it directly on a beat instead!

  Once you're comfortable with this exercise, try taking away the accented click so that you've got the same click happening every time.  Now try thinking of each click as beat 2 and beat 4 only.  Sort of like this:

metronome on 2 and 4

  So beats 1 and 3 are happening in the spaces in between the clicks, and beats 2 and 4 are happening on the clicks.  Now try beginning your phrases on different beats in the bar, and off beats as well!

  Once this isn't too tricky you can try putting the click ONLY on a single beat in the bar.  For example you could try hearing the click only on beat 1, or only on beat 3.  Lots of drummers practice hearing the click on different off beats or even16th notes in the bar!  You can take this exercise really far and it's really fun once you get the hang of it.

  If you don't have a metronome, or you have a metronome but you need one that can do accented clicks, this one here will do what you need!


Another Brick In The Wall

  I took lessons for years with a great teacher who had a lot of excellent advice about phrasing.  He used to say something that in the years following our lessons I would hear repeated by many teachers and even now I hear it said online a lot.  He would say that I should always try to "play over the bar line".  

  I remember struggling to understand what this meant for some time.  So one day during our lesson I asked him to explain what he meant and he used the analogy of a brick wall to explain what this meant.  

  He told me that when you look at a brick wall, the bricks don't stack on top of each other directly, they overlap.  Try to think of the relationship between the bar lines and the beginning and ending of your phrases like the relationship between two rows of bricks.  So your phrases are not beginning on beat one, and they don't end on beat four.  You begin somewhere in the bar and play over the bar line and end somewhere inside the next bar, or maybe even the bar after than one.

  In this video from Guitar World, John Mayer talks about how to play his solo from his version of the Robert Johnson song "Crossroads" off of his record "Battle Studies" and he talks about starting his phrases in unexpected places.  It's a really interesting video and it says a lot about the importance of phrasing!


Learning To Sing

   An often overlooked aspect of good phrasing is rests.  Maybe it is because of the way that as human beings we are wired to expect rests when we are communicating with one another through speech due to the biological requirement to breathe, but there is something about a rest that allows a musical idea to really resonate with the listener that makes rests a precondition for tasteful phrasing.  

  That said, on the guitar there is no requirement to rest for a breath in like a vocalist or a trumpet player or a sax player.  And while at times performance nerves or a momentary inflation of our ego may give rise to the stubborn urge to play fast and long and complex phrases, it is very important to never let our phrases get so long that they begin to sound un natural.  

  There are ways to practice phrasing in a vocal manner.  BB King often said that he played on the guitar what he would sing with his voice, and in this interview where he discusses phrasing he says several times that he feels like he is "talking".

  One practice technique is to think as if you were a singer.  By imagining a vocal quality to your lines, you will start to hear where the phrases should end in a natural way.  

  Also, by thinking of your lines in a "call and response" sort of mentality your phrasing will take on a vocal quality.  Call and response is the idea that your first phrase is the "call", and the second phrase is the "response".  This is a great way to get yourself to phrase in a vocal, natural sounding way.

  I hope that my thoughts on phrasing have inspired you to practice and to move forward in your playing.  Thank you very much for taking the time to check out my thoughts on this subject, and please feel free to let me know your thoughts in the comments section!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published