Improve Your Soloing Through Phrasing

In music we often talk about phrasing, particularly when we’re referring to soloing. We’ll say someone has “good phrasing” while someone else doesn’t.

But most people don’t have a really solid definition of what phrasing is and how it affects your sound when you play solos.

As guitar players we have the tendency to get what I call “diarrhea of the fingers” which is the tendency to play all the time without stopping.

If you’re new to soloing, I almost guarantee you’re suffering from a bit of it.

I don’t know why, but we just feel like we have to play all the time… and I think it’s because we can.

Also, if you’re playing all the time you’re not stopping… and that means you don’t have to think about where your lines are going.

What this usually turns into is a somewhat random group of notes that just sort of wander around through a scale. You’re not playing wrong notes… but rarely do you really play the best notes.

If you’ve read or followed my approach to playing the blues, you’ll know that I often point out the similarities between learning to solo and a baby learning to talk.

When you get to where you have some vocabulary with your guitar (or any instrument for that matter) it’s time to start having a conversation and to say something.

Well if you’re having a conversation with someone do you talk constantly without stopping to let what you’ve said sink in and to let that person try to understand you or to possibly allow something else to come along and affect what you say or to take in the things around you I mean really if you just keep going and going and going it’s going to get kind of tedious and anyone who might be listening or reading might wonder why you’ve been going on and on without stopping because it gets to be kind of meandering and meaningless and people will start to wonder what your point is… I think maybe you got my point here.

Of course you don’t talk that way… and you shouldn’t play that way either. Play something, then let it breathe and sink in. Listen to the band… listen for something you can work off of. Enjoy each moment of that solo and feel it… that’s the key to connecting with your audience and taking them on the trip with you.

Personally, when I started studying jazz I realized how badly I suffered from this. I didn’t notice it so much playing blues and rock when I was younger, but I didn’t start playing jazz until my mid 20’s and by that time I was aware of what I was doing as I was learning.

A great exercise that is often taught in jazz comes from horn players is to monitor your breath when you play… and when you run out of breath, you’ve run out of notes and you have to stop.

And while horns aren’t quite as common in blues music, harmonica is and they would have the same problem.

So today, when you grab your guitar and sit down to play over a jam track, listen to your breathing.

Don’t start until you’ve taken a full breath. Then play while you breathe out. When the breath is gone, you have to stop – no matter where you are or what note you’re on.

It won’t happen right away, but you’ll soon start to think ahead about where you stop when that breath runs out. That’s when you know phrasing is becoming a part of your playing.

Just for fun, check out this video of a breathing warmup for harmonica players. It’s a good idea for us guitar players to get used to this as well… and it might help your ear as well.

 

8 Comments

  • steve

    Reply Reply December 7, 2012

    Interesting stuff.. As I work through BGU and attempt some noodling after each lesson I have noticed that I am actually forgetting to breath sometimes and hold my breath involuntary.. If I ever get to playing 36 bar solos it could be fatal :}

  • richard livesay

    Reply Reply April 15, 2011

    did not realize breathing could help so much thanks will try to incorporate into my playing!

  • Grigory

    Reply Reply April 15, 2011

    Thanks for the helpful material.I think phrasing technique is very important in the blues.

  • Bretto

    Reply Reply April 15, 2011

    Thanks mate, that’s some great git wisdom. You may have just given me the cure for my guitar dihorea…

  • jon3b

    Reply Reply April 13, 2011

    Great way to expand on BB King’s quote, “Notes are expensive, spend them wisely”. The breathing is going into practice today and will be applied in the next Virtual Jam.

  • John

    Reply Reply April 12, 2011

    It’s like Yoga for guitar players – I love it!

    People talk a lot about ‘feeling’ the blues and surely this is a lot about timing: the length of a note and the corresponding pause can be used to great effect and often the pause says as much to the listener as the pitch or length of the note played.

    Gary Moore was a great exponent of the ‘pregnant pause’ and his classic track Parisienne Walkways is an extreme example of the effective use of soaring notes followed by equally impressive pauses!

    Like Tom, I am still focusing on where my fingers are at any given moment and I let the metronome keep me on track, but every once in a while I like to put the lessons away and play a few notes (and pauses) just because I can and because it makes me feel good.

    Thank you Griff – these little thoughts that you seem to throw out quite randomly from time to time are real gems! I have worked my way through your BBG course over the last six months and have just started BGU. I would recommend these courses to anyone.

    But enough of this and back to the breathing……….

  • Tom

    Reply Reply April 11, 2011

    Kinda weird. Almost thought I was at a natural birthing class. There may be a use for this, but right now I am focusing on what I’m doing with my hands and fingers. Throwing breathing excercises into the mix now would be a killer.

  • Jim

    Reply Reply April 11, 2011

    Well DUUUHHHH! The most profound ideas are the simplest one! I take guitar lessons once a week and am at a level where most of what we do jam. Me doing lead/noodling, the teacher doing rhythm. The instructor is NO slouch. He lives and breathes theory and only stops when my eyes roll backwards. In all this time, not once, have discussed phrasing! We play, and play, and play, and play, and over the course of the half hour, we run out of steam…and I run out of ideas and things get sloppy. THANKS GRIFF! This goes into the practice routine TODAY!

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