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.