It takes a lot of skill to stand out as a guitarist. Here, guitar teacher Bernard M. shows you exactly what it takes to pull off an amazing solo and how you should approach phrasing…
You may or may not be ready to play a guitar solo, but it’s good to know what elements go into one. What is it that makes a great guitar solo? While there are many ways to answer this question, there is one crucial element that often goes overlooked by even the most experienced players: phrasing.
Phrasing is the way in which a musician or composer combines notes to create a musical sentence, or phrase. Although it can be very subtle, it often makes the difference between a memorable solo and “note soup.” What does this mean for you guitarists? Play less, leave space.
Let your ears lead the way, not your fingers.
Many musicians suffer from the misconception that faster, more technical playing is somehow better and more “musical.” This can be very discouraging to new players, who have trouble competing with their more experienced peers. Never fear! Creativity and imagination are what make great music, and this is what phrasing is all about.
Check out these two samples to hear the difference between a busy solo and one that uses creative phrasing.
The Problem: A Run-On
Not bad at all, but can you hum a bar or two of that solo? Does any part of it stick in your memory? The problem with this solo is that it’s practically one long phrase. Like a run-on sentence, it’s difficult to follow and needs to be broken up!
In this next sample, I add space and punctuation to the previous solo, creating different musical phrases.
The Solution: Adding Space
By simply adding space to create distinct phrases, I have made the solo much more memorable and effective. Each phrase has room to breathe before moving on to the next. By playing less, the notes that are played gain much more power, adding strength to the solo as a whole.
Hopefully, by now I’ve convinced you to focus on your phrasing the next time you go to take a solo. This, however, is easier said than done. Phrasing is very elusive and intangible.
It has a closer link to creativity than technique, and therefore, is difficult to learn or teach methodically. Instead, it’s something that constantly develops as you grow more experienced and more tasteful. Here are few suggestions to help you develop your phrasing and taste.
Take your time.
This is perhaps one of simplest yet most profound suggestions on how to improve your soloing. Being comfortable and confident while playing allows you to sound your best. If you try to fill your solo with every last lick you can conjure up, you will very likely end up feeling rushed, nervous, and stumbling through the solo.
Slow down! Savor the solo and don’t overthink it. When you relax and give yourself plenty of time, it allows your creative instincts to take the wheel. Some great ways to leave yourself this room to breathe include long, expressive bends, sustained notes with some tasty vibrato, and even simple rests.
Break it up.
Even the most creative players can fall into the trap of putting their fingers on auto-pilot, aimlessly playing up and down familiar scales in monotonous eight notes or triplet lines. One of the best ways to combat this common ailment is to break up the patterns.
Playing a long descending eighth note line? Throw a rest or two in there to punctuate your phrase. This can be a very powerful move and make an otherwise boring lick fresh and interesting.
Think like a drummer.
We guitar players spend a lot of time thinking about chords, scales, arpeggios, and intervals. While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we sometimes forget about something just as, if not more, important; rhythm.
Thinking about what you are playing rhythmically is at the core of phrasing. What are you doing on the third beat of the measure, or the “& of 2?” What beats do you want to highlight or downplay? Do you want to play along with the beat, or use syncopation to emphasize unexpected accents?
This might seem overwhelming to players who are not used to thinking this way, so I will refer to my advice above; take your time, play what you are comfortable playing and above all, follow your creative instincts.
Emulate the experts.
My final piece of advice is to study the players that inspire you the most. How do they use phrasing in their solos?
Learn your favorite guitar solos, note for note, and study them closely. This is a great way to pick up the playing habits of your heroes and start developing your own individual sound.
Studying the solos of players like David Gilmour, Eric Clapton, or Derek Trucks, who have a keen sense of phrasing, will help you make even the simplest licks powerful, expressive and inspiring. Some of my favorite songs to play are classic rock guitar solos. They feel good and they sound incredible.
As always, make sure you set aside time for plenty of practice. Try to not go a day without playing for 15 minutes. You will start to see significant progress in just a couple of weeks!