The Elements of Great Guitar Phrasing - Part 1

by Nick Layton

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If you have been playing lead guitar for a while and find that you are frustrated because you can’t express yourself the way you want to, chances are good that the problem has to do with your lack of phrasing skills. It is somewhat ironic that most guitar players start out by really focusing on developing great lead guitar technique, but after all of those hours locked away in a room with a metronome they still can’t play or improvise a solo with anything resembling great phrasing. After all, what good is it to have great technique if you can’t express yourself with it? The truth is that you can sound like a pro, even if you are only playing a few notes, if you have great phrasing skills. So, let’s take a look at the elements of lead guitar playing that make up great phrasing. By focusing your practice time in any one or all of these areas you will begin to transform your playing and have the tools to express yourself like never before.

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Great guitar phrasing means having a command over the “speaking” elements of lead guitar playing. We want to be able to express and communicate our musical thoughts and feelings freely as we play, just as we want to express ourselves through speaking when we are talking to others. If you want to hold the listeners attention you can’t do it by speaking in a monotone voice, and similarly your guitar playing must have certain inflections and nuances for it to sound like music rather than just musical pitches. You must be able to express yourself with only one note if necessary and many notes at other times. But the key to great phrasing is not in the notes themselves; it is how those notes are played. Now, let’s examine 3 of the most important elements of great guitar phrasing that all great players possess:

Guitar Phrasing Element #1 - Your Own Signature Vibrato Style:

Developing your own vibrato is very important because your vibrato will be very personal to you and is perhaps the most expressive and identifiable part of anyone’s playing. But it takes work to develop and, sadly, too many players overlook putting serious time into practicing and improving their vibrato. One of the first keys to mastering vibrato on guitar is knowing what YOU like to hear. If you’ve never really thought about this before, now would be a good time to listen to your favorite players and pay close attention to their vibrato style and how they apply it in various ways. After you have listened it can be very informing to find videos of your favorite players to see what their hands are doing to produce the vibrato. Then try and copy both the sound and the physical approach and see how close you can get it. Of course you eventually want to have your own signature vibrato, and this usually happens naturally after some time playing where you take the best parts of your favorite players vibrato and mix it with your own ideas.

A few things to keep in mind: There are different speeds and types of vibrato. Yngwie Malmsteen has a very slow and wide vibrato. B.B. King has a fast and narrow vibrato. Many players are somewhere in between. Listen and discover what you like best and then work on that. How does one work on vibrato? After you have the basic mechanics down your best bet is to practice applying your vibrato in the context of real music. Jam to backing tracks or record yourself while focusing on matching and adapting your vibrato so that it connects with the music you are playing to. If you aren’t sure how you are progressing you may need a teacher or outside help of some kind to steer you in the right direction. Keep in mind that vibrato can and should be applied to both bent and unbent notes. This leads to the next element of great phrasing—bending strings.

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Guitar Phrasing Element #2 - An Innovative String Bending Technique:

All of the great electric guitar phrasing masters are or were also great at bending strings. This fact should not be over-looked when it comes to improving your own phrasing. Everyone from Buddy Guy to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eddie Van Halen to Yngwie Malmsteen, John Petrucci to Jeff Loomis and so on has mastered the art of string bending. String bending, especially when combined with vibrato is probably the most expressive sound on the electric guitar. The beauty of string bending is that there are so many ways you can bend a note. There are microtonal bends, 1/4 step bends, 1/2 step bends, whole step bends, 1 1/2 step bends, ghost bends, bend and release, and about a million different ways you can manipulate a bent note and resolve it. Players like Marty Friedman and Jason Becker bent notes from an “out of key” starting point, for example a 1/2 step below a scale tone, and then bent the note up to an ‘in key’ pitch, which created an expressive and exotic sound. A well executed, well placed bent note can grab your listener like nothing else, but there are a few things you must always keep in mind to make bending notes a powerful part of your playing.

  1. You must develop a great sense of pitch intonation when bending any note. In other words, you must bend in tune! If you are bending notes sharp or flat this will absolutely ruin your phrasing because it won’t matter what else you play if those bent notes sound off. Many guitarists overlook this and never get past it. Don’t let this be you! One of the best ways to gauge your ability to play in tune is to record yourself bending notes to a jam track or a CD. A skilled guitar instructor can also help with this. One thing to beware of is that if you are used to hearing your own bends, and if they are out of tune you may not even realize there is a problem. Go to any lengths to make sure all of your bends are in tune. And of course the more you practice bending strings correctly the easier it gets.
  2. Vary the types of bends you do and with which fingers you use to bend them. You should have a nice vocabulary of bends that you can play easily. Start with 1/2 step and full step bends and then progress to other types like ghost bends. Make sure you can execute all of these bends with any fret hand finger. Always support the bending finger with all of the remaining fingers for more control (unless of course you are bending with the index finger).
  3. Listen closely to all of the different types of bends your favorite players incorporate into their licks. Try to copy them as closely as possible or get a teacher to help you understand what’s going on. Then practice applying everything you’ve learned in a musical context.

Guitar Phrasing Element #3 - Creative Note Ornamentation Skills

The final essential element of great phrasing we will look at in this article is the area of ornamentation. Using ornaments in your playing can create excitement and variety in the notes you play. In musical terms ornamentation refers to “embellishments and decorations, such as trills or grace notes, added to a melody.” You can think of them as ways to “dress up” your phrases and melodies, if you like.

One such ornament is called a trill. A trill is a rapid alteration of played notes, usually involving hammer-ons and pull-offs. Used extensively in classical music, trills are also very common now in rock guitar playing. Many of the classically influenced rock and metal guitarists of the 80’s such as Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen incorporated trills into their playing to great effect. Again, the idea here is to add a little “spice” to the way you phrase your notes so that there is something interesting going on all the time.

Another highly useful ornament that has been employed to great effect is the pick harmonic. A well placed pick harmonic can achieve a cool “squealing” effect on the guitar which makes the notes played sound higher in pitch and the notes stand out from the others because of this. Great players from George Lynch to Zakk Wylde and Joe Satriani have all used pick harmonics to spice up their own phrases in very expressive ways. In addition, playing natural harmonics found by touching the fingers over the frets at the 5th, 7th and 12th frets, plus a few others, can sound very expressive especially when combined with a guitar equipped with a whammy (tremelo) bar. Amazing sounds can be achieved by combining harmonics with the bar - great examples of this can be heard all over the music of Steve Vai, Dimebag Darrell and Joe Satriani, among many others. There are more ornaments to explore but these are a good start for now. As with all techniques and ideas you don’t want to overuse any one thing, but rather strive to incorporate many different elements of great phrasing into your own style as possible. Here, we have only discussed 3 essential elements to great phrasing. There are others and those will be investigated in part 2 of this article coming soon.

Now, check out this killer lesson I have prepared for you: Guitar Lick Makeover - How To Transform Any Ordinary Guitar Phrase Into A Great Phrase

In this lesson I’ll show you how to apply many of the things that were discussed in this article, complete with tab and audio examples!

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