Having shared the stage with rock music icons such as Slash and Ritchie Blackmore, Chris Buck is one of the most exciting young guitar players on the music scene today. With his band Buck & Evans' debut album set for release in 2018, Guitar Interactive Magazine is proud to welcome Chris' brand new column exploring the world of modern rock and blues guitar playing.
The idea of phrasing has always fascinated me. Unlike many musical techniques, it’s not something that can necessarily be taught; learned from a book or committed to memory from a degree course. It can be practiced and honed undoubtedly, but phrasing is such a form of unique, personal expression that to attempt to emulate another musician’s would be like trying to pre-empt the precise words that they will use next to describe an object that you can’t see. There’s an untaught fluidity to great phrasing that can be almost conversational in its delivery – relaxed, eloquent and articulate.
I was never the most conscientious of students. One particularly damning Parent’s Evening comes to mind; “he’s coasting - doing just enough to make sure he doesn’t fail…”. I’m ashamed to say that I initially took a very similar attitude toward learning to play the guitar. Speed and technique for speed and technique’s sake never appealed to me; I learned what I wanted to learn and what I found interesting or beneficial. This is why the thought of developing my own, distinctive voice appealed to me so much; the possibility of unearthing something that was uniquely mine, but without the mind-numbing, time-consuming study of modes, chords and sheet music. In short, maximum return for the minimal input! A rather attractive concept to a 15-year-old…
While the motive may not have been the most admiral, the means in which I started digging for any innate talent was fairly insightful – I went to the source of inspiration for most musicians whose phrasing or playing I admired; the human voice. Relatively speaking, the electric guitar is a very new instrument in its current guise, and you don’t have to look too far back into history for a time when a generation of budding guitarists could have only looked to the human voice for inspiration. Irrespective of style or genre, there’s a vocal quality to great phrasing that, in some way or another, is reminiscent of the great vocalists. I started voraciously learning soul and R&B melodies as opposed to purely guitar solos - trying to sound more like Stevie Wonder than Stevie Ray; more Fitzgerald than Frusciante; more Redding than Rhodes. That’s not to take anything away from those guitarists; they’re still among my favourite musicians. But whether subconscious or not, their initial influence would have come from players who were directly trying to emulate the freedom and fluidity of great singers.
This is where I first became aware of, for lack of a better term, multi-stage bending, as in this week’s lesson. The guitar is a fairly inhibitive instrument when it comes to how many notes are available to you, primarily because each one is linearly marked by the distance between two pieces of wire. A bottleneck goes a long way to opening up those microtonal availabilities (the notes between the notes), but try as I might, my slide playing is still closer to Derek Trotter than Derek Trucks! The next logical step was to emulate that vocal freedom by bending notes to pitch. If you’re a singer, Kanye West excluded, (aided by an unhealthy dose of Antares Autotune…) you hit notes by bending and sliding between them, thus momentarily touching upon an infinite amount of notes in between – those which aren’t delineated by dots on a piece of wood or lines on a musical manuscript.
Take the first word of the ‘Where Is Love’ in the video above – an otherwise monosyllabic word suddenly consists of 5 segments, each incorporating a different note. If you notated those notes on a stave and then proceeded to play them in turn, you’re left with a rather one-dimensional interpretation of a three-dimensional, sung melody – a black and white approach to a kaleidoscopic patchwork. However, when you bend and slide between the notes, you retain those microtonal inflections that are ordinarily reserved for singers and usually differentiate a vocal part from an instrumental part. The result is that your guitar sounds less like a guitar, restricted by dots, lines and strings, and more like a voice – limited only by your own imagination and the confines of musical taste!
Ultimately, this is the beauty of phrasing, much like vibrato and a myriad of other forms of personal expression. There’s no right, and there’s definitely no wrong. There’s only what appeals to you and connects the listener to the song. And as much as phrasing may not be something that can be learned, listening to the masters isn’t a bad place to look for inspiration. Just remember that those masters may not always be the one using six strings as their voice.
Until next time...