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Sam Bell - Rock Improvisation Part 6: Phrasing

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 40 **

Phrasing:

Hi Sam Bell here, welcome to the final instalment of my crash course in Rock guitar improvisation. Up to this point in our column series we have looked at the minor pentatonic scale, ways of playing notes such as slides, bends, and vibrato. We have also looked into how to cover larger areas of the guitar neck by extending our pentatonic patterns and we added some cool sequences to them in order to get some new melodic ideas into our playing. In this issue I would like to close this column series by looking at perhaps one of the most important aspects of guitar playing: Phrasing.

What is Phrasing?

Phrasing is about how and when you ‘say’ things, much like speech, it is very individual to each person and being aware of it can make a huge difference to how you communicate your message, or in our case, our solo! Phrasing is partly based on what techniques you use to sound a note. For example, hammering-on a note will sound different from picking it. Do you slide up to a note or bend up to it? The choice is yours, but it is important to be aware of that choice, it can make a HUGE difference when you pay attention to it when coming up with lines, improvising and writing music on the guitar.

The other side of phrasing is WHEN things happen, when you decide to play a particular note within the music you’re playing or it could be where you start a long line, the contour of the line (low vs. high notes that stick out in the line to the listener’s ear). I would really encourage you to listen to your favourite guitarists and listen for things they do that make them sound like nobody else, don’t get too caught up in the technical aspects, just listen out for things, when and where they do them etc. You will find the more you listen the more you can incorporate into your own playing to create your own unique voice.

Rut-Busting with Phrasing.

Something else I think is exceptionally important to address regarding phrasing is it can bust you out of a rut. All of us guitarists can suffer from a wandering mind, our maybe a wandering hand in our case! When it comes to improvisation, sometimes we end up meandering around aimlessly if we aren’t careful. Whilst that can be great for warming up and keeping your fingers in shape, being aware of various forms of phrasing can set you back on the right track into making your improvised solos sound concise, musical and most importantly enjoyable for both you and the listener. Remember, playing is fun but if you have an audience, they want to hear things that they relate to…sometimes when we get stuck meandering around the neck we can sound a little lost at times, this is often a result of letting our fingers take control, running through familiar patterns and licks. Whilst this is very useful for connecting ideas or adding some speedier runs into our playing, being aware of phrasing can really inject some fresh inspiration into our solos.

I want to run over a few concepts that you can use to help you practice your phrasing and also hopefully help you out of those meandering moments when they occur; they happen to all of us!

Call and Response:

Perhaps the most common shape of solo forms so to speak is call and response. A very valuable concept that has most likely been around since the first few cave men and woman discovered they could hit things and make sounds. It is the same as being asked a question and answering it or vice versa, we can use this very human concept to help give our solos a sense of melodic purpose. This technique can lead to some very listenable catchy solos, however as with all techniques, be sure to mix it up, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing! But let’s move on with the explanation. Call and response in a very basic sense involves coming up with a very simple theme as a question, leaving a short amount of space and responding to your ‘question’ with a phrase which sounds as if it's answering the question.

I am not talking about emulating human speech here! However I am probably hinting towards how we conduct our conversations, and after all music is a language. You may respond with a straight yes or no answer, or you might even answer with another question…the choice is yours, there are endless ways of doing this, but it all starts with a theme and because you are relating your phrases to that initial question the solo should sound fairly concise, understandable and entertaining. Of course you can move out of this call and response idea in your solo, but you can use the analogy of conversation in order to spark your creative phrasing genius in your improvised guitar solos. Imagine how an argument would sound on guitar!? Just imagine if half way through someone else came into the argument but then somehow the conversation ended with everyone going down the pub! You can create solos from little stories like that, it’s a great tool to get us out of our guitar centric frame of mind when we are in a soloing rut!

In Summary:

There are so many other subtle things that we can learn about phrasing. In this column I just wanted to introduce it as a real thing you can practice and be aware of. The best place to go from here is listening to your heroes play guitar, listen carefully to how they are constructing their solos and how they are articulating notes. (Listening to one Jeff Beck song can be a masterclass in itself!) And don’t just listen to guitar, it’s just a tool to make music! Listen to everything that is going on, listen to the drums, listen to the singer, listen to anything that piques your interest and work out what’s going on, you don’t necessarily have to learn it note for note to learn something from it. So have fun exploring, the world of improvisation is waiting for you!

I hope this series of columns has inspired some new ideas in your soloing or at least given you some new ways of looking at things. I will be back in the next issue with my brand new ‘Extreme Shred’ series where I look at some considerably more speedy and dexterous ideas in order to build some extreme shred licks. Until then, see you next time!


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