Being able to play awesome guitar solos at will is a goal of many guitar players. However, in reality many guitarists will never gain this ability because they exclusively focus on training their technique while ignoring guitar phrasing skills. Don’t fall into this same trap! If you truly want to play great solos, you need to master the skill of playing just ONE really awesome note. Once you can do this on command, you can expand to play two, three, five, ten notes… until every note in every guitar solo you play sounds BADASS!
Being great at guitar phrasing means being able to clearly communicate your thoughts and emotions as you play – similar to how you would have a verbal conversation with someone to express yourself. You’ll never get the attention of your listeners by speaking in a monotone voice, and this same concept applies when it comes to your guitar playing as well. You must learn how to use various phrasing nuances to express yourself with only one note if needed, and more notes in other situations. The most important thing to understand about phrasing is HOW you play your notes (not the notes themselves). Here are the three critical guitar phrasing elements that truly great guitarists possess:
Vibrato technique is very personal to the guitarist using it, so it is crucial that you create your own unique playing style with this element. Contrary to what many guitarists think, vibrato requires years of practice to perfect (both technically and stylistically). To get started playing with good vibrato for yourself, think about how you want to hear it played. Listen to how vibrato is used by your favorite guitarists whenever they are playing solos. Then go online and find videos of these guitarists playing live, so you can see how they move their hands to create vibrato. Next, do your best to imitate their style in your playing. Eventually, you will begin developing your own style (as you mix together the different styles of your favorite guitarists). As you work on your vibrato, remember this: There are tons of different ways to play vibrato. For example, neoclassical guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen has a slow and wide vibrato, while blues guitarist B.B. King has a very fast and narrow vibrato. Think about what sounds best to you, and focus on developing that sound within your style. To get started improving your vibrato technique, practice using it while playing over backing tracks or during your favorite songs. If you want to develop your vibrato much more quickly, work together with a good guitar teacher. Additionally, remember to use vibrato on bent and unbent notes.
Any great lead guitarist with good phrasing is also a master of creative string bending. Make sure not to overlook this crucial phrasing element in your own playing. By combining string bending along with vibrato, you will achieve maximum self-expression in your playing. The great part about this technique, is that there are countless ways to creatively bend notes. You can bend a half step, a full step, microtonally, with ghost bends, bend and release, plus countless other variations. Some players, such as Marty Friedman, bend their notes beginning from out of the key (such a half step below a tone of the scale) to a note that is ‘in key’. This creates a highly exotic sound. A creative and well-timed bend will instantly grab a listeners’ attention, however you must always keep these things in mind:
First, you must make sure you are always keeping your bends in tune. If you release your bends a little too flat or sharp it will be very obvious – and it will NOT sound good! This is a very common mistake that most guitar players make. Work together with a guitar teacher who can hear whether you are in tune or not and keep your playing on the right track.
Second, don’t use the same types of bends all the time. Begin by playing half step bends and move on to include various other types, such as ghost bends and varying the rate at which you bend the string. Work to perfect each type with all fingers on your fret hand. Support the finger that is doing the bending with any remaining fingers you have available, to gain better control.
Third, pay close attention to the bends of your favorite players and copy the licks they use to get a feel for their style. Then work with a guitar teacher to get help with applying your bends into a musical context as creatively as possible.
By using ornamentation in your guitar playing, you can make every note massively more creative and interesting for the listener. Ornamentation is the general idea of using techniques to ’embellish’ a note.
One way to do this is to use a trill. Trills are (generally speaking) rapid alternations between one note and another using hammer ons and pull offs. Trills were commonly used throughout the Classical music era and have also been used in rock music by many guitarists. The main idea here is to add more interest to the way you phrase your notes, so that they are always attention-grabbing. Another way to embellish your notes, is to play artificial harmonics with your pick. A great artificial harmonic can create a screaming effect, causing your notes to sound much higher in pitch. This will make them stand out from the other notes you are playing. Additionally, using your fingers to create natural harmonics over the fretboard can sound very creative (especially when combined with a tremolo bar). There are endless other embellishing techniques that could be discussed – however, these ones are a good start. It’s more important to master a few ideas first, so that you don’t overload yourself with too much information at once.
So far, you’ve only learned 3 key elements for playing with good guitar phrasing. In the next part of this article series, you will learn new elements to make your lead guitar playing even more unique and self-expressive.
Nick Layton has many years of experience as a professional guitarist and songwriter. He has also written rock guitar phrasing courses to help guitarists around the world improve their soloing.