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Phrasing 101

How to Stop Being a Guitar Player and Start Being a Musician

This master class will outline the following:

-Why you absolutely NEED to be aware of phrasing

-Repetition and creating memorable phrases

-The role of breath in creating effective phrases

-Implementation strategies for improving phrasing and musicality

I would like to preface this article by saying that I am not intending to act as the “taste police” by advocating one style of playing over another. My goal is to enhance the awareness and understanding of the reader’s ability to communicate artistically. In learning to communicate more effectively as an artist, debates regarding shred versus blues, slow versus fast, and X- genre versus Y- genre all become erroneous (although each of these debates will live on through online forums and YouTube I am sure). The system that I am proposing for developing phrasing is vital because it focuses on listener expectations. Even those looking to create the most avante gard music will have to consider how to confound or subvert listener expectations, thus making an understanding of such expectations important. As many teachers have argued about theory, “you must first learn the rules in order to break them.”

Phrasing is a word that is often thrown around incorrectly. Regardless of genre or style, all great guitarists exhibit great phrasing. Many players, when asked why they consider one player to be superior to another often state “His/Her phrasing is better!!”  Or, alternatively, when a proud young shredder posts his latest work on a guitar forum many will say something to the effect of “good chops, but bad phrasing.”

Do these players really understand what phrasing is, though?

I would contend that they usually do not. For many people, “good phrasing” simply means “not shredding.” In other cases “good phrasing” will be confused with “playing the blues, and only the blues.”  While blues is perhaps the most ubiquitous form of phrasing for guitar players, this type of dogmatism is artistically limiting.

Now, as you are aware, the word good is completely subjective. Just ask any dedicated guitarist what a good guitar brand is. You will hear many different answers to this question.

So why learn to create more effective musical phrases in such a subjective art form? Is there even a standard by which the artistry of phrasing is judged?

There absolutely is!

Music is communication. All musical arts presuppose a listener, without exception. Therefore music which cannot communicate automatically becomes irrelevant.

When we approach phrasing on the guitar it is important to be mindful of this relationship between musician and audience (listener).

So what is phrasing, exactly?

A musical phrase refers to a segment of music which can function on its own, as a single unit. A phrase could span many bars, or few. Essentially, the only requirement for a segment of music to be considered a phrase is that it exhibits a sense of completeness.

The act of phrasing refers to the art of linking musical phrases together in either composed or improvised melody.

For the purpose of this master class, good phrasing will refer to phrasing that establishes memorability while demonstrating artistry through the tasteful use of repetition, variation, and breath. In other words, good phrasing is about effective artistic communication.

–          Breath. The oldest instrument in the world is the human voice, and all music uses vocal music as a pretext. Therefore, phrases must PAUSE in order to be effective, because the human ear has been conditioned to listen to music which pauses for breath since the beginning of vocal music! Listeners will not find an unrelenting flurry of notes memorable (in most cases).

–          Repetition. Like anything else, repetition can be overdone. Repetition is, however, a vital part of the communication process. Anyone who has done public speaking or lectures can attest to the fact that information must be repeated to be understood by an audience.

–          Variation.  A phrase can only repeat so many times before it becomes stale.

I have compiled some very simple and familiar examples to outline these concepts. Let’s take a closer look at how Breath, Repetition, and Variation work in phrasing.


For a musical phrase to feel memorable, it must end at some point.  Phrases usually (though not always) exist in the space between two melodic pauses.

Here is a familiar and simple example:

Notice how there is two pauses in this phrase. The first pause acts as a small disruption to draw you into the 2nd half of the phrase. At this point there is another pause, marking the end of the phrase which is repeated verbatim.  As an interesting side note, Hendrix ends many phrases in “Purple Haze” with double-stop slide down the E and A strings.

Another example:

Similar to “Purple Haze,” this lick pauses mid-phrase before ending.

Many amateur guitar players (and some professionals) use phrasing that sounds like a giant run-on sentence. Much like 90% of YouTube comments, these guitarists sound as if they are typing in all caps and have lost their period and comma keys. You know how when you read a couple pages of YouTube comments, your head starts to hurt? The same can be said of the listener’s ears when listening to melodic phrases that are not punctuated with pauses.

Repetition and Variation

I believe that many amateur musicians fear repetition. A 16 year old bassist once told me that good bass players must not repeat the same lick twice. This is obviously untrue as both popular and critically acclaimed music often feature repetitive bass figures. Even many walking bass lines in traditional jazz utilize a repeated rhythm throughout.  Typically, however, repeated elements should be paired with elements of variation. The key is to use repetition in such a way that it does not become tiresome to the listener, and repeat elements in such a way that they sound fresh. The artistry of improvisation lies mainly in an artist’s ability to use both varied and repeated elements in an effective way.

Repetition is important in improvising melodies, much like inserting breaths or pauses, because the listener has been conditioned to understand repetitive phrases. It should be the goal of all soloists to communicate more clearly to the listener. Again, after all, music that does not have a listener in mind is narcissistic and useless.  For the guitar, we can look to the Call and Response melodic form to aid in understanding how to use repetition and variation. The historical basis for modern guitar soloing clearly comes from the blues, so we will examine how Call and Response (C+R) worked in this genre.

The C+R form comes from old African American work chants, wherein one worker would call out a phrase and the other workers would call back a response phrase. C+R chanting eventually naturalized itself as part of the blues tradition and can work different ways within the genre. For example, a singer might sing a call phrase which is answered by guitar or harmonica. Another common example would be two guitarists trading licks where one player “calls” and the other “responds”. Instruments and voice, however, can both call and answer themselves. A soloist can “call” a melody and then “respond” to it themselves. Call and Response can work in other ways as well, though. If one was to play an initial phrase (A), repeat it (A), and then introduce a new phrase (B), this would still be considered C+R. This type of phrasing can be structured in many different ways, as long there is both repeated and new material (AAB, ABA, ABB, ABAC, and ABAB are common examples).

Here is an example of this type of phrasing in its most basic form:

Techniques for Repetition and Variation:

There are four fundamental techniques for applying repetition and variation in solos.

Repeat the phrase verbatim

It is acceptable to repeat a phrase or lick note-for-note. This is especially effective at an emotional climax, or for a long phrase. Here are two examples

Repeat the rhythm of the phrase

Repeating a rhythm with different notes can be a very effective melodic tool.

Repeat the notes of the phrase

Using the same notes with a different rhythm can have a very interesting effect. Some people call this rhythmic displacement. There are many ways to achieve this.

In this example the first note of the lick always occurs on a different beat by using a 5-note repeated pattern.

Play an entirely new phrase

Quite often, when following an introductory phrase with a completely new phrase there is a longer pause.

Once the fundamental techniques are mastered, it can be useful to consider some of the following approaches:

Repeat a phrase backwards

Phrases played backwards can make a passage very interesting.

Play a sequence

This technique is similar to repeating a melodic rhythm with different notes. The difference lies in the fact that a sequence also repeats intervallic relationships. For example, a lick that used scale degrees 1, 2, and 3 could be repeated using scale degrees 5, 6, and 7.

The song “Scarified” by Racer X demonstrates melodic sequencing in this example through repeating an initial melody on various beginning notes. A sequence is like an algorithm made up of intervals that can be applied to different starting notes.

Repeat a phrase with new dynamics

Try playing a phrase with a soft touch, and then loudly (or the other way around). Changing dynamics can also combine well with any of the techniques mentioned

Repeat a phrase and truncate part of it

This works well with longer phrases. Play a phrase once, and then only repeat part of the phrase.

There are many more ways of manipulating phrases. Try to come up with more and be sure to write your ideas down.


Being aware of how to use breath, repetition, and variation in your solos is only part of the battle. I have prepared some strategies for implementing these techniques which are useful for beginner through advanced players. First, we will examine a series of what I call restrictive techniques, which are designed to focus on single fundamental aspects of phrasing.

One-Note Soloing

One-note soloing is used for building improvisatory rhythm chops, which most guitar players lack. The ability to manipulate rhythmic phrases is crucial to all guitar players, however most instructors neglect rhythmic studies with their students. Time that should be spent focusing on rhythm is more often spent learning scales. Scales have historically been assigned over importance to the guitar. While learning scales is vitally important, it is more important to learn to make listenable music than to know how to play the Bulgarian scale. Guitarists who over emphasize scalar knowledge often tend to phrase poorly (ie. no repetitive/variational devices, no pauses).

In a video, Scott Henderson once demonstrated how listeners tend to privilege rhythm over melody. Many people might disagree at first, but Henderson’s case is compelling. He plays the familiar tune “Jingle Bells” by performing the song’s rhythmic content with incorrect notes with oblique interval relationships. This altered version of the song is still easily identifiable as “Jingle Bells,” and exemplifies how rhythmic content is given priority to the listener.

Performing a one-note solo is very simple. Choose a backing track of some type (blues tracks tend to work really well) and attempt to create interesting phrases using a single note. You will be tempted to bend, slide, and perform all types of manoeuvres but try to resist at first. As you become more adept at one note solos, allow yourself to use bends and creative vibrato. This implementation technique is incredibly powerful.

As well as building rhythmic ability, this technique is also useful for examining how harmonic tensions are structured across a series of chords. In other words, you can learn how one note works together with chords in a series. An accidental note, C#, over a I IV V progression in C would generate tension with each chord, whereas a B note would establish tension over the I and IV but not the V.

Restricted Pattern Soloing

With a backing track, choose 2-4 notes of the pentatonic scale, major scale, or natural minor scale. Use these notes to create interesting phrases while being mindful of the repetition/variation techniques mentioned above.

Here is one particularly effective scale fragment:

I have seen this example referred to as the “BB King Blues Box” elsewhere, because many of BB King’s licks work within this scale fragment. This type of practicing is extremely effective because it forces the player to create rhythmically interesting patterns. The audio file above an example of a solo using a 4-note pentatonic scale over a 12 bar blues progression.

Single String Soloing

Playing melodies on a single string has two major benefits: (1) it is easy to break out of scale based ruts and (2) interval relationships are far clearer on a single string. Single string soloing is a litmus test for whether or not a guitarist uses muscle memory to form phrases, or tries to phrase by using an internal sense of melody. Of course, it is better to be consciously trying to form tasteful melodies than rehashing old material when soloing.


On many recordings, the late jazz great Oscar Peterson can be heard singing along with his improvised lines. As one of the greatest jazz musicians of his time, Oscar’s habit of singing while he improvised presents a useful lesson for all soloists. When a guitarist sings while improvising his/her melodic ideas seem more focused and less inhibited by erroneous notes or automatic patterns. I believe this is due to the phenomenon of muscle memory. Quite often, when one improvises, the majority of his/her playing consists of old familiar patterns. This same muscle memory that helps us memorize long complex passages can also be a hindrance when trying to spontaneously create new melodies. Therefore, by trying to conceive of melodies from a fresh perspective (vocally), old patterns should be less restrictive.

Write down good ideas and build etudes

Whether they are your own ideas or another guitar player’s ideas, write down all and any captivating melodies and licks. Be sure to build etudes/studies from any licks you find particularly captivating. It is best if you can use standard notation to capture these melodies and etudes as this practice will help internalize new rhythmic material.

Also, transcription is a very old and effective practice for developing one’s phrasing. While jazz musicians have been using transcription as a learning tool for years, the practice can also be applied to any genre. For most people, the difficulty in transcription lies in the rhythms rather than the melody notes. Developing the ability to transcribe rhythms effectively will help soloists build a deeper sense of timing and a broader vocabulary of fundamental rhythmic content.

Trade licks with another good player

Find another guitar player and trade licks back and forth. Some common ways to do this are trading leads every two bars, trading leads every four bars, or trading choruses on a 12 bar blues pattern. Do not let these options limit you though. One approach I have used with my students is to set up a backing track and trade leads from verse to chorus. Also, if you cannot find another advanced lead player, find a beginner or intermediate. As a teacher I constantly find inspiration in my student’s fresh melodic ideas.

Wrapping Up

To wrap up, I have presented a number of qualities of effective phrases, ways of structuring/restructuring phrases, and some techniques for implementation. My goal for each player who reads this master class is that he/she will apply this set of guidelines to a diverse range of musical styles. These are, however, a set of guidelines based on how phrasing is typically communicated through most styles. It is important to note that even the most avant garde music is in dialog with these guidelines in some way. In order to oppose or refute a system you must first acknowledge it. Finally, the techniques presented in this article are not exhaustive. Each technique can provide many hours of practice material, but I encourage readers to search for new personalized approaches to implementing effective phrasing.

-Matt Shelvock


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