Articulation & Nuance

One of the most interesting and thought provoking terms found in a music dictionary is parlando which is an instruction to performers to play the part as if it were spoken. A recitation or hinting at what I have continually called the easy, conversational style of top notch guitarists. Along that line, excellent and exciting guitar playing is often described in terms of human experience and emotion with words such as ‘wailing’, ‘screaming’, ‘crying’, ‘talking’ and ‘singing’ being quite commonly used, and easily understood by music fans and musicians alike. Creating this life like and humanly relatable playing is done with the careful use of articulation and nuance.

Articulation is sort of like pronunciation or having good speaking skills. Music dictionaries all say that articulations are technical directions that affect the flow or continuity of a note or affect the transitions between two or more notes. Nuances are small and subtle decorations, ornaments, and sound effects. The great Wynton Marslis has said that the ability to bring nuances into your playing represent the highest level of technique. This lesson will focus specific techniques that will help you develop that professionals touch. The most important articulations are in the illustration below:

Just imagine all the creative possibilities open to an improvisor simply changing and varying his method of attack, his pronunciation

The Slur

The easiest and perhaps one of the most effective techniques is the slur, for guitarists it amounts to a simple slip or slide. It seems obvious and too simplistic, perhaps that is why many fine guitar players simply forget to neglect a well placed slip or slide, a well placed slur. The artistic effect and musical impact can’t be over be emphasized and is very common in all styles. Musical worth is not measured by its ease or difficulty. Beautiful and tasty slurs can be achieved by sliding into a note from one fret below it. That is hit the note one fret below the note you want to play and quickly slide up to that desired note with constant and firm downawrd pressure.

Try to listen for slurs, for slips or slides, in the playing of your favorite soloists and be sure to incorporate them into your way of thinking about music. This effect can be written using a grace note. The grace note has no real value of its own as it borrows its brief time from the note which it slides into. The lick below is a real sweet heart for blues, jazz or funky applications -the grace note (indicated in red) gives it style and life. As with all techniques and licks you learn, file it away for future use and incorporation into your personal style.

SlurThe Flat 3rd and Natural 3rd


Hammer Ons & Pull Offs

Hammer ons are a close cousin to slurs except that you would use two fingers (instead of one) to play the two notes. Hammer ons have a smooth sound because you would only pick the first note in a pair (or series)of notes. The power and energy for notes to follow comes from the force of the fretting finger as it quickly and precisely pounces on the note to be sounded -without picking.hammer ons are usually notated with a slur marking – a curved line connecting a group of notes which indicates the highest degree of smoothness.

Pull offs are like hammer ons in reverse. Once again the string is only picked once, on the first note of a pair (or series) of notes. The force needed to vibrate the string comes from a downard pull of the fingers on the fretting hand -pulling the string ever so slightly out of position and then allowing it to snap back to its original position, causing the string to vibrate in the process. Pull offs are usually notated with a slur marking – a curved line connecting a group of notes which once again, calls for the highest possible degree of smoothness.

Hammer On Lick


Classic Pull Off Lick



Vibrato is defined as slight fluctuations or variances of a pitch. Vibrato adds a warm singing quality and a rich expressiveness to single notes. In order for vibrato to be achieved the notes pitch must be altered by changing its position on the fretboard and therefore its pitch. The animation at left shows a wiggling or traditional vibrato caused by a back and forth motion surrounding the fundamental tone or actual pitch the music calls for. The string starts in its original position and is then quickly wiggled or vibrated back and forth across the location of the original pitch called the fundamental tone. My vibrato technique video can be accessed here.


Tight Vibrato


Wide Vibrato



In lead guitar playing a simple pitch bend is a crucial and critical element, when and how you bend is one of the things that make you sound like you. My favorite string bending heroes are David Gilmour of Pink Floyd and blues legend Buddy Guy. Bends are achieved by pushing a string up and away from its original position with a constant and firm downward pressure. In a bend the pitch of a note you press is altered as you accurately bend the string up to a new in tune note. Of course, the release bend -the sound made as the string returned to its normal position can be a defining feature of many great solos. Both the bend and the release bend require the same constant and firm downward pressure.

In the example below both the E and the D note (shown in RED) are played on the 7th fret. The E note appearing on the traditional staff and the 9 appearing on the tab staff are certain indications of where you are bending to. For this lick, your finger will never enter the 9th fret, it will stay on fret 7 and bend up to the pitch found on fret 9.

Bending ‘D’ up to ‘E’


String Snapping

In blues & funk playing a metallic, percussive snap is often added to notes. This is done when two fingers of the picking hand grab the string and drop it back on to the metal fret causing to give a sound like a snap or pop. This technique borrowed from the electric bass, is called string snapping or string poping and should be used sparingly as listeners and band mates will quickly grow tired of popping if you over do it.

Popping The Octave


The Take Away

These articulations present a variety of interesting and different ways to play one note or a series of notes. The phrases on this page although quite camp and familiar sounding, are given a new musical life through the careful treatment of individual notes, through articulating.

This course in lead guitar playing explores the possibilities that exist through the use of licks, and preconceived lines in solong situations. Our lesson here attempts to achieve that aim with useful, and musical, rock and blue phrases for in the key of A. Any ideas here that appeal to you should be synthesized into your personal vocabulary.


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