Phrasing: Concepts & Techniques


In my early days of being a guitar player I was quite proud of the fact that I could fit scales to chord changes and burn through those scales and that was the way I played. After a jam session with some professional, very experienced players one of the said to me, “You’re doing OK but you have no sense of phrasing.”

He then went on to explain to me that phrases are complete, logical, coherent musical ideas that can stand alone and still sound good. The individual thoughts of music, the sentences of your musical stories, are called the phrases. This is more of an artistic and conceptual matter than a theoretical or analytical one – you know a musical phrase when you hear it.


Think of all the different people you’ve spoken to. You must know someone who is easy talk to, has a nice sounding voice, and says interesting things. Of course, this person also leaves just the right amount of space for you to follow and participate in the conversation. On the other hand, you may have had occasion to talk to someone with a harsh tone or a loud, over blown voice -someone who talks and rambles on, leaving no time for you to follow or sapce to participate. The point being that music is a language which must also be spoken with sensitivity, pacing and of course well placed space.

Rhythmic Considerations

The art of phrasing does however have one hard and fast rule and that is this: at least one and a half beats of silence must transpire for the ear to perceive a complete or individual musical thought. To phrase correctly, you must be aware of the rhythmic ideas you’re playing and the occasions you have to add at least one and a half beats of silence. One and half beats of rest is not the only way to develop a phrase, but it is a good one.

Separated by the silences are small resolving melodies, logical bits of music caused by both melodic and rhythmic ideas, in other words, the phrases. In classical composition the average length of a phrase is 4 bars, in improvisation, the most common length for a phrase is two bars. Very often, phrases will closely the follow the cadences and capitalize on chord resolution by following along with a melodic series of chord tones

Solos and longer improvisations consist of many phrases being linked together and quite often being rhythmically similar to each other. Those who pursue and study this line of thought find it to be a liberating, thought provoking, eye opener -adding new life to their solos. As students of the guitar, rhythms and rhythmic considerations are usually one of the last things we learn to control and use. I consider the art of phrasing to be an elusive sub specialty, which can be learned by analyzing solid examples of phrasing technique.

Consider the short example below, containing a pair of two bar phrases, the one and half beats of silence, indicated by an eighth and quarte rest is what makes the 2 ideas, the two seperate musical sentences work.


There’s No Hurry

phrase4Below is a short rock song, played in position XII to the right, and written as an exercise in phrasing. As I have said before that phrasing is more an artistic concept than a technical one but to a musical phrase is dependant on the rhythms of the notes, called the phrase rhythm. Phrases can be short or long but again it can be anyones call. In the song There’s No Hurry, the first phrase is very short, a quick two note slur that, to my ear, is not part of the longer phrase to follow. The long phrase is a steady climb of whole notes, searching for musical resolution which is found by arriving at the D, the b7 in the key of E. The phrase rhythm is completed with a long rest -as I have indicated in the music. The study track below is designed to be atypical and thought provoking as well as being a lesson in restraint in phrasing.

As a guitar player, when I hear a E power chord and a solid rock beat I want to take off soloing like crazy using all of tricks, licks, and fast runs. My example shows however, a simple, considered, rhythmic approach, building a nice understandable melody slowly, just like enjoying an easy conversation with a well spoken friend. My song is a result of coupling a solid rhythm with interesting note choices -choices based on skipping between the of notes the E minor pentatonic scale, playing every other note in the pattern instead of a garden variety scale run.

Melodic Considerations

In the music below, the goal was to add an interesting, idiomatically correct and tasty line to a funky E7 vamp, again avoiding the temptation to start the start the inevitable minor pentatonic fast shred-a-thon. To think like a guitarist in this situation I would keep the E7 arpeggio (shown at left) as well as the E minor pentatonic scale.

The solo employs chord tones: a flat 3 to natural 3 (G to G#) cliché and scale runs. What causes the phrases to form are not the rests in between the individual phrases, but the wide melodic leaps, in the case of G# to E as found in measure 3, the leap is an interval of a minor 6th. Those melodic skips form a natural point of punctuation or division in the music, in other words they are causing you to hear a series of linked phrases.


Another Soloing Idea Loved By Guitar Players Everywhere

The phrases in the second line of the song are formed by rhythmic devices: long notes and rests to be precise. Guitar wise, I’m using a favorite and very effective melodic device known and loved by accomplished players everywhere: a series of wide skips based on the interval of a 6th. In the illustration the individual intervals are color coded, play the two blue notes, the two green, the two red and then the two orange ones. Go up and down, and experiment by playing the notes repeatedly. The intervals are either a major 6th or a minor 6th and are derived, I included the D natural because the chord I am soloing against is an E 7 (E – G# – B – D). This diagram is more than worthy of considerable experimentation. If you are a good player you may recognize this as the basic notes in may blues licks and turnaround phrases.

Intervals Of 6 ths


Syncopations & Anticipations.

In terms of phrasing, there are rhythmic devices other than a dotted quarter ( one and one half beats) which are great sounding yet easy ways to bring a sense of musical order to your improvisations. They are called syncopations and anticapations and can be heard creating a sense of melodic smoothness and forward motion in virtually all musical styles and traditions.

A syncopation is defined as a note played off the beat, when reading music and counting “1& 2& 3& 4&” it’s any note you play on the “and” part of a beat. The example below, called the universal syncopation, is one of the most common in all of music and can be found as a central element in not only modern american music, but once again in virtually all musical styles and traditions.

The Universal Syncopation.

Below you see one of the worlds’ most common rhythmic figures, a simple syncopation found in virtually all styles of music throughout the world. The syncopated rhythm is shown in blue on the bottom line, while a straight (non-syncopated) rhythm is shown on the top line in black. Use this interactive illustration until you can feel the syncopated note, you know it when you can tap your finger in perfect sync with the recording.

A momentary contradiction of the beat, a slight interruption in the flow is caused by breaking apart the first two eighth notes in the phrase with a quarter note. This means that 2nd & 3rd notes in the syncopated rhythm will be played directly after the beat on the 2nd half of the beat, on what musicians call the “and” of the beat.

World Music

For decades, musicians have studied world music, the traditional, folk and popular music of other cultures, because of the insights, ideas, inspirations and fresh perspectives such a study provides. In this lesson, I am using a brief survey of some world music as a lesson in phrasing. Although a particular type of music may be foreign to me, I can still understand and enjoy it -first on an intuitive level but then from a students perspective, seeing what fits in with what I know and what doesn’t, understanding the similarities and differences. Studying the phrases, melodies and rhythms of other cultures makes you an informed musician and a better improviser.

phrase9Funga Alafia

Below you see my version of a favorite west African folk song, a welcoming and a traditional dance called Funga Alafia. The universal syncopation is found at the very beginning of each phrase and throughout this charming little tune based on the always sweet sounding E major pentatonic scale. To play the melody use the scale pattern illustrated to the right.

It would be impossible to count the number of times this exact rhythm is found in the worlds musical styles and cultures.


phrase10Turkey In The Straw

The B Section” of the well known traditional American folk tune, (i.e. fiddle tune) Turkey In The Straw contains the same exact rhythm. To play this example, center your thinking around a root 6 E major scale as pictired to to your left.

This type of syncopating is so effective and interesting -another example of a simple yet powerful idea that professionals understand and amateurs do not.



Latin Music

Below is highly syncopated and cliche pattern called a montuno, meaning from the mountains and implying an authentic, traditional style. The montuno is taken from the cuban tradition which falls directly under the umbrella of Latin music. Based on the E major pentatonic scale, this beautiful little cliche is challenging to read and play.

The phrases in this example are caused by a simple repitition of the two bar idea. A highly syncopated repititive phrase like this can be played in wide variety of settings and situations.


Latin Music Workout

Because of its highly syncopated and inherent catchy appeal, Latin music is an excellent vehicle for learning about and practicing phrasing. Below is a survey of common Latin cliches that serves as an ear training and timing exercise- I call it the Latin music workout.

This lesson is phrasing and learning how to create phrases. By mastering these short examples, and taking your own mental notes along the way, you’ll gain experience with playing syncopated rhythms, enabling you to improvise interesting phrases and use syncopated rhythms in your own playing and writing.

Play The Guitar Like A Rhythm Instrument

We’ll conclude Latin phrasing exercises workout with the all important clave rhythm, an essential driving force in Latin percussion -to understand latin music, you must understand the clave rhythm. In the solos below i am really thinking of the guitar as a rhythm instrument, like a cow bell or actual clave rhythm sticks, and trying to lock in with the percussion part by marrying the clave rhythm to a simple lick.

phrase16Jazz Influence

Studying jazz music helps you understand the value of accurate rhythms and rhythmic placement. The forward motion inherent in the style makes you want to snap your fingers or jam on your guitar. Like Latin music, jazz music is highly syncopated and gets its drive from pushing the melody forward with syncopations tied to notes of longer value called anticipations -this note of longer value is said to be anticipated. Anticipations create the drive and movement we are trying to create and are a hallmark of professional sounding lead guitar work.

Below is an example of jazz versus straight phrasing, in the first example, everything is played on the beat and it sounds very basic or corny. The second example uses the same lick but it comes to life and sounds professional with the use of anticipations and syncopations. The musical material for this solo are the chord tones and approach notes (chromatic neighbors) associated with the E major chord and the E 6 chord pictured here. Thinking of the bright and harmonious sounds often produced by the chords, produces a correct sounding melody with the same bright and harmonious sound.

Classical Influence

Although we discussed the importance of listening to and playing classical melodies in lesson 14 of this course, the phrasing of classical melodies is also interesting and creative. Studying phrasing is really a study in creativity because there are so many ways to create musical phrase to play with a sense of phrasing. When we play great music we are processing greatness. -learning and studying these brilliant musical ideas to find and grow your own musical voice and melodic style.

phrase17In about 1825, a new romantic movement emerged in music, the romantics explored the descriptive, emotional and evocative powers in music and believed in creating songs based on imagery. I often listen romantic era music to get the creative juices flowing because composers like Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Bizet have many special lessons to teach us about the emotional and descriptive power4s odf music.

The excerpt below is from Tchaikovskys’ Swan Lake and creates and incredibly haunting and beautiful effect with some well placed chord tones and brief scale passages. When you play this melody, think of it as being based on a root 6 E minor scale in position XII.




End Of Lesson

In this lesson we’ve explored an issue central to the art of improvisational music and lead guitar playing: phrasing. Phrasing is the ability to write or improvise in complete, logical and musically coherent thoughts. In this lesson we learned that musical phrases can be caused by; rhythmic figures, space and silence and melodic interest.


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