Learning to play an instrument well is a long term endeavor. There is no short cut to overnight success, but there are longer and shorter paths. For intermediate level guitarists one of the most common areas of weakness is the tendency to want to throw everything they know, and at super sonic speeds, at every solo. While there may be some level of personal gratification in noodling around with flying fingers, and this is indeed a useful tool in the process of developing an overall skill set, bear in mind that speed apart from other elements of musical fluency typically does not lead to smooth, flowing phrases but rather sounds like what it really is … scale practice. When you get to that point in your playing when you have moderate speed but your phrasing feels unsatisfying, that is a good clue that you need to look more closely at the details of your phrasing. There is more to good phrasing than simply placing your finger on a note in a scale and getting it plucked at the right moment. Consider these elements of good phrasing …
Appropriate speed – many aspiring guitarists tend to play phrasing at speeds that are beyond their capabilities. Remember, you are going to play what you practice. Sloppy practice = sloppy playing. Sometimes it is needful to focus specifically on speed during practice, and at those times it is useful to attempt speeds beyond your current skills. At all other times, practice within a tempo that allows you to play well. Practice slowly and with good note articulation, two-hand coordination, and mental focus. Speed up only as your increased mastery permits you to play accurately and intelligently at higher speeds.
Note development – when you first learn scales the challenge is just to get through them, playing the right notes in the right order. Once you can do this predictably then the next logical step is to work on increasing your speed. However, this is where things can begin to fall apart. Before moving on to increasing speed, consider examining these elements:
Legato – not to be confused with the term as used in the limited sense of describing the physical technique guitarists use to create a legato feel – hammers and pull-offs. Here we are talking instead about the musical ideal of smooth flow between notes. Make sure you are “connecting” each scale note smoothly, holding each note you play until it is time to pluck the next note, then carefully timing the placement of the fret hand finger with the pick attack on the new note, such that there is no unintended dead time between the notes.
Dynamics – this refers to changes in volume in the most basic sense, but with guitar we alter volume from note to note with changes in the strength of the pick attack, and this in turn makes subtle changes to the overall quality of sound coming from the guitar/amp. Generally, for cleaner tones we need a more aggressive pick attack, and for distortion tones the distortion does a lot of the work so that we do not need to be as aggressive with the pick. Given those generalities, play to the song. We will not need to be as aggressive with Jazz as we would with Rock. Also, we can create a flow of dynamics within a phrase, such as picking easier at the beginning of the phrase with increasing aggressiveness toward the peak tension just before the resolution. Experiment with dynamics and see for yourself how it assists the sense of tension and release within a phrase.
Duration – when you first learn scales and start practicing them with a metronome it becomes habitual to play in straight time – every note gets the same allotment of time. This habit then spills over into playing, so that your phrases are all rhythmically identical. Make it a point when practicing phrasing to vary the timing within phrases between half, quarter, eighth, sixteenth, and triplet timings, using bends and vibrato to embellish the longer notes.
Space – resist the temptation to fill every perception of space with extra notes. There will be points in the song where it makes sense to linger on a resolving note, such as at prominent chord changes. Good phrasing follows the pattern of speaking – a burst of words followed by the emphasis created with space. Then another burst, then another space. Experiment with imagining vocal phrases you think would fit well over a track, then try to match the vocal phrase you imagined with your guitar. It does not have to be a perfect match. The idea is to develop a capacity to create a flow of vocal-like phrases that match the flow of tension and release in the song you are playing over.
Vibrato – holding a note at the end of a phrase will indeed make your phrase sound like it has died unless you apply a robust vibrato. Vibrato is a powerful tool for maximizing the impact of resolving notes at the end of your phrases. Work on developing and refining your vibrato. Then you will enjoy the sound and feel of your resolving notes and this will alleviate the pressure to rush off prematurely to the next phrase.
Motive variation – this is a very effective way to cultivate a habit of getting the most musical value from few notes. Select an appropriate resolving note, such as the root note of the key. Then make up a phrase of four or five notes from the appropriate scale revolving around this resolving note. This reference phrase is your motive (theme). Then experiment with variations on note choice, note sequence, timing, and embellishments. These types of experiments will enable you to see the many possibilities for squeezing the most musical value out of few notes, rather than always running in a panic all over the fret board and hoping a good phrase will come out. Some of the most widely acclaimed guitar solos are also technically simple. Listen to B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, and similar Blues masters for abundant examples of phrasing that is technically simple, yet loaded with powerful emotional expression. When you are developing your solo phrasing do not strive for maximum speed at first. Instead, strive for maximum impact of every note. Practice technically simple phrases with good timing relative to the song rhythm, deliberate note development, appropriate planned spaces, and a carefully controlled vibrato. Experiment with motive variation in order to cultivate a habit of achieving maximum impact from few notes. When you can do these things without being distracted by them then you will be ready to move on to more complex and faster phrasings. Until then … keep it simple!