2 Easy Exercises To Improve Your Phrasing
aIf you want to become a competent blues guitarist, you have to work on your phrasing.
I was reminded of this recently when I was invited to jam with a few guitarists at a friend’s gig. The other guitarists started playing a slow blues in A, and I played lead. Truthfully, I struggled to properly articulate the musical ideas I had in my head. My phrasing was all over the place and my playing fell flat.
It was just a small jam with friends, so it was nothing to sweat over. But it did get me thinking about phrasing and just how important it is in the blues.
I have always thought of phrasing as being one of my strengths as a guitarist. My problem has always been my limited musical vocabulary. I’ve been working really hard to correct this weakness recently – spending a lot of my time working on theory and on improving my musical vocabulary.
But judging by my recent performance, I think the pendulum has swung too far the other way. I have become too focused on different scales and modes, and have forgotten the importance of phrasing, touch and feel.
This is an issue that I want to address immediately. The blues is all about nuance and feel, not about how many different scales or notes you can play. After all, some of the most famous blues guitarists of all time – Albert King, Freddie King and Stevie Ray Vaughan (amongst countless others) – had what we might now consider a ‘limited’ musical vocabulary.
This proves that in the blues it isn’t just about the notes you play, but rather how you play them.
With this in mind, I’ve been working on 2 exercises both based around the minor pentatonic scale, that will improve your phrasing. I have found them to be immensely useful and my phrasing has really stepped on. So add them into your practice routine and see how you get on:
This first exercise is one that I learned from Matt Schofield. If you’re not familiar with Schofield, I would highly recommend you check him out. He is an amazing blues guitarist, with a beautiful tone and a killer technique. Have a listen to the songs ‘Pack It Up‘, ‘Don’t Know What I’d Do‘ and ‘Getaway‘ to get a sense of his style.
Schofield places a huge emphasise on phrasing, and this exercise is all about getting as much mileage as you can from as few notes as possible. To set the exercise up, all you need to do is put on this slow blues backing track in the key of B. This is a great backing track and make things quite easy for you, as it shows the chords as they change across the progression.
The ‘rules’ of the exercise are as follows:
- You are only allowed to play 3 notes.
- The notes you are allowed to play are those on the 9th fret of the D string (B), the 7th fret of the G string (D) and the 9th fret on the G string (E)
The aim of the game is to solo over the backing track using only these 3 notes. You have to extract everything that you possibly can from them and do this by focusing on your phrasing. Think about the following techniques you can implement to make those 3 notes sound soulful and bluesy:
- Sliding Up
- Sliding Down
- Hammer Ons
- Pull Offs
Once you’ve gone through the 12 bar progression once using just those 3 notes, add in the same notes (the B, D and E) but an octave higher. In the key of B, these appear at the the 12th fret of the B string (B), the 10th fret of the e string (D) and the 12th fret of the e string (E).
Watch Schofield run through the exercise here to see just how much you can get from those 3 notes. (though be mindful that he is playing in the key of C, and so is playing different notes)
If you find the exercise useful, you should also have a look at ‘Blues Speak’ course on True Fire TV. It has some brilliant exercises on it and at only $39/£30 is amazing value for the quality of the content.
The second exercise is one that I developed after watching this clip of Gary Moore. If you skip to around 2.30, Moore starts talking about phrasing and how crucial it is in the blues. Like Schofield, he illustrates just how much you can get from only a handful of notes.
As with the first exercise, the aim here is to extract as much as you can from a very limited group of notes. Below are 3 classic pentatonic blues licks that you have probably encountered before:
The exercise this time is to create 3 variations of each of these licks.
You can change the timing and the techniques used, alter your bending and vibrato and implement some (or all!) of the techniques listed above. The only ‘rule’ with this exercise is that you have to keep the notes of each lick the same; how you play those notes is totally up to you.
Reworking these classic blues licks will get you to think about the nuances of your playing and force you to focus on your phrasing. As Moore shows in the clip, there are a whole number of different ways to play simple licks, just by making small adjustments to your phrasing.
Once you’ve tried this exercise with the 3 licks I’ve provided, do the same thing with the licks you use most frequently. If you are anything like me, then you have ‘go-to’ licks that you fall back on when improvising. It is great to have these at your disposal, but if you’re not careful, relying on the same licks can make your playing sound repetitive. Reworking your ‘go-to’ licks will freshen your playing up and expand your musical repertoire.
Some Closing Thoughts…
Well there we go, 2 of the exercises I’m currently implementing in my practice routine to work on my phrasing.
For me these exercises have been almost liberating. They have helped me step back from some of the more technical and theoretical aspects of the guitar and showed me how much you can get out of just a small handful of notes.
I hope you find them just as useful and enjoyable.
Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions, just pop them in the comments below or send me an email on [email protected]
Good luck! 🙂