Hello Jazzers, here is my ultimate guide to jazz guitar phrasing. This will be delivered in four parts as there is a lot of content to get through. Please enjoy!
What is phrasing?
‘Phrasing’ is a term used to describe the overall feel of the melodic phrases that a soloist uses. Phrases use a combination of musical materials that we can recognize and study, such as scales, arpeggios, bebop language, linear contour and rhythm.
What is my approach to phrasing?
My personal goal as a developing jazz guitarist is to play phrases that are lyrical (using melodic lines that are sing-able,memorable, tasteful and satisfying to a listener) yet still feel fresh and inspired to me as a player. In order to achieve this, I work on taking melodic material I have developed through strict practice routines (scales / arpeggios / transcribed licks and lines / patterns / studies etc) into harmonic contexts (repertoire) in new and challenging ways.
Why is it important to develop my phrasing?
While some may argue the best thing a student of jazz can do to get great phrasing is listening to and transcribing the greats, there is a danger that a student will adopt the technique, articulation, language and overall sound and feel of those they are listening to and become a shadow / sound alike who will ultimately be compared back to the original source. There is nothing wrong with this approach, for many reasons – staying fresh, inspired, hearing how the greats have worked through changes you yourself may be studying, getting new ideas – etc, etc. However, in order to stay truly in the moment and grab phrases that are relevant and related to any context you might find yourself within, it is a better idea to keep your ears open and be ready to respond to the environment immediately around you. In a lot of cases, this means you can’t just play a heap of pre-learned licks, no matter how good they might sound. It means you have to consider what is happening around you ALL THE TIME and respond accordingly in a musical manner. This requires a great deal of phrasing awareness, development and therefore, preparation.
How can I develop my phrasing?
Firstly, a student must understand the framework of the tune they’re playing over; the tonal centres, the sequences of chords unique to the tune. Then one should develop strong techniques that lead to fresh ways of playing the same musical material. Below I have elaborated on four key concepts to help jazz musicians develop their phrasing. These are by no means a comprehensive list of everything you need – but if you study and practise these techniques your phrasing cannot help but improve.
Please note that they should also be practiced in sequence at first, in the order they are given below.
- TONALITY – Growing an awareness of the underpinning tonality and harmonic framework of the song they are improvising on.
- LINE LENGTH – Developing longer lines and a consciousness around starting and ending points.
- RHYTHM – Paying attention to the rhythmic elements of their lines.
- VARIATION – Using variation and development as techniques for playing phrases unique to the song and moment.
Tonality (PART 1)
First step is; know the changes. Analyse a piece of music so you can see what key centre you are at any point and WHERE you are in that key centre, to gain an understanding of the tonal framework and shape of the tune. This is essentially: what major key, minor key or other tonal centre is the tune currently in? How does it change? Where are the tension (dominant or diminished / half diminished) chords and where are the resting chords (major and minor). Are the chords functioning diatonically (do they stay within the key centre?). A good improviser knows all these things!
Next; practice (with great repetition) comping through the tune using a variety of voicings (this will be relevant to the contexts you are in – simpler progressions / pop / rock may require simpler chords to be performed, jazz and Latin will more than likely use extended and coloured chords such as 9ths, 11ths, 13ths and altered dominants etc). A strong chordal vocab is necessary to the improvising jazz musician.
This is an important first step – knowing the background (tonal framework) and middle ground (chords unique to the tune) of the piece of music. This allows a student a greater chance of knowing why a line or phrase will sound ‘right’ or melodic. It is also a good way of marking the tune so you never lose the form – if you can hear resolution and tension chords, root movements etc, you will be able to follow along no matter the rhythmic material, density of notes (or space) you are using in your phrases.
Your phrases must (at least in the beginning stages of soloing jazz tunes) directly represent or respect the harmony. You should be able to play chords and then outline the chords using triad and 7th arpeggios (I place a higher melodic value on arpeggios over scales) without losing form. This is the beginning of building phrases that sound ‘right’. Ensure you are placing the right arps on each chord and you will sound like you know the tune.
Another technique you can work with is targeting the ‘3rd’ of the chord or the ‘7th’ using melodic and aesthetic choices as your guide. See this video focused on this subject:
There is also a series of videos (Core Lessons 43 – 47) on different ways of developing lines using similar techniques.
Happy practicing. Part 3-4 will focus on LINE LENGTH, RHYTHM and VARIATION.
Please comment and ask questions it’s the best way to learn!
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