Phrasing: When it comes to an improvised solo, it’s pretty much what separates the good players from the greats. It’s the difference between a solo that sounds like a composition and a solo that sounds like the fingers are just randomly falling down on the strings.

So what’s the trick to phrasing? Well the definitive answer is colossal, so let’s start off by just dealing with the basics. The first thing you have to understand is the phrase structure (the number of measures in each phrase) of the music you are playing. In this case, we’re talking about the blues and more specifically a 12-bar blues. There are three four-bar phrases in a 12-bar blues. Most popular music is built on phrases that contain an even number of measures, with four- and eight-measure phrases being the most common.

Singers generally understand the phrase structure of the blues better than the average soloist, so let’s look to them for some lessons. In
Fig. 1, you can see a lyric over a blues form that demonstrates a typical phrasing structure. It’s very easy to see that the lyric sung in the second line is identical to the lyric in the first. Typically, the melody would also be very close, if not the same, especially if the melody was using notes out of the blues scale, which we know works for all the chord changes in the blues. The lyric for the third is the summary of the first and second phrases. Notice the use of space in measures three and four of the first phrase. This is a very important part of the blues. The space at the end of a phrase lets you digest what you have played, allows other members of the group to react and respond to your playing, and it gives you some time to set up your ideas for the next phrase.

What we are going to try to do now is use the same technique, but replace the lyric and song melody with an improvised melody. This is harder than it might seem, because as the soloist, you have to remember and be accountable for the melodic material you play in the first phrase so you can repeat verbatim it in the second.

We will start out with some simple ideas that are generated from the blues scale and graduate to ideas that use a melody we’ll manipulate to follow the chord changes. Even though this is a simple concept, many advanced players have a hard time accounting for what they have played. If you can’t account for what you’ve played, you are subjecting yourself to an out-of-control solo that, frankly, will be devoid of strong phrasing.

InFig. 2, you can see an example of putting this phrasing to use in a melodic way. I’m intentionally keeping the examples pretty easy. This concept is the classic situation of “It’s really easy to talk about it and understand it, but it’s hard to actually execute with integrity.” When you practice this, be very honest with yourself if you are rememberingexactlywhat you played in the first phrase and playing itexactlythe same in the second phrase. The third phrase gives you the opportunity to play whatever you want to summarize. I’m keeping all the notes for this example within the A minor pentatonic scale, so our repeated melody won’t clash with any of the chords.

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The next step, shown inFig. 3, is to take a phrase that outlines the changes and keeps the integrity of the line by altering the line’s notes to match the chord changes in the blues.

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As I said earlier, this is an easy concept to talk about, but it’s a tricky concept to perfect. Players gain control by being accountable, and this concept makes you accountable for every note and every rhythm played. As you practice, pay attention to the details. It’s easy to say you have something down when in reality, you don’t. Be honest in your practicing.

Corey Christiansen
Corey Christiansen, a former senior editor and guitar clinician for Mel Bay Publications, is known for his fluid jazz improvisation and instructional chops. He teaches full-time at Utah State University and is an Artist-in-Residence at the Jacobs School of Music in Bloomington, Indiana, the Atlanta Institute of Music, and the Broadway Music School. To learn more about his CDs and DVD, and see his current workshop and performance schedule, Photo by Jimmy Katz