Jazz Phrasing – The Ultimate Performance Guide
You can play all the hip jazz lines you like, but if you never punctuate your phrases, or play the same phrase lengths every time, then your hip licks become predictable and like a run-on sentence.
While you may know that studying jazz phrasing is important, it can be an extensive concept for any jazz guitarist to tackle in the practice room.
But, by becoming more confident with different phrases, your solos will be lifted to new levels of creativity without having to learn any new technical material.
The material in this lesson is designed to take you from day 1 of your phrasing studies all the way to the advanced level of soloing, so there’s no hurry to run every one of these exercises.
Take your time with the exercises in this lesson, as you don’t have to rush through them this week, month, or even year.
Come back to these exercises over time, as phrasing can be a lifelong study for anyone serious about learning how to play jazz guitar.
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What is Phrasing?
To begin, you’ll learn exactly what a phrase is and what the term phrasing means when applied to a jazz guitar soloing context.
A phrase is a complete musical statement, with a beginning, middle, and end.
Think of this as a “line” in a jazz guitar solos.
As with great jazz lines, a great phrase contains all the notes needed to make a full statement, and nothing more.
The term phrasing, in this context, means to create phrases in the moment during an improvised jazz guitar solo.
When you hear a soloist playing a line, leaving space, and then playing the next line, they are using “phrasing” in their solos.
Which is a good thing.
If a soloist is running straight 8th notes and not stopping in their solos, they’re playing the equivalent of a run on sentence.
And that’s a bad thing.
Now that you know what a phrase is and what the term phrasing means, you’ll learn why this concept is important to study and apply to your jazz guitar solos.
Why is Phrasing Important in Jazz?
Now that you know what phrasing is, you might be asking yourself:
“How will better phrasing improve my jazz guitar solos?”
That’s a good question, and one that comes with an easy answer.
If you become better at phrasing, you’ll elevate your playing without having to learn anything new on the fretboard.
Phrasing is a concept that when done well makes everything that you’re already playing sound better.
On the other hand, if you have poor phrasing, you’ll struggle to make any hip harmonic or melodic concept sound good in a jazz solo.
As well, guitarists tend to play long streams of notes in their solos, which can become tedious to listeners and your band mates.
Because guitarists don’t have to breathe, you can play forever without stopping between lines or creating any phrases in your solos.
I’ve often said:
“If our fingers had lungs we’d all be better players.”
To help you imitate breathing on the guitar, you can study phrasing exercises and purposefully insert spacing and endings to your lines in your solos.
As you progress on the instrument, having a strong control of phrasing, and being able to be creative within those phrases, becomes even more important.
Jazz Phrasing Exercises – Stage 1
If you’re new to practicing jazz phrasing exercises, then these three exercises and sample solo will give you the foundation you need at this stage in your playing.
You can practice any of these exercises on your own with a metronome, with a progression over a backing track such as a ii V I, or over full jazz tunes.
Whatever is comfortable for you is great to use in your studies.
The goal is to work on phrasing, not necessarily tunes, so pick a vehicle that’s easy for you to play and use that to focus on phrasing in these exercises.
As well, because the goal is phrasing, you don’t have to use any advanced single-note material when soloing.
Keep it simple, even blues scales are fine, and keep your focus on developing your phrasing with these exercises in your studies.
If you find that you’re struggling to either stop playing, or come back to playing, on time, you can count along (1-2-3-4) as you work through any of these exercises.
Though counting may seem rudimentary, it’s a powerful practice tool that you can use to solidify your sense of time and understanding of bar and phrase lengths.
Exercise 1 – 2+2
In this first exercise, you’ll alternate playing two bars of single-note solo lines with two bars of silence.
Starting with an even number of bars will make it easier to know when it’s time to play and when it’s time to lay out.
After you’ve worked on playing two bars of soloing then two bars of silence, you can reverse this approach to start with two bars of silence then two bars of soloing.
Here’s an example of the “playing for two bars and resting for two bars” phrasing approach over the first four bars to Summertime.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-1
Exercise 2 – 1+3
You’ll now work on asymmetrical phrase lengths as you practice soloing for one bar and resting for three bars.
When working on this exercise, you’ll need to be very succinct in your soloing lines, as you only have four beats to make a complete musical statement.
Not only will this help you develop more creative phrasing, but you’ll also learn how to use a minimal amount of space to build and resolve a line in your solos.
After you’ve worked on playing for one bar and resting for three bars, you can reverse the exercise so that you’re resting for one bar and soloing for three bars.
Here’s an example of playing for one bar and resting for three bars to use as a reference over the first four bars of Summertime.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-2
Exercise 3 – 1+2+1
The next exercise will focus on soloing for one bar, then resting for two bars, and then soloing for one more bar in every four-bar phrase.
You’ll notice that after the first phrase, over a full tune, you’ll be playing for two bars and resting for two bars, as you did in the first exercise.
Though now, you’ve displaced that phrase by one bar.
After you’ve worked this exercise as is, you can reverse it by resting for one bar, soloing for two bars, then resting for one bar.
Here’s an example of the solo + rest + solo phrasing exercise over the first four bars to Summertime that you can use as a reference.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-3
Sample Solo – Summertime
Here’s an example of how these various phrase lengths can be applied to a full jazz tune, in this case Summertime.
You can listen to this example and then practice playing over the tune yourself.
Or, if you enjoy the solo, you can learn how to play it on the guitar to get the sample lines and phrases under your fingers as well as in your ears.
To help you practice this Summertime etude, and phrasing over Summertime, here’s a backing track that you can jam along to in your practice routine.
Summertime Backing Track Summertime Backing Track
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-4
Jazz Phrasing Exercises – Stage 2
If you can play confidently and accurately through the Stage 1 exercises, then you’re ready to move on to more advanced jazz guitar phrasing concepts.
In the following exercises, you’ll focus your attention on beginning and ending on different beats within any given bar in your solos.
After working on playing phrases of various lengths in the previous exercises, working on playing lines from different beats will take your phrasing to new levels.
As was the case with the previous exercises, you can apply any of these Stage 2 exercises to your metronome practice, over progressions, or to full tunes.
Exercise 1 – Starting on Downbeats
To begin, you’ll focus on starting every line you play on a downbeat, the 1-2-3-4, of any bar.
Right now it’s not important that you start on any specific downbeat, but mix things up a bit so that you don’t always start on the same beat in each of your lines.
If you find that you can’t stop your lines from beginning on a specific beat, then zoom in and work this exercise starting only on the other beats in the bar.
To get you started, here’s a sample phrase over the first four bars of Autumn Leaves with each line starting on a down beat.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-5
Exercise 2 – Starting on Upbeats
In this next exercise, you’ll start every phrase on the upbeat, the &’s of each beat, in your soloing lines.
As you progress through any of these four exercises, be careful that you don’t run on and on in your playing.
There should be endings as well as beginnings to your lines.
So, if you find that you play lines that last more than 4 bars, go back and apply these exercises to the Stage 1 phrasing groups in your studies.
This could mean that you focus on starting each line on an upbeat, but that you play for two bars then rest for two bars.
To help you get started with this upbeat exercise, here’s a sample phrase over the first four bars to Autumn Leaves where each line begins on an upbeat.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-6
Exercise 3 – Ending on Downbeats
Switching gears, you’ll now focus on ending your lines on specific beats within the bar, starting with ending on only downbeats in your phrases.
Though it sounds like a simple exercise, focusing on the end of your lines can be a lot more difficult than focusing on the beginning of your lines.
With this exercise, you’ll have a definitive end to your lines, solving any run-on sentence problems that you may be dealing with in your solos.
Here’s an example of this exercise over the first four bars to Autumn Leaves.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-7
Exercise 4 – Ending on Upbeats
The final Stage 2 exercise is the reverse approach to the previous phrasing, as here you’ll focus on ending your lines on the upbeat of any bar in your solos.
Again, this can be very difficult to get down smoothly in your playing.
So, make sure to go slow, use a metronome, and if you struggle, zoom in and focus on ending your lines on the & of 1, or just the & of 2, and expand out from there.
Here’s a sample phrase that ends each line on the upbeats over the first four bars to Autumn Leaves.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-8
Sample Solo – Autumn Leaves
To complete your study of these Stage 2 phrasing exercises, here is a sample solo over one chorus of Autumn Leaves that you can listen to for inspiration, and learn in your jazz guitar practice routine.
To help you practice this study, or any exercise in this section of the lesson, here’s an Autumn Leaves backing track to work with in the woodshed.
Autumn Leaves Backing Track autumn-leaves-backing-track
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-9
Jazz Phrasing Exercises – Stage 3
The final group of phrasing exercises is for guitarists that have finished the previous two stages, or that are coming into this lesson at the intermediate or advanced level.
Each of these three lessons will focus on using melodic rhythms, from tunes, and transcribed rhythms and phrase lengths as inspiration in the practice room.
This type of direct study of phrasing from great writers and soloists can be difficult to master, but it’s essential study for any advancing jazz guitarist in the woodshed.
Exercise 1 – Transcribing Phrase Lengths
In this first advanced phrasing exercise, you’ll pick a solo that you like to listen to, and mark out the lengths of each phrase on a blank lead sheet.
From there, you’ll solo over that tune with a backing track, playing the exact same phrase lengths as the solo phrases you transcribed.
By doing so, you’ll directly study the phrasing and phrase lengths of the greatest players in jazz, absorbing their phrasing concepts at the same time.
Here’s an example of how transcribed phrases would look on a lead sheet from the first chorus of Wes Montgomery’s solo on “No Blues.”
From here, you would have this sheet in front of you as you soloed over an F Blues backing track, only playing in the same spots that Wes did in this chorus.
Where you see blank notes, which mark Wes’ phrases, you play, when you see rests, you rest.
Here is an F jazz blues backing track that you can use to play this exercise in the woodshed.
F Jazz Blues Backing Track F Blues Backing Track
Exercise 2 – Melody Rhythms
The next exercise draws upon the melody to a tune as the basis for your phrasing when soloing over that same tune.
What you’ll do is play the exact same rhythms as the melody line, but you change the notes over that rhythm.
By doing so, you keep an attachment to the vibe of the melody, and draw inspiration from the melody, but you aren’t directly quoting the melody in your lines.
Here’s an example of how you would practice this exercise over the first four bars to Stella by Starlight.
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-10
Exercise 3 – Transcribed Solo Rhythms
The final exercise in this lesson is similar to the first advanced phrasing exercise, though this time you’ll take it one step further.
Now, you’re going to transcribe the rhythms for a chorus of solo by one of your favorite players.
Once you’ve written out that rhythm, solo over a backing track and use the same rhythm as the transcription, but change the notes to make them your own phrases.
By doing so, you’ll directly study the phrase lengths and rhythms of your favorite players, but not imitate them exactly note wise in your solos.
Here’s a four-bar example of this approach based on the first four bars of Grant Green’s solo on “Cool Blues.”
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-11
Sample Solo – Stella by Starlight
To finish your study of advanced phrasing concepts, here’s a sample solo that uses these three exercises over one chorus of Stella by Starlight.
Listen to the sample for inspiration, and then learn how to play the solo to get these phrases under your fingers from there.
In order to help you study this solo, here’s a Stella by Starlight backing track that you can work with in the practice room.
Stella by Starlight Backing Track stella-backing-track
Click to hear jazz-guitar-phrasing-12
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