The Main Elements of Killer Guitar Phrasing Part One

Author: Nick Layton

Author: Nick Layton

You will learn to express yourself a whole lot better with your lead guitar playing once you improve your phrasing skills. Tons of guitar players begin by getting good at technique only to end up frustrated because they are clueless when it comes to playing actual ‘music’ in improvisational situations. What does it matter if you have great technique but don’t know how to use it to make music? Even if you haven’t fully mastered technique yet, you can make your soloing sound totally pro by playing only a handful of notes with great phrasing.

Being great at guitar phrasing means being able to clearly communicate your thoughts and emotions as you play – similar to how you would have a verbal conversation with someone to express yourself. You’ll never get the attention of your listeners by speaking in a monotone voice, and this same concept applies when it comes to your guitar playing as well. You must learn how to use various phrasing nuances to express yourself with only one note if needed, and more notes in other situations. The most important thing to understand about phrasing is HOW you play your notes (not the notes themselves). Here are the three critical guitar phrasing elements that truly great guitarists possess:

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Vibrato is a very recognizable element of any guitar player’s style, so it is important that you master this technique fully. Developing vibrato takes a lot of work and most guitar players make the mistake of not doing this work. To begin mastering vibrato, you need to become clear on what YOU want to hear. If you haven’t put much thought into this already, take the time now to listen to the vibrato of your favorite guitarists and observe their specific playing style. Then research videos of these players to see exactly how their hands move to produce the vibrato they play. See if you can play vibrato in this exact same way. As time goes on, you want to develop your own unique vibrato playing style (this will happen naturally as you subconsciously mix the styles of your favorite guitarists together). However, keep these things in mind: There is more than one way to play vibrato. For example, Yngwie has a slow and heavy vibrato while a player like B.B. King has a fast and narrow vibrato. Determine for yourself what sounds best to you and work to develop that style. To work on improving your vibrato, practice applying it in musical situations (such as backing tracks or over your favorite songs). To quickly develop a great vibrato technique, work with an experienced guitar teacher. Also, remember that vibrato should be used on both bent and unbent notes.

String Bending:

Any great lead guitarist with good phrasing is also a master of creative string bending. Make sure not to overlook this crucial phrasing element in your own playing. By combining string bending along with vibrato, you will achieve maximum self-expression in your playing. The great part about this technique, is that there are countless ways to creatively bend notes. You can bend a half step, a full step, microtonally, with ghost bends, bend and release, plus countless other variations. Some players, such as Marty Friedman, bend their notes beginning from out of the key (such a half step below a tone of the scale) to a note that is ‘in key’. This creates a highly exotic sound. A creative and well-timed bend will instantly grab a listeners’ attention, however you must always keep these things in mind: First, you must make sure you are always keeping your bends in tune. If you release your bends a little too flat or sharp it will be very obvious – and it will NOT sound good! This is a very common mistake that most guitar players make. Work together with a guitar teacher who can hear whether you are in tune or not and keep your playing on the right track. Second, don’t use the same types of bends all the time. Begin by playing half step bends and move on to include various other types, such as ghost bends and varying the rate at which you bend the string. Work to perfect each type with all fingers on your fret hand. Support the finger that is doing the bending with any remaining fingers you have available, to gain better control. Third, pay close attention to the bends of your favorite players and copy the licks they use to get a feel for their style. Then work with a guitar teacher to get help with applying your bends into a musical context as creatively as possible.


By using embellishments in your playing, you will add a lot of creativity and excitement to each note you play. Embellishment basically refers to the idea of using techniques to ‘embellish’ your notes and make them sound more interesting.

One way to do this is to use a trill. Trills are (generally speaking) rapid alternations between one note and another using hammer ons and pull offs. Trills were commonly used throughout the Classical music era and have also been used in rock music by many guitarists. The main idea here is to add more interest to the way you phrase your notes, so that they are always attention-grabbing. Another way to embellish your notes, is to play artificial harmonics with your pick. A great artificial harmonic can create a screaming effect, causing your notes to sound much higher in pitch. This will make them stand out from the other notes you are playing. Additionally, using your fingers to create natural harmonics over the fretboard can sound very creative (especially when combined with a tremolo bar). There are endless other embellishing techniques that could be discussed – however, these ones are a good start. It’s more important to master a few ideas first, so that you don’t overload yourself with too much information at once.

In this article, you’ve only learned three main elements of great guitar phrasing. In part 2, you will discover additional elements to help you improve your lead guitar playing.

Learn how to apply the concepts in this article by checking out the audio samples and tablature in this killer guitar phrasing lesson.

About The Author:

Nick Layton is a rock guitar player, guitar teacher, songwriter and author. He has authored a number of guitar phrasing courses.

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