What is meant when a listener says"His phrasing was spot on"- specifically when talking about solo's but sometimes when referring to a pianist "comping". What does it mean when referring to a guitarists solo/accompaniment?


Think about speaking with your friends. Think about speaking and when you pause to breath. What kinds of effects can you produce with some hesitation in your words? Can you lead someone to believe that you are talking about one thing, only to finish the phrase and talk about something else?

Phrasing in music is the same thing. Think of it as taking a breath, and saying a line. Then taking another breath, and saying another.

  • 1
    +1 Excellent answer. Melodies, and solos, that are continuous streams of notes become tiresome, and, even if they are beautifully composed will sound mechanical without little pauses and rests to let it breathe. Those little holes give the listener's brain a chance to take in what was just played, and then adds some tension for them as they wait for the next phrase. They're a compositional element, which we learn in theory, to make the music more organic, natural, and human.
    – Anonymous
    Jan 29 '11 at 22:22
  • Its now what you say, but how you say it.
    – Anonymous
    Mar 23 '11 at 15:17

Phrasing is how we take a series of notes or chords, and change them from mechanically repeating them into something that is alive and sounds fresh.

As we learn to play we concentrate first on getting the chord fingerings right, and playing them at the right time in the measure. As we progress we learn to relax, to let the timing breathe and occasionally lead the beat or pause, then come in late. This helps to create a feeling of expressiveness, of putting our own interpretation on the song.

It is very similar to using punctuation when writing: Commas, colons, semi-colons and periods generate pauses, and use of them in a sentence allows the sentence to breathe and feel natural, as if someone was speaking directly to you.

Our musical phrasing helps our listeners too; Part of music theory talks about creating tension through various methods, including pauses and changes in timing. Music without tension loses the listener's interest, unless we're talking about chants, rounds and simple songs, but most of us, and hopefully our listeners, want more, and enjoy the mental teasing that occurs as various tension creating and releasing tricks get played on them.

I think an incredible way to learn phrasing is to hear how a master plays something. I'd highly recommend listening to Jeff Beck's version of "Cause We've Ended As Lovers" from his "Blow By Blow" album, then listen to how he reinterpreted it on his "Performing This Week - Live At Ronnie Scott's" album. Listen to Stevie Wonder's original version and you'll hear how Beck carried over some of Wonder's vocal and instrumental phrasing, then added his own.

Matter of fact, I recommend any of Beck's albums for the last ten years if you want to hear a master make a song come alive. Even when he's playing flat out aggressive, he still makes his guitar sound alive, almost like it's a human voice. Listen to Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Robert Cray, Eric Johnson, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, any of the guitarists who are known for making a guitar talk, and you will notice their phrasing and leaving holes as they play.

So, as you progress and become more comfortable with a song, or a technique, or with soloing, you'll gain confidence in your ability to be at the right spot at the right time, and can NOT play; You can leave holes in the music and let it breathe, let the listener breathe, then pick it up and take them on the next part of the journey in your song.


A good solo seems to the listener like a continuous run of notes; and it is. However they are generally constructed from smaller sections which fit together as a whole. Each of these sections is referred to as a 'phrase'.

Each phrase is composed/improvised to fit over its particular section of backing/chords/accompaniment, and a new phrase will often start when there is a chord change or other change the the movement of the track.

When someone refers to a guitarist as having great phrasing during a song, they are referring to how each of these phrases fit together as a whole and complement the backing. Guitarists with great phrasing will move effortlessly between phrases, coming out of one phrase and leading into the next in perfect equilibrium with the other instruments.

Phrasing can be/is a very personal style skill, eg most guitarist have their own way of phrasing, and a lot of their playing can be defined by it. Technicality aside, often times the difference between a good guitarist and a great one is the quality of their phrasing. Guitarists who don't have very good phrasing are generally missing something in their game.

The only real way to get good phrasing is to play, play a lot and play original; or take existing material and make it yours.

  • 5
    Not just existing material, but material from other instruments. Guitarists can sit down and play 8th-note licks until their arm falls off, but horn players and singers have to come up for air sometimes. If you want to get better phrasing, listen to singers and horn players. Try to take a singer's melody line and play it on guitar. Mar 18 '11 at 20:27

Here you can find detailed descriptions of musical phrasing: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Musical_phrasing

  • Hi John - welcome to the site. Can you please expand on this - a link only answer is always at risk of link rot.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Nov 25 '13 at 10:11

Phrasing is how you play a melody. It is how you play the note. It's how you use bends, slides, vibrato, inflections, timing, etc...

Now sometimes you can add notes to it and it is still considered phrasing such as trills, mordants, etc.. In "comping" one has similar techniques to make things sound better than just playing the chords. It is not specifically phrasing but I suppose one could extend it to that stuff(since chords are really just several simultaneous melodies).

Anyways, it's basically how you play something.

  • I agree with the other two. This adds no information from which you can work. Mar 19 '11 at 3:21
  • I think that your answer regards more how to 'ornament' an accompaniment. Phrasing is more about composing a melody yourself (even if 'on the stop', like when you improvise) Mar 28 '11 at 13:40

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