Jazz Picking and Phrasing

ANYONE WHO HAS TRIED KNOWS it can be tricky to articulate a line on the guitar and get it to “speak” the way horn players can.

ANYONE WHO HAS TRIED KNOWS it can be tricky to articulate a line on the guitar and get it to “speak” the way horn players can. This makes jazz phrasing on the guitar an important and ever-evolving issue. Jazz lines are loaded with rhythmical ornaments—those zippy melodic embellishments that are used to heighten a line’s drama, create variety, and push the improvisation along. Ornamentation is an essential part of this music. In this lesson, we’ll add pizzazz by including some spicy picking to your jazz phrasing. The percussive effect will work for anyone searching for vibey phrasing—in jazz as well as other styles like rockabilly, blues, and country.


For years I enjoyed singing along to my favorite solos by horn and piano players, and I kept trying to figure out how to make the guitar speak a line the way I heard them do it. While living in Los Angeles, I was lucky enough to be able to play, study, and hang with many jazz guitar legends like John Pisano, Joe Diorio, and Joe Pass among others. One thing that got my attention was the fact that some of these players who came up during the ’50s and ’60s had a way of projecting their bebop lines by getting a percussive effect with their picking articulation to add rhythmic momentum. Oftentimes this is done with such subtlety that it goes unnoticed by most people. It’s a tiny detail, but it makes a huge difference in terms of dynamics, punch, and overall projection. This concept instantly became part of my playing but, surprisingly enough, it has remained relatively obscure to many players.

The sixteenth-note triplet followed by an eighth-note is a staple of the bebop line, and many players will execute the phrase in Ex. 1a by hammering on and pulling off between the G and the A on the first string. We’ll now be picking the G again immediately after the hammer- on instead of pulling it off and immediately gliding the pick back towards the F on the second string like on Ex. 1b.


Ex. 2 consists of a descending G7 Mixolydian phrase over a famous 3/4 blues groove. Start at a relaxed tempo and apply a loose stroke. Make sure to nail the first note on each beat while keeping the overall feel with a loose, dynamic bounce. Notice how picking this way you can make your motif sit on the groove with more punch and detail.


Ex. 3 illustrates how to add life to a classic sounding F harmonic minor bebop line with quick chord changes.


In Ex. 4, we apply the concept to another bebop swing line over a II-V-I-VI progression in Eb.


Now check out the more contemporary sounding phrase in Ex. 5, which features diatonic fourths on the top three strings played over an Em drone.


The next time you’re jamming over a slower, bluesy Em7 pedal tone groove try Ex. 6, a trippy, more rhythmically sophisticated, eccentric kind of phrasing that someone like Herbie Hancock might do. With practice, this way of phrasing will become automatic and find its way in many types of jazz lines.