Phrasing like a horn player on guitar is something many jazz guitarists aspire to. The fluid sound of the saxophone in particular is both an appealing and definitive sound in jazz. Transcribing the notes horn players use is only part of the equation. Equally important, if not more so, is copping the phrasing used by horn players. A whole lot of the magic is in the articulation of the notes.
Ex. 1 is a typical jazz line over a minor II-V-I in C (Dm7b5-G7alt-Cm7). It uses a more traditional fingering on guitar, picking every note. This gives the line a fairly staccato sound, which can be cool, but isn’t very horn like. In Ex. 1a we take that same line and fingering, but play it in a more legato fashion using slurs: hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides. This helps loosen the phrasing up by moving away from the staccato nature of strict alternate picking and the line starts to sound more like how a horn player might play it.
You can put some added vibe in your legato playing by working out a fingering that lines up the accents so they swing. With eighth-note jazz lines, you generally want to accent the upbeats - the and of each beat. Here we break the bar down by dividing the eight eighth-notes into four groups of two, each group consisting of a downbeat and an upbeat. Using the pick on the upbeats and slurring the downbeat is one way to play this type of swing accent.
In Ex. 2 we use this concept to play the same line with a new fingering so the upbeats are played with a pick and most of the downbeats with slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. The line now has more of a natural swing to it because we are accenting the upbeats with the pick, similar to how a sax player uses their tongue on the reed.
Playing this way also gives the line a nice arc, and a smooth, flowing sound. And by grouping the notes in twos, it helps us get away from the dreaded three-note-perstring “unintentional” triplet articulation that can be the pitfall of many guitarists when playing legato.
Ex. 3 demonstrates how to use this technique over a G7#9 chord. The first bar is a blues lick with the accents on the upbeats. The second bar continues with the same articulation of accents and hints at the symmetrical diminished scale giving it a slightly outside sound.
Overdrive and delay can sound cool with this kind of technique, but when practicing legato phrasing I find it helpful to play with a clean sound and with the delay pedal switched off. I don’t like to mask the phrasing with delay or with the compression that overdrive adds when I practice. Playing the lines without these effects lets me concentrate on getting the articulation smooth and even.
Keep in mind that if this approach is new to you, it might seem a bit difficult at first. With enough time in the woodshed, however, this kind of phrasing can become second nature, and be an effective part of the way you articulate notes on the guitar.
Chris Taylor is a New York based guitarist/ composer/producer with a diverse list of recording and performance credits including Grover Washington Jr., Randy Brecker, Lionel Hampton, Celine Dione, Aretha Franklin, and Chaka Khan, to name a few.