Jazz Phrasing and Playing the “Right” Notes

Advanced Jazz Guitar Lesson

Hello there! Marc here for another lesson. Today’s lesson is called “Jazz Phrasing and Playing the ‘Right’ Notes”. Here,  we’re going to talk about the importance of being able to phrase cohesively versus the importance of playing all the “right” notes. The exercise we’ll be talking about today is a little unconventional, but I really think you’ll get a lot out of it.

My good buddy Steve Reagele has also discussed this topic at length and we’re going to borrow an idea or two from him here.

You’ve probably heard players that sounded like they were playing the right notes, but the phrasing wasn’t quite there. Maybe you’re this player. That’s okay! Everyone has to go through this. It’s part of the growing process. This is why – with all my students – I regularly stress the importance of being able to phrase first over scales and arpeggios. Learning your scales and arpeggios is great, but if you can’t make music with it, what’s the point?

If you have this problem, today we’re going to try to remedy that.

Listen to Your Heroes

Okay, so this exercise might seem a little weird, but you’ll have to trust me on this.

What I want you to do is put on some of your favorite jazz guitar recordings: Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, etc. Then, I want you to try to play along to what they’re doing without worrying about notes or chords.

Yes, that’s right. Ignore the notes and chords.

The main thing I want you to pay attention here is the phrasing. Notice how they contour their melodies, where they leave space, how they articulate each note, and so on. All of these things are very important to develop early on and will help you to really make music as you progress in your jazz guitar studies.

Steve’s Exercise

So, Steve came up with this great exercise to practice this and it just so happens that I’ve been prescribing it to many of my students for quite a while. Essentially, the idea of the exercise is much like what I just discussed in the previous section. All you have to do is just play. Forget about chord changes, scales, etc., and think only about the phrasing of your improvisation.

Jazz Phrasing Blog

The difference, of course, is that now you’re not trying to match a recording.

Set your metronome to the desired tempo, feeling each click as being on beats 2 and 4. Then, just start playing!

Alright, so, this may or may not sound like nothing to you and, in fact, it probably feels a little pointless. You’ll have to trust me, though, this is more about developing your improvisational phrasing than it is about vocabulary. It’s a pretty abstract concept, but I have found that it is very effective.

Drive the Point Home

What I’m trying to say here is that it is more important to be able to phrase properly than it is to be playing all the “right” notes with poor phrasing. Improvisation is really more about what you hear in your head than about how many scales and arpeggios you can regurgitate at a given time.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t aim to play the right notes, and with practice, you will. However, being able to phrase properly is such an important aspect of improvisation that so many beginners overlook so often.

Jump In

Now it’s your turn to try. I know this is a pretty abstract concept and approach, but I really believe you will notice big improvements in your ability to phrase if you give this a shot. Try it and let us know how you like it! 🙂

If you’re having trouble with any of the terminology used here, we’ve got our covered with our Improv 101 course.

Jazz Improv 101 Course

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Please comment below with your questions and comments. Feel free to share your ideas with us about playing faster. See you soon!


Marc-Andre Seguin is the webmaster, “brains behind” and teacher on JazzGuitarLessons.net, the #1 online resource for learning how to play jazz guitar. He draws from his experience both as a professional jazz guitarist and professional jazz teacher to help thousands of people from all around the world learn the craft of jazz guitar.

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