Leaving Space to Breathe in Your Playing

Leaving Space to Breathe in Your Playing

January 18, 2019 3 Comments

In a recent article, we talked about how to compose an effective solo. As a great teacher once taught me that means "speaking in sentences" with your instrument. At first, I found his advice difficult to understand, but with time, I found myself listening to the great blues and jazz vocalists and trying to capture their words and expressions with my guitar. I never have quite figured out how to make my guitar shout the way Aretha Franklin did in her song "I Never Loved a Man" as she sang that heart-rending lyric, "How could you hurt me so bad?!?" But I learned a lot of ways to make similar statements in my own playing- and isn't that the point of trying? Therefore, learning to speak with your instrument is crucial. And knowing when to be silent is equally important. Let's talk about music in space- not the 'outer space' kind, but the space between words.

Space Matters!

"A wise man holds his tongue, therefore even a fool is thought to be wise as long as he remains silent," says the biblical book of Proverbs. You don't have to be religious to appreciate the wisdom in this saying. So, when you are learning to speak with your instrument, never underestimate the power of leaving space between your phrases. When you listen to those great old blues and jazz vocalists, you might not even notice the spaces between lines. After all, when speaking (or singing), everybody has to breathe; the spaces are automatic.

Sing Along with Your Solos

In the same way, try to play your instrument as though it needs to breathe. It won't sound very natural if you fill every spot between the chorus and the last verse with shredding, no matter how good you are! Even Yngwie Malmsteen left breathing room in his solos, and still managed to squeeze in an awful lot of notes. If he can do it, so can you! But learning to do it automatically like a singer takes a little bit of practice. A good place to start is learning how to scat sing along with your solos. Singing scat is a technique of vocal improvisation where the vocalist imitates a musical instrument and creates an ad-lib solo using sounds and syllables but not words. Guitarists sometimes use the same technique, singing along with their improvised solos. A famous example is George Benson's amazing solo on "This Masquerade" (if this doesn't instantly evoke memories in your musical soul, go find the track immediately- you've missed out). Now if you learn to sing along with your own solos, you will naturally leave room to breathe between phrases. Once you have the idea, you will always hear your own solos in sentences and space will be built-in from the outset. Interestingly, this connection between your playing and breathing creates more emotion and intensity in your phrases too, just as breathing affects your speech or singing.

Putting It All Together 

Once you have taught yourself this technique, you won't have to sing along with your solos in order for them to 'breathe,' it will become automatic. However, many great musicians, from George Benson to Oscar Peterson, to Jimi Hendrix sing along with their solos. Another great side effect of this technique is that once you are thinking like a singer, you may recognize a great number of very simple riffs and phrases that are very effective even though they aren't necessarily flashy. On "This Masquerade," there are certainly many impressively quick riffs. But notice how much of the solo is really very basic blues chops; a lot of Benson's phrases are short and sweet, often repetitive, yet varied in their subtlety. This happens because the most effective vocal lines are usually basic hooks, rather than fancy chops. More people know the chorus of "It's the End of the World As We Know It" by R.E.M. than they do the verses, right? And you'll also notice that it is the pauses and the 'breathing' in that song which really make it effective.

You will always be able to shred, but you will find that it means more in the greater context of telling a story. Speaking in sentences will help you connect with your audience as you solo and inspires you to include greater depth of emotion in everything you play. Otherwise, artificial intelligence would have overtaken living musicians by now! Breathing makes you human, and it humanizes your playing as well. What are some of your favorite scat solos? Which vocalists have inspired your playing the most? Let us know in the comments below.


3 Responses

Frank Watanabe
Frank Watanabe

January 17, 2020

Johnny Winters is a great one that used that technique alot.

John Blough
John Blough

February 01, 2019

Leonard Bernstein!!

Max Ferry
Max Ferry

February 01, 2019

Wholeheartedly concur. This is why many great players are influenced by wind instruments…it’s all about the phrasing and winds cannot just blow forever…they speak in clear, complete musical sentences. And BTW…DRUMMERS TAKE NOTE…(don’t ask ;) )

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