Playing the guitar requires excellent focus, practice, and training. When you want to become a better guitar player, it goes far beyond basic fundamentals, such as chord progressions, picking, and fingering.
When you advance in mastering how to play, you can look to expand your musical education by learning something new.
Hone your articulation skills for playing chord progressions, and create your own unique touch with expressive melodic playing.
Consider how independent musicians can make new choices by utilizing expressive elements, like an artist with a paintbrush. When you apply new elements and techniques to make your playing more expressive, you and the audience benefit.
In this article, I will go over different techniques and tactics for playing the expressive melody on the guitar, which can help to take it to a superior level. You can combine many elements in your playing to evoke new emotions and feelings with unique phrasing, muting, sliding, and more.
Expressive Phrasing Elements
To begin with more expression in your music, you need to learn some new elements. While it helps to know basic chords, progressions, and how to apply a scale over chords, being expressive requires you to look closely at the phrasing in your music.
These elements creatively help bring new meaning to your musical piece or theme. Some of the main expressive features in phrasing to be more expressive include:
Articulation and Rhythm
How the musical notes are placed in tandem with the beat of the song and how the notes connect to one another is known as articulation and rhythm. Every aspect of picking affects the articulation of the notes that you play. Consider learning how to hold a guitar pick in a new way and listen to how it affects the expression within the music.
For example, maybe most of the time, you are accustomed to playing your guitar more smoothly and combined (legato). But, if you want to create a new feeling, consider making some notes more staccato when playing. When you do this, you’ll hear a vast difference in the articulation that it creates.
With rhythm, you can place a note just before or after the beat to create an entirely different rhythm, which also attributes to the expression. Look at a piece of music and see where you can alter the rhythm, however slightly, to create a new feeling throughout the song.
A song’s dynamics are one of the most potent elements of expression. They refer to the variance in volume and intensity of playing the guitar. You can create a feeling just by playing something quiet or loud. Swells and fades also add to the expressive phrasing in your guitar playing.
Consider going through a piece of music you enjoy, and look for places to add swells, accents, or fades that will produce stronger dynamic contrasts. Listen to how it changes or brings a new feeling when you play it.
If you want to bring out more notes or emphasize a particular phrase, you can help hone your instincts as a musician. For example, pluck a note more forcefully to put a greater focus on it, so it stands out.
You may need to write these dynamics in your music, but eventually, you can have the ability to do it by feeling or in the moment while playing.
If you play without variation in the pitch, the sound is less melodic. Instead, it sounds more droning and can become dull. Altering the tone quality with your fingers and nails helps your music becomes more expressive. The overall tone quality can allow you to use dynamics to create depth and build momentum within the musical piece.
(Image credit: Future)
To practice, consider holding just one note (like in the example images above).
When you shift accents, you can develop syncopation. In the first example, you see the palm muting (holding the string down so it doesn’t create a sustained sound when plucked). When you dampen the vibration of the string, it sounds more subdued.
You should experiment with developing different tones to your music by adding or limiting the dynamics with varying rates of attack. It would be most helpful to determine the overall style you are working to reach and then add the elements to your guitar playing to accomplish that goal.
One last element to consider in making more expressive, melodic playing is the balance of your instruments. With more than one instrument (or voice) at a time, the melody is usually a more prominent part that needs to stand out above the others.
In classical guitar playing, multiple “voices” are played at one time. Learning how to perform the melody so it is set apart from the other sounds gives your music more expression and tells your listeners where to focus their ears.
Phrasing To Engage
When you learn how to be more expressive in your guitar playing, you understand what engaging in the music means. To practice this, you can break down your piece into phrases and notes and learn how to demonstrate each phrase with your guitar.
While it may feel strange to think about being more expressive with gestures, it can help to think of it as if you’re acting out the song itself. Work out each line and its meaning, and determine the best elements that need to be utilized with the guitar to pull that expressiveness out.
Practice and Experiment with Expressive Elements
It takes some trial and error. You may need to experiment with many of the elements above when working through your musical phrases. But, as you continue to work at it, you will take your learning and mastery of guitar playing to a higher level of performance.
When you find what works in the song, make it part of the music, so it’s played that way each time. No one wants to play in a monotone manner. Playing with feeling and emotion is what engages you to improve, and it also engages all those who listen.
It will take a lot of patience, time, and effort to master learning how to play expressive melodies. But, when basic guitar chords become boring for you, take steps to be more creative musically. As you continue to grow and learn with expressive elements, you become a more genuine musical artist.
About the author
This article is by Nicole McCray: Before she discovered her passion for teaching students how to play their first instrument, Nicole was pinching pennies in her 20s while singing at dive bars across the country. Nowadays, she spends her days contributing to music blogs, parenting forums, and education websites when she’s not providing private music lessons. She finds joy in sharing her insight with musicians, fellow teachers, and parents of musicians-in-training.