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guitar on notation and tabs

Learning Exercises vs. Learning Phrases

In guitar music, as in other types of music we have music sentences that can be broken down into phrases. These phases can teach us a lot about the techniques needed to play the piece well.

A Slight Confliction

I must admit, I have a bit of conflict here. At the time of this article, I have been more serious about practicing technique. I have started a page on the website dedicated to exercises: Exercises for Guitarists. That being said, I think there is a great deal to be learned by practicing phrases on the guitar. Let’s see if I can make a case for it.

guitar on notation and tabs

What is a Phrase?

Phrases in music are most easily explained as musical sentences. Many times, a phrase will sound like a question, leaving you with a feeling of being unresolved. Then the next phrase will answer that question with a strong resolution. Sometimes a phrase will end with a deceptive cadence, almost as though the question was not quite answered. Such cadences have the potential to strengthen the final answer. However, I must digest because these cadences should be the subject of a different article.

Actively listening to any piece of music, you should be able to pick out the phrases. While learning your piece, you will notice that most phrases are confined to four bars or measures. The answering phrase will do the same. These phrases can be used as exercises while learning the piece. More on that in a minute.

What is an Exercise?

For this article, I’m using the term “exercise” for the technique exercises that we all play. For example, scales, slurs, stretches, and related exercises. Exercises are valuable for honing your technique. Take scales for example. What can you learn from a scale? You can learn finger placement, making sure that the finger is playing as close to the fret wire as possible. You can learn timing, as you should be playing with a metronome. You can learn shifting if your scale shifts up and down the neck. You can learn legato, making sure that the notes sound connected. You can learn the separation and synchronization of the left and right hands.

Did you realize that was all in a scale? There’s even more. No wonder Andres Segovia was quoted as saying, “The practice of scales solves the greatest number of technical problems in the shortest amount of time.”

And many other exercises address the variety of issues you may run into. Let me be upfront. This article is not about bashing exercises. I love them and find a great deal of worth in them.

Contrasting Phrases and Exercises

While exercises are beneficial, when working on technique, phrasing contains all the technique exercises relevant to a piece. Let me say that in a different way. Every technique you need to know is already in the piece of music you are trying to learn. Pieces themselves are self-contained instructions and exercises.

You can work on specific techniques with exercises. That will benefit your playing overall. However, a piece can teach you the specific techniques required to play that piece. The phrases already contain all the shifts, slurs, scale runs, etc. that you need to learn.

Think of technique exercises as a general application and phrasing as a specific application.

Using Phrases as an Exercise

We look at the piece of music and isolate (or find) the phrases. I like to “rope” them off by drawing brackets at the beginning and end. I also draw a circle above the staff. Then add a check to the circle when I have finished working on the phrase.

Then practice the isolated phrase at 50% of the total speed of the piece. For example, if the speed of the piece is 100 bpm, start at 50 bpm. If you can’t play it at 50 bpm, start even slower. Sometimes you will need to familiarize yourself with how the phrase is played. In this case, you may want to play the phrase slowly, without the metronome. Do this until you get how the hand moves and the overall finger placements. Then go back to the metronome.

Practice until you can play the phrase five times, back-to-back, with no mistakes. Once you can play the phrase five times, with no mistakes, at 50 bpm, move the metronome up to 10 bpm. In our example, this would be 60 bpm. Practice the phrase until you can play it five times cleanly with no mistakes. Then move the metronome up 10 bpm. Do this until you can play the phrase at 10 bpm above the 100% mark. In our example, this would be 110 bpm. I elaborate more on this in an article titled, “Snagging the Hard Parts.”

Turning Phrasing into Exercises

There are videos and blogs on the internet that suggest taking the phrases and turning them into exercises. You can take the phrase, use the same notes, and change the rhythm. You could change the phrase and practice accenting certain notes. There are many ways to do this and plenty of blogs and videos discuss it. I don’t want to sound as if I am against this. I prefer to focus on the phrase at hand unless otherwise needed. Creating an exercise out of the phrase can certainly help, for example, speed.

I believe that when learning a new piece, that piece has all the instructions you need. Everything you need to learn the phrase is in that phrase. Also, there may be those occasional hard parts that need more attention. If a measure or two in the phrase is more difficult, isolate those measures. Play them five times until they are fluid. Then proceed to play the whole phrase. Practice it the same way you practice the whole phrase. You don’t necessarily need to speed up the hard part. You only need to get it fluid at the speed you are playing the phrase.


The piece of music that you are playing contains everything that you need to know to play it. You can break down the piece into its phrases and practice the techniques needed for that phrase. If you need more work on a certain technique, you can refer to a technical exercise that covers the technique. But the piece will teach you the specific technique it requires. These are in the phrases. Practicing the phrasing and each required technique will build both the execution of the piece and the technique.

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