Guitar Solo Phrasing: The Play/Rest Approach

Guitar Improvisational Phrasing Lesson 1:  Introduction to the Play/Rest Approach and Basic Groupings

It is painfully simple to distinguish a novice improviser from one with more experience  by listening not to what each plays, but what each does not.  A novice prattles on endlessly, stringing together ideas thoughtlessly and without rest, hell-bent on impressing the listener with a deluge of attacks.  An experienced improvisers, conversely, knows the value of economy and endeavors to tastefully separate their licks with adequate rest.  For wind instruments, resting between licks comes naturally, as the pause is required to breathe in more air.  But for guitarists and other non-wind instruments, it can take some discipline to learn.  That is why renowned improvisational instructor and author Hal Crook devised the “Play/Rest Approach” in his book How To Improvise.

The Play/Rest Approach is elementary in conception, requiring the player to simply select a number of measures to improvise followed by a number of measures to rest.  However, its application pays huge dividends, lending the improviser the ability to create distinct phrases.  One of the easiest forms on which to apply this practice approach is the twelve-bar blues as we can limit ourselves to a simple minor pentatonic scale and utilize a familiar progression.  It is also best to begin with our most common and comfortable phrase lengths.  You can apply this to any of the blues backing tracks on my website or on Youtube.

Play two measures, rest two measures.

This is one of the most common phrase structures and also provides a comfortable phrase length for the improviser.  Over a twelve-bar blues it would look like this:

Play three measures, rest one measure.

While common, it can be difficult at first to construct phrases that remain interesting for three measures before resting.

Play one measure, rest one measure.

These shorter phrases are great for “call and response” phrases.

These three play/rest structures only serve as an introduction to this approach.  In the next few lessons we will invert these pairings and dive into some more uncommon structures.  It should be emphasized that this approach is a practice concept intended to improve performance improvisation, not a performance technique in itself.  Improvising on stage in this fashion would seem very rigid.  As such, be sure to include time in your practice to improvise more freely while focusing on the general idea of playing and resting.