One of the coolest techniques for expanding your guitar style is to copy other instruments – this is why you’ll sometimes find articles on I Heart Guitar about keyboard players, f’rinstance – but there’s probably no more expressive instrument than the human voice. When I was in high school one of my favourite things in the world was to chuck my bag in the corner, crank up my amp and play along with the vocal melody to David Bowie’s ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ from his ‘1.Outside’ album. It’s a pretty obscure track and you’ll probably have to dig pretty deep into iTunes to find it, but it’s well worth it, not only for Bowie’s killer phrasing and some very atmospheric Brian Eno production, but also for Reeves Gabrels’s really out-there guitar playing.
However I think the reason I became so entranced with this particular song as a guitar exercise was because the vocal melody included a lot of sustained notes, as well as a few small phrases with quieter dynamics than the rest, and a few notes that sort of drifted over the bar lines and behind the beat. It taught me a lot about leaving space in a melody, and about applying progressively wide vibrato over the course of a note, instead of the same level of vibrato over the whole thing.
So with this in mind, here’s a countdown of five other songs that I’ve found are good for copying vocal phrasing:
5. Black Sabbath – Changes.
Ozzy’s phrasing is relatively straightforward and is a good starting point for this technique. He tends to stick quite faithfully to the pulse of the song rather than messing about with the rhythm too much, and a lot of his melodies seem to be based on pentatonic scales. In Changes, there’s a lot of space between each phrase, and there are a few notes that he slides, which you can choose to mimic either by sliding from fret to fret or by bending.
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4. Led Zeppelin – We’re Gonna Groove.
This is a good one for trying to get underneath some very staccato rhythms. Plant tends to hold the same note for a steady stream of words at a few points in this song, and it’s a challenge to use different pick attack, vibrato and slide techniques on guitar to make up for the fact that you’re playing the same note over and over again. A vocalist can get away with this a lot easier because they can change the word, but a guitarist has to be a little more resourceful.
3. Alanis Morrissette – You Oughta Know.
I know, I know, this might seem like an odd choice, but y’know that thing Alanis used to do (she seemed to grow out of it after a few years) where she would finish a line and her voice would kind of jump to a high (and sometimes out of key) note? This can translate quite well to guitar, especially if you use it to go to a note that’s actually in the key of the song. You can use various techniques to hit these extra notes: harmonics, tapping, or, under the right circumstances, feedback. Find a spot near your amp where you get the same feedback note whenever you take your hands off the guitar, and soon you’ll be able to conjure that note at will.
2. Living Colour – Ignorance Is Bliss.
While the melody itself isn’t particularly crazy, this one is a little more out-there in terms of phrasing, with Corey Glover often holding a note until the last possible beat before dropping down to another note for the next syllable. There are also some very tricky vocal slides which translate really well to bends. You’ll also have to tackle the same “What the hell do I do when the vocalist sings different words using the same note?” issue as ‘We’re Gonna Groove’ in the ‘Ignorance is no excuse’ section.
1. Devin Townsend Band – Storm.
Devin’s metal screams and growls are some of the best in the biz, but his melodic singing is particularly amazing. This song features some great phrasing where he finishes each line with a note which slides down while he also applies vibrato. This technique is very tricky but for those with whammy bar-equipped guitars there are two ways to accomplish it: either apply the vibrato with your fretting hand and drop the pitch with the whammy bar, or slide the note down the neck with your fretting hand while using the bar to achieve the vibrato. Devin ends the song with an octave-higher, slightly on the edge restatement of the verse melody, and it’s here that the sheer range and emotion of his voice is in full flight. Check out the bit from 3:40 to 3:50. It’s extremely difficult to copy on guitar, as he slides from one note to another, and then to another, all on the same word, but such full-on pitch manipulation is very rewarding when you get it right, and these skills can then be applied to your own material.
1. Play it like you say it. Sometimes one might speak in a low, sexy Barry White voice, like “Heeeeeeeeey baby… how YOU doin’…” Other times, it’s more like ‘ohmygodyoutotallywon’tbelieveitIjustsawagiganticspidereatingachicken” Both are valid forms of communication but you don’t wanna be saying “heybabyhowyoudoinletsgobacktomyvanbythewayyougotrealprettyeyes” when “Heeeeeeeeeey baby…” would do.
2. Play the pick as much as you play the guitar. Experiment with different pick types and grips, and with picking in different areas of the string. Pinch harmonics, percussive clacks, faux-wah sounds, imitation 12-string textures and grinding metal sludge are all yours for the taking.
3. Put the pick down. After you’ve mastered the pick, chuck it into the audience, Yngwie-style, and learn to pick with your fingers. A frequent pick-misplacer in my younger days, I learned to pick with my fingers quite early and developed my own voice that way, much sooner than I developed my ‘pick’ voice. You can hear an example in my song ‘Mistral’ which is played 100% with the fingers (even what sounds like pinch harmonics, using the edge of the thumb and the thumb nail).
4. Train your ear by playing along with the TV. Whether it’s picking out the melody to the Flintstones, adding chords to the Seinfeld closing credits or breaking out of a rut with the Conan O’Brien theme, this is a great way of learning intervals, melody construction, and transcribing.
5. Practice in front of a mirror. No, not guitar hero poses, Johnny Bravo. Watching your hands in a mirror is a great way of checking if your vibrato is smooth and even: if it looks right, it will sound right. Mirrors also help to make the transition from staring at the fretboard to looking out into the audience by reducing reliance on looking directly down at the guitar.
6. Steal from singers. If you’re just starting out on this technique, Ozzy’s phrasing is easy to replicate on guitar, and the way he sings behind the beat and slides between notes is very useful when applied to guitar melodies. After you’ve done that, try to replicate the vibrato of your favourite singers. Extra points if you can nail that Alanis Morissette squealy thing at the end of each phrase.
7. Play with the band, not just at the same time as them. This sounds simple but it can take a while to learn. Lock in with the kick drum, the high hat, the bass player, whatever you need to do to make sure you’re fully aware of the song and your place within it. When I was younger, I found this kind of advice to be boring – why should I focus on the drums when I’m enjoying the sound of a raging guitar amp? But it only takes one good rehearsal or gig to realise that stuff like this makes you sound better.
8. Play your song with PRIDE (Phrasing, Rhythm, Introduction, Dynamics and Endings). This is a lesson my Aunty Barbi, a music teacher, instills in all her students and it’s great advice whether you play guitar, violin, piano or whatever. They’re all obvious, and yet it’s easy to forget one or even all of them in the heat of the moment. Catch the audience’s attention and imagination with the introduction, leave them with a clear sense of finality at the end, and make sure you do everything to keep them there in between.
9. Use gadgets as much as you like, but don’t NEED to use them. It’s all well and good to chain together a dozen pedals and try to replicate the sound of a unicorn belching through a megaphone into the third circle of hell, but a truly well-rounded player should be able to conjur up the same vibe (even though the sound itself might only be attainable through a few feet of transistors) with just their fingers.
10. Do. Or do not. There is no try. This immortal advice comes from Yoda, and whether you’re a whiny little bitch like Luke Skywalker or a seasoned guitar vetaran like Steve Lukather, Yoda’s message is clear, even though his syntax may be a little shaky. If you tell yourself that you can’t play something, you’re probably right. If you tell yourself you can play it, you’re probably right about that too. Check out the book The Inner Game of Music by Timothy Gallwey and Barry Green for advice on how to locate that little voice inside you that says “I can’t,” roll him up into a carpet, and throw him into the river.