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.