Breathing Between the Notes
Here’s a natural way to create air and space in your guitar phrasings.
I’m often asked by my fellow guitar players what kind of music I listen to when I’m relaxing at home. Honestly, I mostly like to just listen to the peace and quiet around me. I spend most of my working moments writing, recording and performing music, so when I’m not working, I prefer the ambience of nature around me.
I have the good fortune to live in Hawaii, and most mornings you’ll find me in the ocean, swimming and gazing at the wonders beneath the surface. Vibrant marine life and the natural colors of coral hue, enhanced by sunlight and aqua blue water fill my visual senses with wonder, while the underwater silence cleanses my spirit of the stress of daily life.
It’s very important for me to find space for creative thought, so I consciously make an effort every day to create an open environment around me. I may spend a couple of hours watching the palm trees sway back and forth like Hula dancers on the breeze while I sip freshly roasted coffee. To the observer, it may appear that nothing of any value is occurring, but it’s during these moments of serenity that I formulate my best ideas. When there is “air” around my thoughts, it allows me to think clearly and visualize my next body of work.
I find that visualization is one of the most powerful tools for manifesting the reality you want to see in your life. It’s the quantum physics approach of “Thought Is Matter” — that whatever you think is the seed to grow the reality. If you nurture the seed and water the ideas with further optical input, the plan becomes more clear and the dream can often become a reality.
I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer, but I also pair those mental blueprints with additional active ingredients such as hard work and tenacity. Without a strong work ethic, dreams often stay in an ethereal world and never manifest in real life. Even with a strong plan for the future, work needs to be done and action taken before tangible results can be seen.
Our minds are the most powerful aspect of our human being. Musicians spend hours practicing scales, arpeggios and chord voicings with our physical body, but do we spend any time at all training our minds to achieve better physical results? Our fingers don’t move without the brain engaging the motor functions first, so surely we can visualize the movements and send those neural impulses to our fingers, even when we are away from the instruments we play. In a similar fashion, we can also use visualization techniques to overcome stage fright, prepare for live performances or even gracefully execute a challenging musical passage.
Horn players use both hands to articulate the lines they play, but they also have to breathe between each phrase. This physical limitation in technique is also a natural way to leave “air and space” between melody lines and solo improvisations. I recently found myself wondering if guitar players could find a similar way to bypass our muscle memory and force ourselves to “breathe” between our phrases. After giving it some serious thought, I devised an idea that you might try the next time you pick up your guitar.
The concept is really simple: Just jam along to one of your favorite backing tracks, but lift your fretting hand off of the fingerboard between each phrase. While your hand is off the fretboard, finger-snap in time with the track for two or three beats, then place your hand back on the fretboard to play your next line. This will yield an approximately breath-long pause between each phrase — or more, if you decide to wait for another beat or two.
The fact that you are unable to play any notes during that brief period of time forces you to phrase with a little more air. Check out the video below to see and hear exactly what I mean.
The progression I’m improvising over consists of chords derived from the key of A major. This is an A Ionian progression with a tonal center of the I major chord, A:
I: A I C#mi7(b13) I F#mi7(b13) I Dma7 E7sus :I
My lead guitar phrases combine notes from the A major pentatonic scale and the A major scale, along with a judicious amount of chromatic passing tones.
I chose to use a Yamaha Revstar 720B with FilterTron-style pickups for this demo, as the open tonality they impart to the sound further illustrates “air and space” within the tone, as well as around it. These Alnico V magnetic pickups are humbucking in nature, but often remind me of a super quiet, single-coil pickup.
I created an amp and effects signal path in my Line 6 Helix® using only six effects blocks, as shown below. Keeping the signal path simple further allowed my guitar and the notes I chose to play “breathe” within the music.
Any time you feel restricted by your creativity or musical chops (or by life itself, for that matter), take a moment to find some inner peace or a new vista. Then make space in your mind and visualize your dreams and goals. Let your mind wander freely, allow those new thoughts to wash the old regimes and ideas away.
When you play music, let the conversation evolve naturally. Listen first before responding with your musical point of view. Let the listener digest each of your sentences … and give them time to enjoy your story!
Photographs courtesy of the author.
For more insight into the role of silence in music, see our blog article “The Sounds of Silence.”