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Dynamic Phrasing

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

Everyone that wants to play fast or slow starts out copying their heroes (as I did) in my early teens. Many players that learn this way stop their copying once the notes or the tab for a certain riff, intro, or song is learned. I advise taking this process much deeper.


There was no tab or rhythm tracks in my learning path. Instead, I was taught to listen and ear train for "all" of the layers to an idea. I learned right from the beginning (from my Hawaiian teacher, Wanda Bruening) that to play expressively, the notes within a single phrase will need both rhythmic and volume differences. Emphasizing phrasing and dynamic differences were as important, if not more than the notes themselves.

Wanda used Jerry Byrd's "Cocoanut Grove" as an example. First she played it with no harder and softer notes so I could hear why dynamics had to be there. In an earlier lesson she had also pointed to the sheet music, teaching me how the composers gave different note values to each phrase for more phrasing emphasis.

Even as a pre-teen, hearing a performance without harder and softer picked notes sounded so bland to my ears. Wanda then played "Cocoanut Grove" with picking dynamics (softer and harder picked notes) and the song sounded so much more expressive.

Performances with dynamics is like having the descriptive words from a great author jump off the page. I knew from that lesson forward that whatever I choose to play, my notes must have dynamics or they will never jump off the strings and into the listener's ears. Wanda's bit of advice and insight has guided me through my entire live playing and studio career. Here is a solo I played on a Midland track (starts at 1:50). Please listen beyond the notes to hear how I used the dynamics to sell the idea of a solo.


The beginning layer of learning a riff, intro, or song whether "Copying or Composing" the notes should only be the first step into playing an idea. The next layer of "Copying" or "Composing" should be noticing dynamics: which notes are played softer and which notes are played harder by the player. And if it's your composition, then you must choose which notes are softer and harder or the composition sounds incomplete.


How many of us have watched musicians at the level of a Jeff Beck, Joe Pass, or Jimmy Page play and then hear someone copy the performance? Many copying musicians have the notes down, but something is missing. We may have said to ourselves or heard this statement, "That's great but why does it not move us in the same way as the originator?'. It's the exact same notes...the only difference is in the Dynamic Nuance skills. From Mooney to Byrd, from Drake to Buddy, they all learned the importance of mastering this insight..

We have to train ourselves into listening deeper instead of just learning the notes and moving on. The notes are the outside layer of an onion, the greatness in performing masterfully is always found within the inside layers.

Mooney, Buddy, Lloyd, and those who initially composed the steel guitarist's vocabulary have this lesson down. Listen to these examples to hear for yourself.

Ralph Mooney: Above and Beyond

Buddy Emmons: Kicks To Boot

Lloyd Green: Venus Moon


Basically, I advise placing more focus on how the notes volumes vary within your performance and try to break the habit of accepting that copying or composing the notes as being all there is to learn. Phrasing, Dynamics, Volume Pedal, Vibrato, Squeezing Pedals, Playing Behind or On Top Of The Beat, should all be explored. Do this over a period of time and it becomes internalized. As we train ourselves to do this, we eventually start to hear music this way and our playing will showcase all of these basic nuanced skills. Applying these basic skills will catapult a player into the stratosphere of emotional and expressive musicianship.

Nuance is the gold!

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