How to Play Fast & Difficult Jazz Guitar Phrases

You probably feel that you get confronted with your technical limitations very often. I think we all do, which of course is also only a testament to the fact that we always try to take things to the limit of our abilities and expand that limit.

Playing fast phrases on guitar is difficult, and with bebop phrases this is even more difficult because the music contains very complicated lines and melodies in Jazz.

There are actually many ways to play fast phrases. I think this is sometimes a bit overlooked, and if you are aware of the options it can really solve a lot of problems in your playing. In this lesson I am going to discuss how you can use different kinds of technique to execute the first phrase of Donna Lee. What techniques work for you is something that only you can figure out, but you should be aware of them, so you can choose instead of banging your head against the wall in 

The Dreaded Donna Lee Theme with Alternate Picking

Donna Lee is one of the more busy bebop themes. It was originally credited to Charlie Parker, but I personally find it unlikely that he wrote it. Miles Davis is a more logical choice.

The main technique that I rely on is alternate picking and usually that is where I start when it comes to playing bebop themes like this.

Example 1 shows the first phrase of the theme:

The first place to start looking for a better way to play the theme is the embellishments, so the trills and the 16th note phrases in bars1 and 3.

Solving problems with legato technique

These are easier to execute and sound much more natural if you play them with legato.

Legato technique is probably the most common way to make it easier to play fast phrases. When I say legato in this context I am talking about hammer ons, pull offs and slides. So basically any technique that does not relying on striking the next note.

If we turn the two faster difficult phrases into something that we can loop it might look like this:

Legato Strategy for difficult lines

The way of finding a way to play phrases like this that I go over here is probably something you should end up getting to automatically. I rarely sit down and go over phrases with so much thought. It is as much about trying to hear the phrase on the instrument and then let your fingers translate what you hear into sound.

That said it can always be useful to check out some phrases and really think about ways to play them.

The idea here is to try to insert a pull off when transitioning from one string to the next. This will buy your right hand some time.

In example 3 I am doing this with by pulling off from the E to the Eb. This also helps phrasing since it gives the E an accent.

Legato Exercises

To practice mixing legato and picking you can do the exercises here below. The idea is to pick two notes in a 3 note per string scale.

Below is an ascending and descending set of scale exercises.

Slide – the forgotten legato technique

The next technique to add to the example is Slides. Using slides is something that is actually very common bu that is not taught very often.

A great place to use this is in bar 3 where it helps us get some time to move from the A string to the D string in the Dø arpeggio.

Economy Picking

Another way to make it easier for your right hand is to use economy picking. The Economy picking idea is that when possible you can move from one string to the next in one go by not alternate picking but sticking to one direction. 

In example 7 I have shown how to do this with the Donna Lee Theme.

Exercise for Economy Picking!

Below is an exercise demonstrating how to play an Ab major scale using Economy Picking. The idea is pretty simple, but take care with getting the timing right when you play it. Economy picking can very easily rush.

Moving the melody around

Sometimes you can solve a lot of problems by changing position while playing a phrase. This is really due to the fact that sometimes a part of a line like an arpeggio or a scale run can be difficult to do.

In the example belowthe F7 arpeggio in bar 2 is moved around so that the first note A is moved to the G string. In this case it actually makes the shift back a little tricky, but it does work.

Shifting to another place completely

One way to solve problems is of course also to play the theme in a different place on the neck. It is always a great exercise and in doing so you can also discover what is difficult or what might work better for the theme.

Below is the phrase written out starting on another string.

Find the solutions that work for you!

The key element here is for you to find ways of playing the phrases that work for you. A part of that process is of course to check out the techniques and realize what it available as I go over here, but you need to check out what works for you and also what works for others.

Check out how I play double time phrases in this solo

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