Make Your Guitar Sing - Use Articulation

Weekly Newsletter #60

September 30, 2022

Want an easy way to make your guitar sing? 

Well, then stop hitting every note dead in the center! 

What do I mean? If you listen to singers, horn players or really great guitarists, the way they approach their target notes will change depending on the phrase. 

Some will slide in from below, others will cascade down several notes from above. 

Today I’ll show you three types of articulation that will allow you to improvise more melodically and phrase more like a singer. 

Follow along in this VIDEO & TAB as you read. 

What Is Articulation? 

The easiest way to think about articulation is to consider it as a stylistic way of attacking a note. 

Essentially, you can hit any note on your guitar in the center by simply placing your finger on it and plucking. 

But attacking that note from above or below is what so many great guitarists do and is how they can create that “singing” and “crying” effect in their solos. 

Examples of articulation include slurs (hammer ons and pull offs), slides and bends. 

If you’re doing a hammer on it is the second note of the hammer on that is your target note, not the first. 

The same is true with a pull off or slide. 

It’s important to keep this concept in mind, because even though the first note is played first (obviously) you must have the second note in your mind as your target while you’re improvising. 

This allows you to approach that second note using articulation. 

Thinking Of Articulation 

If you’re used to simply moving up and down scales with the occasional hammer on or pull off while you solo, this will be a challenge for you. 

But challenges are good! They help us progress as players. 

Learning to hear the articulation before it happens is what allows you to execute it in real-time as you improvise. 

In order to hear it prior to it occurring, two things need to happen. 

1) You must be confident in your ability to adapt to your current position on the fretboard. 

For example, if you only play the A minor pentatonic (5th fret position) using your index finger on the 5th fret, then you may have trouble visualizing your options for articulation. 

Boxing yourself into the thought that index finger = 5th fret is how you begin to stagnate as player. 

Doing this almost guarantees that your next note will be your ring finger on the 7th fret of the scale. 

Now that’s not always bad, but it truly limits your ability to see the potential for a descending slide using your index finger, for example, into the 5th fret. 

The point here, is that you must be equally comfortable playing the pattern of your scale with any finger combination and seeing it as simply a set of locations on the fretboard which can be attacked using whatever finger is available at the moment. 

The note should dictate the finger, not the other way around! 

2) The second thing you must be familiar with is the sound of the articulations as they relate to the target note. 

If you’re a decent improviser than you can likely hear what certain scale patterns and common lick ideas sound like before they happen. 

You must also incorporate articulation into what you can hear. 

Hearing a common blues lick, for example, is probably easy for many players, but hearing all the possible ways the target notes can be attacked is the next great challenge. 

In order to become familiar with this, so that it’s applicable while you’re improvising, try to practice scale patterns using one form of articulation while ascending and another while descending. 

Then switch them. 

For example, if you’re playing a C major scale, you can ascend using hammer ons and descend using pull offs. 

Notice that the fingering must change in order to use the various articulations? 

Take this concept farther by mixing the articulation in a pre-planned manner. 

The first note is a hammer on, the second a pull off, third a hammer on etc. Be creative and try mixing the various forms of articulation as you practice your scales and you’ll begin to see that the articulation will dictate how you finger the scale, which will definitely break you out of the box you’ve built for yourself. 

Improvising With Articulation 

When it comes to putting it all together so you can solo and improvise freely, you must have first built in the abilities listed above. 

But once you can, it’s critical that you take standard licks that you play and try to figure out ways of attacking the notes using slurs or slides from either above or below. 

Check out this example of a lick without any articulation, and then with articulation. 

The second version creates a much more musical way of playing this simple C major pentatonic lick. 

It can certainly be made more musical by varying the articulation. 

As you can see there are only hammer on notes that are being used, but by including pull offs and slides you’d be able to take this relatively boring, standard lick and create something very musical. 

One of the very most important elements in varying the articulation you use is the change of direction that comes with the different articulations. 

What creates a satisfying phrase is a mixture of predictability and unpredictability. 

A common musical phrase like the one above is very predictable, and to an extent, so is the version with hammer on articulations. 

This is because every note is hammered on from below. 

But by mixing pull offs and slides into that same lick, the constant direction change in how you attack the target notes will create a level of unpredictability that the listener will always find appealing. 

In order to truly master this style of attacking notes, it’s best to be able to hear your way around a phrase using articulations from all directions and mix them together in real-time. 

That’s easier said than done, but I assure you it’s possible. 

Take time to reinvigorate your current licks by using articulations that change direction and begin working them into your solos. 

Keep trying to change the articulations within the same lick so that you don’t get into the rut of playing an old lick in the same, new articulated way every time. 

Staying spontaneous is the key to making this playing style sound appealing and believable. 

-Max Rich