Guitar solos often sound really impressive. But there's no need to be intimidated. Playing single notes can actually be easier than playing chords and riffs.
For example, Kurt Cobain isn't considered the most skilled guitarist in the world. He was certainly able to express himself in the way he wanted to, but didn't necessarily aspire to extreme technical proficiency. Despite that, he still played solos.
So let's talk about how to play a guitar solo, even if you're a beginner.
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Beginners Guitar Soloists, Keep It Simple
Even a beginner solo guitarist can come off sounding like a pro if they stop themselves from getting too ambitious.
Sure, Eddie Van Halen can pull off two-handed tapping, whammy diving, and tapped harmonics all on a moment's notice, but he's been doing that for decades.
So don't think in terms of technique, because there's only so much you're going to be able to pull off. Think in terms of note choice, how the solo sounds in context of the music, and what's called for in the moment.
Some of that comes through intuition and experience, but don't let a lack of experience stop you from expressing your ideas.
Keep Your Guitar Solo Short
You don't want to leave a lot of room for “noodling”, because you will ultimately come off sounding amateurish.
Work with your band and ask for a four to eight bar spot. It's not hard to keep interest for shorter spurts, and the pressure is off in terms of coming up with a lot of unique licks if you don't have to fill longer spots.
You can still make a statement and make your presence known in that amount of time. But ultimately, a guitar solo should complement the musical situation, regardless of whether or not you draw any attention to yourself.
Use The Right Effects In Your Solo Performance
Beginners have a tendency to: a) not use any effects at all, or b) dial in extreme settings with their effects and pedals.
Both scenarios will probably work against you. And don't get me wrong – dialing in the right tone can be hard to do without a lot of experience.
Here are a few tips in terms of what to do. Use the following effects:
- Distortion. For punk, blues and rock music, this is pretty much a given. Don't turn the “drive” to 10. Set it between four and six, and boost your mids. Go easy on the lows and highs, and don't cut out any given frequency.
- Delay. Give yourself a nice slap-back delay, or if you're only playing a few drawn-out notes, dial in a longer delay (i.e. increase “feedback”). This adds a nice atmospheric quality to your solos. Be tasteful with your settings.
- Modulation. This is optional, but a Flanger or Phaser can add a “swooping” quality to your tone and make your solo cut. Again, avoid extreme settings with your effects.
Use Repeating Patterns
Now let's talk about note choice.
This will vary somewhat depending on the key signature you're playing in. If you don't really understand that concept, do your best to use your ear. I will do my best to provide you with solo ideas that will work in different situations.
One of the easiest ways to play through a four or eight bar figure is to use repeating patterns. Interestingly enough, you don't necessarily need more than three or four notes to play a solo, and B.B. King was famous for his soulful, monotonic solos.
To start things off, I'd like to show you an example in E major. So you could play something like this over a “happier” sounding progression.
The solo starts on the root note (in other words E), and adds a bit of melodic interest in the second and fourth bars. If you can slide into the E (just from a fret below is fine) in the first and third measures, it will add a bit of interest to the entire thing, but don't try to pull off what you can't do.
Now let's try something in E minor (a “sad” or “dark” sounding solo). Not much is changing here except for the notes.
By the way, both examples I've gone through so far use a lot of eighth notes, but if you find you can't keep up with the tempo of the music you're soloing over, don't worry about playing so many notes.
Let's go through one more exercise. This one is also in the key of E, but something you could use in a blues song (it works over a minor progression too).
By using repetitive figures and adding a little bit of flavor, you can play through a short section of music pretty effectively.
One final tip: if you are playing a solo in F major, for example, you could move the entirety of the first example up a fret (i.e. five would become six, zero would become one, etc.).
Use Your Ear
Don't be a slave to scales. If you feel confident about an “outside” note choice, then go with it.
Early in my music career, I improvised a lot. I once played a solo to “All Along The Watchtower” at summer camp that left onlookers in complete awe and silence. I actually thought I did so horribly that they weren't even paying attention!
My note choices weren't all within the comfort zone of the appropriate scale. But they must have worked well enough to capture the audience.
You don't have to be 100% right to be 100% effective. You could even say that “outside” notes add a lot of flavor to your soloing.
If there's anything I would add, it would be that you should learn the good ol' pentatonic box pattern. There are five patterns in total, so once you feel comfortable with one, start learning additional patterns.
The pentatonic scale is far more versatile than it appears, and it's easy to find a “zone” for comfortable soloing. Plus, if you know where to add a couple of notes, you can easily turn it into the major or minor scale.
When you're ready, familiarize yourself with key signatures. You must be able to switch on the fly if you eventually want to be able to play at a pro level.