Guitar solos today are often little more than little “fills”, short segments of quick licks that lead right back into the bridge or chorus of a song.
This type of solo requires little thought, and isn’t hard to construct.
One of the reasons this happens is because a lot of guitar players today aren’t confident with their lead playing abilities.
Another reason is that fans with pop sensibilities aren’t thought to be able to “handle” longer guitar solos. I have to disagree on this point.
80s pop music was full of guitar pyrotechnics, even in songs where the focus wasn’t necessarily on the guitar.
Regardless, the basic building blocks of a good guitar solo aren’t hard to dissect. Here are the tips you need to know.
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Learn To Express Yourself With Your Guitar Solo
A guitar solo expresses the personality, technical ability, and musical sensibilities of the player. Every player has idiosyncrasies that come out in their playing, regardless of how much they might try to hide them.
This is an important point – you shouldn’t be trying to copy anyone else. You should be looking to show off your quirks and unique tendencies in your solos.
Developing your own style can take time, and that’s another topic for another time, but don’t be afraid to be yourself!
Build Into Your Solo Guitar Performance Or Shock Them Upfront
What makes Angus Young’s solo in “You Shook Me All Night Long” great? Is it his technical proficiency on his instrument? Is it the flashiness of his demeanor? Is it his tone?
It may very well be all of those things, but I would argue that it has a lot to do with his ability to build and accentuate the dynamics of the song. The solo begins with a long bend that says “I’m here”, but doesn’t say, “I’m in your face.” He plays a few slower licks and gradually builds into faster ones, working his way up the neck into higher notes. This is a great way to construct a solo.
The reverse can also work. Take a listen to “Warheads” by Extreme. Guitarist Nuno Bettencourt doesn’t wait around to pull out the speed licks. He fires off the solo with rapid sextuplets, and then goes into a melodic break before finishing off with a cool hammer-and-pull lick.
Both solos are great in their own right, and fit the musical situation to a T (this is always important). You need to be sensitive to the situation. Young plays a solo that matches the energy and simplicity of the song, while Bettencourt plays a solo that blows the song apart and brings it to a new place. Both approaches are perfectly valid.
Create Interest In The Guitar Solo You’ve Written
There’s nothing wrong with sticking to the “safe” notes in music when you’re writing a solo. But I think most guitarists tend to play it too safe.
If other musicians are already playing “outside” notes throughout the song, you don’t necessarily need to assert yourself with a lot of chromatic licks and accidentals too. But nothing is more boring than listening to music that’s exactly what the listener expects.
There are a lot of ways to create interest in your solos, and note choice is just one of them. You can use various techniques, like slides, bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and others to break up the flow and accent different parts.
Marty Friedman is one of the most adept players I know when it comes to creating interest. He uses exotic scales, bends into consonant notes from dissonant ones, and isn’t afraid to bring the song to a new place if that’s what the solo calls for.
Again, you don’t have to go so far outside the box that your audience isn’t even sure what you’re doing any more. Just don’t be afraid of taking some risks.
Notes Are All You Have – Use Them Well
Once you’ve heard one Yngwie Malmsteen solo, you’ve heard a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong – he is an incredible player, and he is exceptional at swept arpeggios.
But there’s a reason why you start to get bored listening to him after a couple of songs. It’s a lot of the same stuff just applied to different key signatures (and sometimes not even that!).
Most scales don’t contain more than seven notes, and some of them only have five. Even if you’re particularly adventurous and you want to use all of the available notes in music, you’re still left with 12.
A good soloist chooses their notes well. They don’t let their solo get lost in a rapid assault of indistinguishable notes, because they’re looking at the bigger picture of what the song calls for and how to formulate their solo around it.
In the realm of note economy, you can overplay, and you can overuse particular techniques, effects, or licks.
Use space to your advantage, repeat parts you want to stand out, and know when to go full-on shred.
We’ve covered a lot of points, so let me summarize here:
- Express yourself. Don’t fear your idiosyncrasies. Instead, use them to your advantage.
- Develop your own style. When you expose yourself to a lot of different guitar players, you’ll begin to absorb different styles and be able to create your own style out of your various influences.
- Build. Listen to the music. What is the band doing? Are they building or pulling back? Respond to the dynamics in the music.
- Surprise. Surprise the audience in some way. Use an effect. Break out a slide. Use a flashy technique. Add some speed.
- Take the song to a new place. Many memorable solos don’t just complement the song – they actually bring it to a new place entirely. See if there’s an opportunity to take the music somewhere special.
- Create interest. Choose your notes carefully. Make use of “outside” notes where appropriate. Use various techniques or effects to break up the solo and create interest.
- Practice note economy. Don’t play fast just because you can, and don’t play slow just because you’re indignant. Again, listen to the music, play what’s appropriate based on the emotion of the song, and don’t shy away from using space to your advantage (i.e. you can have rests in your solo).