I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
The Art of the Guitar Solo
Guitar solos are a key ingredient in rock music, and as a guitarist, you need to know how to write one. But solos are more than just your chance to show off.
A strong solo moves the song in a new direction and can be as memorable as the chorus. Some guitarists rely on effects and trickery to assemble what we can loosely call a solo, but the legends know how to do right.
They call the great ones guitar heroes for a reason. They’re super talented, they know how to pull amazing sounds out of their guitars, and they write some incredible solos.
So how did these guys get so good? Is there some kind of Guitar God Super Gene they were lucky enough to inherit? Did they make a deal at a crossroads with a suspicious figure offering a dubious contract?
While there is certainly something to be said for natural musical aptitude, and frankly I'm not entirely willing to dismiss the crossroads theory, guitar players who know how to write great solos have one thing in common: They work hard at it.
We can learn a lot from them, and while we may never approach their brilliance we can certainly put in the work to get better.
For we mere mortals, writing a good guitar solo boils down to three things:
- Knowing your way around the fretboard. You need to understand the guitar and work to improve your ear and your technique.
- Knowing the music you are soloing over. The more familiar you are with it, the more creative you can get.
- Putting together notes until you end up with something good, or even great! Experiment, improvise and rewrite.
So how do you do all that? Read on!
Songwriting on Guitar
Many guitar players are the primary songwriters in their bands. If you're not yet adept at writing a decent song you may be putting the cart before the horse when it comes to solos. You may first want to spend some time learning how to write a song on the guitar.
Learning and Practicing Scales
If you want to write great solos as a lead guitarist, you need to know some basic scales. There are no two ways about it, and if you want to learn your way around the fretboard scales are the roadmap.
Learning the positions for the pentatonic minor, harmonic minor, natural minor, and major scales will help you a great deal in your lead playing. This is the bare minimum, and the more you know about different scales and how to use them the better you will be as a lead guitar player.
Don't worry that using scales will dictate what you play or rob you of your creativity. You’re still going to play the notes that sound good to you, but understanding scales helps you find those notes faster and easier. More importantly, by practicing these scales every day you are training your ear for certain tonal patterns.
Eventually, when you hear a piece of music, you won’t have to sit and figure out what notes to play over it. Your ear will be trained well enough that you’ll know where to find the correct notes on your fretboard.
Scales also help you to improve your fretting-hand technique. After you’ve established a regular practice schedule for working on scales, you will probably notice you’re getting around the fretboard easier than you used to, and everything feels a bit smoother.
Glenn Proudfoot: Working with the Pentatonic Scale
Writing Your Guitar Solo
If you play in a band it is usually the case that the backing rhythm guitar parts for your solo are written before the solo itself. If you wrote the song yourself you probably have some idea of what you hope to do in the solo spot.
As guitarists, we need to do our homework on our own time, outside of band practice. Your band rehearsal schedule is valuable, and you don't want to take up too much of the group's time working on your solos. But there are also ways that rehearsal time can help you write a better guitar solo.
We'll get to that in a minute. For now, here's a little advice on the basics of creating your solo. This is how I used to write all of my guitar solos when I played lead guitar in bands:
Firstly, you need to familiarize yourself with the backing track. This means you need a recording of the backing track you’re going to be playing over. As a guitar player, recording yourself is one of the best ways to evaluate your skills. In a band setting, it’s even a great idea to record your rehearsals.
Once you have the backing track, either something you recorded yourself or taken from a rehearsal session, you need to live with it for a while. You can listen to the music while you’re just bumming around the house or driving your car. You need to know the piece inside and out and let it seep into your mind.
Next, record yourself playing over the track when you’re practicing on your own and start writing your solo. You can see how knowing scales helps you here. You already have tonally logical patterns to experiment with. Now you can try to put them together into something that makes sense.
Play back the recording and evaluate your solo. What do you like or not? Which pieces of the solo should you keep or change? Keep recording yourself playing over the backing track, listening to what you’ve done, evaluating and making changes.
But there’s one final piece that I think is paramount to building a good solo, and that’s improvisation.
Don't waste band time!
Band practice time should be spent working on the overall sound of the band. Each member of the group needs to do their homework and show up prepared for rehearsal. As the lead guitar player, this means working on your solos on your own time.
How to Improvise on Guitar
You can show up to band rehearsal with a totally completed solo if you want, but you’d be missing out on a great creative opportunity.
Remember: You’re not going to waste rehearsal time working on your solo when you should be doing band stuff. You should be working on your solos on your own time, but there is something you can do when you’re with the band to help your solo writing: Try improvising during songs and (very important) record your rehearsals!
In other words, you're going to show up for rehearsal knowing what you want to place in the solo spot, but don't be afraid to improvise a little if the mood hits you. There’s a lot more emotion when playing with a live band than when you’re practicing alone in your house.
Some guitarists are so good at improvising that they skip the entire part where they write their solo at home and just show up at band practice and whip something out. Most of us are somewhere between needing to write everything beforehand and having some ability to completely improvise a solo. But, if you feel like you can improvise, go for it!
Without going off on a tangent, surely everyone agrees that the very best guitar players in the history of rock just had a second sense of the instrument. They can improvise notes in a solo as easily as some of us hum a tune. While we may never get to their level, we can get better by working on our improvisational skills.
Why take this step when you've already pretty much written the solo at home? Solos written note-for-note tend to sound robotic. Players who can improvise, and call upon all of their skills to express themselves, write solos that are energetic and soulful.
Don’t think you can do it? Try. You’ll get better every time. Work on your improvisational skills in rehearsal where you can, and even at home.
The reason you want to make sure you record your rehearsals is so you can go back and listen to what you've done and self-evaluate. When you suddenly whip out some jaw-dropping lead pattern you didn’t know you had in you, you want to have it recorded so you can remember what you did and work it into your solo permanently.
For newbies, even with the above advice, the process of finding the right notes and putting them together into something like a solo can seem like a mystery. Learning scales is a great start, but ultimately this is a matter of practice and knowing the guitar. One thing you can do to speed up the process is: learn a little about music theory.
Music theory can be thought of as the way music works. You know certain notes sound good together, and others don’t. Music theory tells you why. Understanding as much as you can about music theory and how it relates to the guitar can only make you a better musician.
Unfortunately, a lot of guitarists see music theory as something that will slow them down and cage them up. Those of us who learned without a teacher may figure we’ve gotten along just fine on our own to this point, why bother with theory? In fact, some of the best rock guitarists in history were self-taught and would never pass an exam on classical composition.
Good points all. But every great guitarist knows the notes of the fretboard and has a strong sense of how they work with different chords. These guys aren’t slapping notes together by chance. They know what they are doing, and even if they didn’t formally study music theory they’ve figured it out for themselves.
You can take the long road and figure it out for yourself, or you can study a little theory. The choice is yours.
Learn to improvise!
As a lead guitar player, you need to spend some time learning about music theory and practicing scales, but it is just as important that you learn to improvise solos. Even though theory can help you to better understand music, truly great songs and solos come from the heart, not the head.
Keep on Working!
This constant cycle of writing, evaluating and editing has always worked well for me. Eventually, you end up with a guitar solo you are happy with, and not some robotic-sounding thing you wrote in one sitting.
It’s also very important to realize that while you’re working through this process, you’re going to play some serious garbage. It’s like working your way through a maze: You’re going to bump into a bunch of walls before you end up where you want to be. Don’t let this discourage you, and your bandmates need to understand this as well.
Writing a guitar solo shouldn’t be a rushed process. Take your time and feel it out. Unless you are under a deadline in a studio situation, you can revise and rehash all you want. In fact, there are some professional players who never seem to play a solo the same way twice and don’t sound the same live as they do on their albums.
A guitar solo is the ultimate expression of a rock guitarist, and it’s worth taking the time to build a good one. Don’t be afraid to improvise, don't forget to record what you're doing, and think about trying the method of write, evaluate, edit before you settle on a finished piece. Good luck and I hope you found this helpful!
Hezekiah from Japan on November 05, 2013:
Good advise there. Can be applies to the piano / keyboard also.