Articles Intermediate

You Don’t Need to Play Fast To Improvise Good Guitar Solos

Many a time I have students who have the ability to at least start to improvise guitar solos, good solos if they commit to practicing the art of improvisation for a while, but they’re afraid that it’s not within their reach because they think they can’t play fast enough, that they can’t “shred”, and that they can only play solos when they learn that, or, if not exactly shred, play notes very fast.

I can hardly blame them because I used to hold that belief myself. For a long while, I was spending a lot of my practice time focusing on speed, assuming that once I could play fast, then I can automatically play “real” solos.

I did learn how to play pretty fast, but the magic just didn’t happen when I did. My guitar solos were a succession of fast notes with bent strings thrown in the middle and lacked not only passion, but also any sense of real melody.

The bent strings hit the right notes, but were thrown in the middle of a flurry of semiquaver notes in a nearly random fashion.

I was thinking in term of quantity of notes and techniques, rather than how to use them creatively to form musical phrases.

In hindsight I realize that I was making a mistake in the order of which I was learning things. I should have been focusing on learning how to create good solos first, and learn how to play fast, later.

Why?

Because three notes played with enough passion are enough to make heads turn!

If you pay attention to your favorite guitar player’s solos, you will notice that in most cases, they either:

  1. Don’t have any fast parts in their solos
  2. Have the fast parts placed somewhere strategically, but most of the solos is actually somewhere between slow, and moderately fast.

[Note: The above does not apply if your favorite music is virtuoso guitar playing such as Neo-Classical Heavy Metal where the ability to play fast is mandatory. However, even if you love that music, speed still comes last. Yngwie Malmsteen can play a trillion notes in a minute, but you will also find mastery in every other aspect of his playing – his vibrato, his bends, his extensive knowledge of scales and chords, and the ability to apply them creatively, his dynamics – the list is endless. And it would be a huge underestimation of Malmsteen and other virtuoso guitar players to think they can just play very fast. They can do a lot more than that!]

As an example to explain how solos can be fast in only a few places, I will be using my own solos from the last song I recorded with my band Blue Sky Abyss. The song, Mind Is A Hurricane, has a lot of guitar licks and solos, all of which I play myself, thus I can reveal the thinking process behind their creation.

You will notice that during the solos, I play slow most of the time but at certain points, I play some very fast stuff.

As you listen to the licks and solos in Mind Is A Hurricane, I want you to pay attention to how frequently I play fast, how frequently I play slow, and the relationship between the two.

When you come back, I will explain the logic behind where I play slow and where I go fast during the licks and solos of the song.

As you can see, for most of the time, the guitar solo parts are using longer notes, made interesting through applying techniques like string bending and vibrato.

A few phrases however include a lot of rhythmic subdivisions, including semiquaver (sixteenth notes) triplets but the majority use longer notes like quavers, crotchets and minims.

Where do I play fast and why?

  1. I play the first few fast notes only after 2.00 minutes of the song, during the bridge. I will play fast notes again in subsequent bridges and the main reason for this is that during the bridge of this song a lot of musical activity is going on, and I thought that throwing in some short notes would add to the intensity of the music.

Also, I liked the contrast with the slow introduction of the song.

The song, written by my co-songwriter Daniel Barta is about how our minds can drift from one place to another with us losing control of the situation.

At first I’m using long notes with warm vibrato, depicting the serenity, until the mind starts wandering away thinking about a million things, intensity – and that calls for fast notes!

2. Creating intensity before end of solo.

If you listen to the solo that starts at 4.27 you’ll see that except for the occasional pull off, the very short notes only come at the end of the solo. The reason for this is that I wanted to create a climax through a flurry of notes that will end the solo.

 

While I hope that you did like my solos in Mind Is A Hurricane, even if you didn’t, just assume, for the purpose of the coming explanation, that you did!

Would you still have liked those guitar solos if, instead of the fast notes, I just continued with normally paced notes?

Probably the answer would be yes. The fast notes add to the intensity in certain parts of the solo, especially at the end, but they’re definitely not everything.

Now, imagine those same solos, with the fast notes played as fast but without the string bending and vibrato – The entire solo would lose its life and meaning!

Good phrasing, especially through using techniques like string bending and vibrato if you’re playing Rock or Blues solos, is what makes the difference between a good and a mediocre solo, not how fast the notes are played.

The following lick, is just one of an infinite number of ways you can make up good music without playing fast.

Learn this lick and focus on getting the string bending and the vibrato right.

As you can see, there is no tempo marking on the lick, since you can play it at any speed you want.

You will be able to play this lick even if you can’t play fast at all, since you can set the tempo as low as you want and the lick will not only sound good, but probably sound even better since you can spend more time on the notes with vibrato applied to them.

It is important to note that though techniques like string bending and vibrato do not involve playing a lot of notes in a short time, they are not easy and take time to master.

Good string bending goes way beyond pushing up a string to somewhere random. It needs to hit exactly the intended note and you need to have control over the speed and duration of the bend, to mention a few things. Likewise, with vibrato.

This means that if you play this lick (or some variation of it, or another lick) and it just doesn’t sound right, you need to focus on these factors until they are perfect.

Once you’ve got your phrasing techniques right and can play fluently around a few scales, then you may choose to opt for increasing your speed to have the ability to pay fast added to your bag of tricks.

The good news is that if you learn how to play slow licks and solos correctly, learning to play fast will be pretty easy since will you already have the necessary things in place. The only thing left would be playing the same musical items you already know at a faster tempo.


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