Composing a guitar solo may sound intimidating at first. In this lesson on how to improvise a guitar solo and this one on how to plan it, I give you a step-by-step approach to writing your first guitar solos.
If you have no clue on how to write a guitar solo I suggest you go through both those lessons and learn how to both improvise and plan a guitar solo.
In this lesson, I’m going to give you a set of guitar soloing tips that will make your journey to writing great guitar solos faster and more enjoyable.
1. Make use of long notes and silence
The biggest weakness in the solos of students who are beginners in guitar soloing is usually not in the notes they play, but in the ones they don’t.
When I tell a student to try to compose a solo for the first time, it usually sounds something like this:
This reminds me of my own first guitar solos, all of which sounded similar to this example.
There is more than one thing that makes the above style of guitar soloing not really exciting for the listener, but the main flaw is that there is no point at which the solo breathes.
You achieve that through either long notes, or silence (rests).
In the following short solo example, I’ll use the same ideas from the one above but you’ll notice that now it’s much more interesting thanks to different rhythmic elements rather than just short notes played in succession.
2. Use phrasing techniques at your disposal
One of the most beautiful things about the guitar is that there is more than one way to play the same note.
If you look at the examples above you will notice that in the second example, the one where I use long notes and rests, there is a squiggly line over some of the notes and that those notes sound a bit, shall we say, nicer than the others.
That squiggly line indicates the phrasing technique called vibrato where the note is bent slightly and brought back to its default position rapidly, for a number of times in succession. Which is what makes the note sound different.
String bending is another phrasing technique. When using this technique, instead of picking two notes in succession (ex. a), you only pick the first note and then bend the string up until it reaches the sound of the second note (ex. b).
Hammer ons, pull offs, slides, string bending and vibrato are among the most common phrasing techniques you should be using in your solos.
There are also more advanced techniques like pinch harmonics, trills, tapping and sweep picking however it’s much more important to master the basic techniques and be able to use them with complete ease in your solos than learn the difficult stuff.
3. Take care of unwanted string noise
Some guitar solos played by beginners in soloing would sound pretty good, if there wasn’t unwanted noise coming from the strings that are not being played.
While this isn’t much of a problem if you’re playing the guitar clean, most solos usually have different extents of overdrive or distortion. This makes it important to develop both left-hand and right-hand muting techniques to cut the noise out.
Note: Right-hand muting is not to be confused with palm muting technique where the sound of the notes it is applied to changes. Here you need to deaden the unwanted sound entirely.
4. Steal and modify
You’ve probably heard that you should steal from other guitar players (or even players of other instruments)
Now, this doesn’t mean you can copy your favorite guitar player’s solo, change a note here and there, and call it your own. It violates copyright law, and you’re only fooling yourself if you think you’re the composer.
What you can steal though is components from those solos that you can then integrate into your own original compositions.
These are some things you can steal without breaking any law:
- A rhythmic pattern
- A short motif (but be careful to apply it in different ways than the original)
- The particular use of a phrasing technique (ex vibrato, string bending)
- The general style of the solo
- The way consonance and dissonance are being used.
If you steal one of these individual components and use it to trigger ideas and then create your own stuff, you’ll be doing nothing else than what the great guitarists have done before you, whether consciously or not.
5. Listen to and learn solos outside your favourite genre/s
If you play Heavy Metal and refuse to listen to and learn Blues solos, you’re missing out a lot in the art of soloing on the guitar.
Whatever your favorite genre/s is, make it a point to listen to great guitarists in other genres which will increase your vocabulary of techniques and ideas as well as help you come up with something completely original when you mix those ideas with solos in your favorite genres.
For instance, though I’m not that much into Funk music, the solo to Maggot Brain by Funkadelic is one of my favorite guitar solos ever and has definitely influenced my playing.
6. Steal from singers too
In order to write great guitar solos, you need to listen to the great guitarists soloing, but don’t stop there.
Also, learn your favorite singer’s melodies and try to imitate them as best as you can by using phrasing techniques (string bending and vibrato are great at making the guitar sound like a human voice).
This will help you be more expressive on the guitar as well as see things from a different perspective since the singer is not using the same scale patterns you’re using on the guitar.
7. Use scales and arpeggios, but…
Simply put, scales show you where to go while arpeggios show you which notes you should emphasize.
However, keep in mind that there’s no such thing as a wrong note. You may, for instance, be playing a solo using the scale of A minor, but somewhere in the solo, there’s a C# which is not in the scale.
Now, the C# is going to sound dissonant but what really matters is not the note itself but its resolution.
If you resolve that C# into a C the correct way, it may make your guitar solo even more melodic since the interplay between consonance and dissonance is one of the most important aspects of creating catchy melodies.
Think more of scales and arpeggios as guidelines than rules and let your ear judge what is right and what is wrong.
If it sounds right, it is right.
8. Jam with other musicians
Practicing how to improvise or compose guitar solos on your own is very important.
However, it’s also important that you play with other musicians.
There are many reasons for this including the fact that it’s fun and that you gain from their own experience and ideas.
But there’s another reason.
Sometimes playing with other musicians can also be a reality check that you’re doing something wrong.
For instance, once I was jamming with a bassist with the belief that what I was playing was great.
Which I was – if I was playing on my own.
The problem was that I was used to practicing my solos alone with a drum machine and except for the beat, I didn’t care about anything else.
When playing with this bassist he (not me, I wouldn’t have realized) pointed out that I wasn’t listening to him at all. I was playing as if I was practicing the guitar with a drum machine with complete disregard to whether what I was playing sounds well with his bass lines or not.
From that day, I’ve learned to listen carefully to the bass lines, chord progressions and rhythm the other musicians were playing and my guitar solos improved significantly.
9. Don’t just play guitar solos, become a complete guitarist.
Some people make a distinction between a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist.
For instance in the band AC/DC the roles are quite clear. Guitarist Malcolm Young usually provides the chords and the riffs while his brother Angus plays most of the guitar licks and the solos.
In other bands, such as Black Sabbath, guitarist Tony Iommi takes both roles.
However, this doesn’t mean that a rhythm guitar player can’t play solos. And neither does it mean a lead guitar player cannot provide the harmony of the music.
In fact, Malcolm Young does play solos at times, while Angus does provide harmony at other times.
You may want to specialize in lead guitar soloing, and that’s fine, but make sure it’s not the only thing you can do on the guitar.
10. Improvise for a long period of time
Do all your guitar improvisations sound the same?
There are many reasons for this and different ways to get of the rut.
One of them is that you don’t just pick up the guitar and improvise for 2 minutes or less but at times have improvisations that last 10 minutes or more.
The reason for this is that after a while your brain will get tired of repeating the same stuff over and over again and after some time it will start seeking new ways to make the improvisation more creative and interesting.
Conclusion: Self expression
I hope that that you find these guitar solo tips helpful and that they lead you to write better solos.
The last point I would like to mention is that you shouldn’t play guitar solos just to impress others, but even more to express yourself.
If you listen to guitar players like Eddie Van Halen or Yngwie Malmsteen you’ll hear a lot of stuff that seems impossible for you to play
If you can shred like Yngwie, it’s unlikely you’ll be reading this article. You’ll be writing it!
However, not being able to do such fast and complex stuff should not deter you from soloing since the main goal of a solo is to express your emotions rather than show others how many skills you have on the guitar.
While advanced guitar skills like those acquired by Van Halen and Malmsteen give you even more opportunities to express yourself, it is still possible to do so without them.
In fact, few guitar players are as proficient on the instrument as the two virtuosos mentioned above, yet there are many guitarists who can express themselves in a guitar solo with complete ease.
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