There are different ways you can go about composing a guitar solo.
What I’ll show you in this lesson is just one simple method you can use to compose your first planned guitar solo.
What do I mean by planning?
Starting to improvise on guitar is not hard. If you don’t have a clue how to improvise on guitar, click here, go through the entire lesson, then come back to this one.
It’s very important that you do this because in this lesson I’m going to assume you have a very basic idea of how guitar scales can be used to improvise solos.
The main difference between an improvised guitar solo and a planned guitar solo is that the improvised solo is made on the spot while a planned solo is carefully planned beforehand.
While the second might sound easier, what usually does make composing a planned guitar solo more difficult than improvisation is the fact that most of the time a planned solo is intended to be played note for note on either a recording or in a performance.
Thus, a higher level of accuracy is expected.
I improvise my guitar solos when I’m jamming around with friends, but when I hit the studio, the solo is carefully planned note for note.
For instance, I did not make the guitar solos in this song on the spot, but they were carefully planned months before the song was recorded.
And this is what I’ll be showing you here. How to write your first planned guitar solo, that’s not a mumbo jumbo of cool licks thrown together, (licks serve a different purpose than a guitar solo) but a piece of music that has a beginning and an end, is carefully phrased and congruent with the music backing it.
The first guitar solo you’re going to compose is going to be as short as an 8 bar melody but if you want to play longer solos, all you have to do is replicate the same process we’ll be going through for more bars of music.
Before you start writing your first guitar solo, I want you to learn well an example 8 bar guitar solo that I’ll be using as a model example in this lesson.
Example guitar solo:
Now that you know how to play this guitar solo, let’s get straight into the process of writing one yourself.
1. Determine the key
The reason you need to determine what key you are in is that this will determine what scale you will choose to play your guitar solo in.
For this to be possible you need to listen to the music that’s backing you.
It’s true that during the guitar solo it’s your time to shine, but this doesn’t mean you can ignore the rest of the music and play for yourself.
Apart from being in time, you also need to play in the right key and the guitar or bass riff, that will back your solo gives you clues as to what key the music is played in.
In the backing riff of the solo in the example above (and which you’ll use, further on, as a backing riff to your first guitar solo, we’ll be using only power chords which make life easier since it’s up to us to choose whether we’re going to play in a major or a minor key. (Click on the link in this paragraph to understand the music theory behind power chords, and what makes them easier to fit in.)
The only chords being used are A5 and E5, (the 5 following the chord name means that it’s a power chord) thus I’m going to choose to play my solo in the key of A minor.
This is the backing riff for the guitar solo you’ve learned above:
If you’re playing to backing music composed by someone else, and don’t yet understand what keys are, simply ask the composer what key the song is in.
If you’re writing the backing guitar riff yourself, make sure you’re writing in a specific key, and use the right chord progressions that your solo will be played along to.
This article on how notes, intervals, scales, and chords interact with each other will also help you to either write in a key or find the key for yourself when someone else has written the music.
Note: Music theory is not a set of rules but paths other great musicians have used before us that we can replicate. This means that many Rock or Pop musicians don’t follow the “rules” all the time.
If you try to analyze the chord progression of a song, you may find chords that do not seem to belong to any chord progression.
Don’t let that scare you. Great musicians love wandering their own paths, some of which may end up replicated by many others and become new “rules”.
But if you’re starting out composing a guitar solo, or the riff/chord progression backing it, stick to the guidelines. It will make life easier.
For the guitar solo you’re going to create by the end of this lesson (along with the provided backing track above – instead of my solo) you’re going to use notes from the A minor pentatonic scale.
There are different kinds of minor scales you can use but since this is your first planned guitar solo, we’ll stick to the simplest of all: The A minor pentatonic.
2. Come up with 5 motifs
Listen carefully to the first bar of the guitar solo we’re working on.
Now listen to the solo in its entirety.
Did you notice you kept hearing the last two notes of the first bar in a different form all-over the guitar solo?
There’s a reason for this.
The first bar forms a motif, that is the shortest rhythmic or melodic (or, as in this case, both) musical idea that will keep repeating itself in different variations during the guitar solo.
The reason why in music motifs usually get repeated in different forms and variations in different places is that our ear loves hearing something it has already heard, thus, it can connect to.
Yet, we would get bored hearing the same thing over and over again. Thus, the same motif is repeated with changes to either the rhythm or to pitch of the notes.
If you really want to understand this concept of motif and variation listen to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. The first four notes are the motif that keeps getting repeated throughout the symphony.
Yet, when Beethoven applied his wizardry, that is play around with the motif creatively, not only doesn’t repetition sound boring to the ear, but can even get kind of addictive.
For now, I suggest you come up with at least 5 different motifs, these very short melodic musical ideas of just a few notes and either transcribe them or record them.
For the purpose of this exercise make each of your motifs one bar long. This is by no means a rule and a motif can be shorter or longer than a bar. We’re just keeping things systematic so that you find it easier to write your first guitar solo.
I would suggest that you start your motif from exactly the same note I did in the example solo (the note A on the 7th fret of the D string) but from then on, don’t try to copy mine.
Come up with five different melodic snippets you can call your own!
Here are two sample motifs to give you an idea.
Motif example 1:
Motif example 2:
3. Choose your favorite motif and write the next bar of your guitar solo.
The reason I asked you to write 5 different motifs is to get your mind thinking creatively as well as have the luxury of choice in choosing the one you’re going to build your guitar solo on.
Choose one of the motifs, and also start thinking of ideas on how to tweak it and turn it around to create different variations of it.
Go back to the example guitar solo and listen carefully to the first two bars
Did you notice that the last two notes of the second bar are exactly the same as the last two notes in the first bar?
That’s because I’m using the same motif again, but change both the rhythm and the notes in the first half of the bar.
When you write the second bar of your solo you can either:
- Repeat the same motif in a different variation
- Come up with a new motif that answers the first
- A combination of both.
Experiment a bit with playing your motif (first bar) and “replying” to it in the second.
As an example, this is what I would write as a second bar to motif no 2 in the examples given above.
Motif example 2 + answering motif
4. Write bars 3 and 4
If you refer to the example guitar solo again, you will notice that the first two bars together form a short phrase and that the following two bars kind of answer them, using melodic alterations to the original motif in the last two notes of each,
Use the same concept you applied to write Bar 2, answering Bar 1, with Bars 3 and 4 answering the first two bars.
As an example, I’ll be using the same motif example we used in the step above and add two other bars to it.
Motif example 2 + the three following bars.
5. Consider the chord change
Up to an extent, this step is optional.
The A minor pentatonic includes notes that sound well with both the power chords of A and that of E.
Thus, when you’re writing your solo you can keep writing using whatever notes you want as long as they come from the A minor pentatonic.
The reason I suggest you at least notice there is a chord change – and that in a way this influenced the example solo (bar 5, where the chord change occurs, starts from the note E) – because as you progress with your soloing as well as play over major and minor triads chord changes will start getting more importance.
At this point, just notice that they’re something that shouldn’t be ignored, when you hear solos over different chord changes, but still play this example solo in the A minor pentatonic in it’s entirety.
6. Repeat step 4 for the next four bars.
In the same way you answered Bar 1 with Bar 2 and Bars 1 & 2 with Bars 3 & 4, you can do so with the next four bars (or more if you want your guitar solo to be longer).
One thing I would like to point is that at this point (or even before, actually in any place in your solo as long as it makes musical sense) you can introduce new motifs that blend in with the first one.
A guitar solo can have just one motif that is played around with creatively all the time, but most of the time, it has more.
As an example of how to do this, I will finish Motif example 2 we’ve been working on in the past steps and introduce a new motif in the last four bars.
In Bar 5 I introduce a new motif (the one with the string bending) but still return to the original motif in the last two bars.
Motif example 2 developed into a full 8 bar guitar solo:
7. Play your guitar solo with the harmony (backing riff)
Now that you’ve written your entire 8 bar solo, all you need to do is to check if it fits the harmony – the backing track.
Go back to step 1 and play your solo with the backing riff provided.
PS: I know my riff is dead boring and guitar riffs in real life are rarely that way. But this being your first planned guitar solo I stripped it down to the very basics so that all your emphasis can be on your solo rather than worrying about harmony.
Conclusion: You don’t have to go through all this every-time you write a guitar solo.
Do I go through all this process every-time I write a guitar solo?
If I had to do that, it would hurt my creativity since I would be thinking more in terms of how many motifs I’m going to use and where to put them rather than creating beautiful melodies.
This lesson is just a process you can go through only the first few times, and what I really want you to get from it – apart from understanding the concept of motif and variation – is that you can’t write a solo by throwing in a number of guitar licks at random, even if you’re using the right key and are playing at the right time.
After a few times, the concept of the motif and its development will get ingrained in you and your guitar solos will start following more logic.
The last thing I would suggest if you’re into improving your guitar soloing skills is to learn basic music theory – namely intervals, scales, chords, chord progressions and how all these relate to each other.
This will not only help you understand what’s going on but shows you the palette of options you have every time you want to create music on your instrument.
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