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Soloing & Improvisation Tips

Guitar solos – whether learned, composed, or improvised – can be among the most fun and rewarding endeavors on the instrument.

From advanced rock’s virtuoso technical wizardry, to melodic minimalist simplicity, and along the whole spectrum of tasteful lead guitar phrasing in between, soloing and improvisation are arguably the most important parts of lead guitar playing.

Here are 5 tips on how to improve your soloing and improvisation. Enjoy!

1) Listen!

It all starts here. Whether you’re transcribing your favorite solo, or developing your aural skills to be a better improviser, it all starts with lots of listening.

Begin to listen more attentively and critically to some of your favorite lead guitar players. What are their trademarks? What’s their most common guitar tone and how do they achieve it? Which keys do they most commonly play in? Do their solos build gradually, or hit the ground running? Do they play fast or slow? Do they use lots of string bends? Is their vibrato a wide, modern rock vibrato? Or a gentle melodic bluesy vibrato?

This list of questions could go on almost indefinitely. What’s important is that you imbibe their approach and focus. Don’t stop listening to music freely and for enjoyment of course, but add an analytical angle on the lead guitar playing you hear to better inform your own soloing and improvisation choices.

2) Nail your technique

Soloing and improvisation are about freedom, creativity, and expression. So you don’t want your technique to be holding you back.

There is of course, only so much technical progress you can make in any given week, progress takes time. And there’s also a huge number of beautiful guitar solos played by guitarists with distinctly average technique. So it isn’t the be all and end all.

However, it’s important to be able to bend strings pain-free, and to the required notes, and to be confident with sliding and basic legato. All these seemingly little elements are often what gives lead guitar playing a smooth, professional fluidity that it would otherwise lack. So it’s not all about your ear and your emotions – don’t neglect your technique!

3) Create (and fill!) a ‘bag of licks’

A ‘lick’ is a general term for any phrase of lead guitar playing. A solo can generally be separated into ‘licks’ in the same way this article could be separated into sentences.

It’s important that over time you develop a ‘bag of licks’ – phrases you like, or use regularly, or can choose from when building a solo. 

You’ll notice when studying your favorite guitarists’ solos that they will often repeat phrases or similar ideas across many different recorded and live versions of songs. These are licks that they will particularly like, or turn to frequently if they serve a purpose (i.e. Simply put – A fast bit, a slow bit, a bit with a huge string bend, etc)

It’s important that you gradually build a similar arsenal to turn to when composing or improvising a solo.

4) Variety of practice

It’s not much good to be a brilliant improviser, but only in A minor, in a bluesy style, at a medium speed, if you know the underlying chord pattern in advance.

Variety of practice is absolutely essential to making yourself a confident, all-round, good improviser.

The way to achieve this is to practice in various scenarios. Unusual keys, different musical genres, fast and slow tempos, standard chord progressions like the 12 bar cycle, and unusual chord progressions, or ones you have to adapt to on the fly.

This is the only way you can be sure that you’re actually learning and honing the craft itself, as a whole, rather than simply getting by, playing over a certain track in particular.

5) Exercises and experiments

This is about learning how to create phrases and how to link them together. 

At first, this is done by trying to create 2, 3, 4, and 5 note phrases from a basic scale, missing notes or adding lead guitar techniques to make more lyrical phrases.

What can happen quite early on is that you can become a little stale – repeating the same phrases over and over, tied together by the same few basic ideas.

A great way to break out of this is to give yourself certain challenges, to force yourself to think in a creative and different way about what you’re doing.  Some examples of these challenges are:

  • Play only on one string
  • No bends / slides / hammer-ons / pull-offs at all
  • Only use 3 notes for an entire solo
  • Play only within the space of a certain small number of frets

And so on. These are designed to access different elements of creativity. At the very least, you’ll have fun trying them, and you’ll return with some new and different ideas to add to your bag of licks.

Alex Bruce is a writer for Guitartricks.com and 30DaySinger.com.

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