Taking the Guitar Solo

  • 01/17/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

If you are serious about playing with others at least one of the following scenarios has happened to you: It's your first time playing with the new band and the lead vocalist gives you the 'go ahead' to take the next 16 bars in front of a rather discerning crowd. You're sitting in for an artist on their recording session, looking over the chart for the next song, and you notice there's a guitar solo in the notes after the 1st bridge.

These are times when we may be caught slightly off guard and called to step up to the challenge of taking front and center for a set period of time during a song. I'm not talking about sitting in a room by yourself for hours composing the ultimate instrumental guitar song. I'm talking about the situations when you find yourself playing other people's music and are given a brief opportunity to shine, all the while keeping in mind the fact that you are a welcome guest in someone else's song.

I'm someone who thrives on preparation, writes and records a lot of music, and enjoys long, guitar-centric masterpieces. So, these situations can drive me nuts. I'd much rather take the time to sit and craft the ultimate guitar solo. I love playing on other people's projects. I just don't prefer the spontaneity aspect. However, over the years, a lot of my work has come from being a session or stand-in player and I've had to get over my perfectionism and choose to be content with what comes out of my fingers and brain -- even if I think I could have done it better if I'd had another 25 takes to “get it right.”

If you go into any gig or project expecting this sort of thing to happen, it can actually be kind of fun to see what happens. I'm going to detail my thought process and quick mental checklist I go through for every song I think I might be 'given the nod' on. These prep steps have helped me approach each opportunity with intentionality and avoid the 'lick vomiting' pitfall that so often happens with first or second take solos. As we're going through these points, I thought it would be helpful to have an example solo that was created in the type of environment described above. This was one of those situations where I had nothing to do with the songwriting or the initial recording aspect of the song. I was simply brought in to add some guitar and then eventually mix the project. Also, because I was working for the artist on their time, I had to be quick. There was no room for stopping, backing up, punching in, combining takes or anything of that nature. The audio sample below shares a little bit of the context of the song. Then, the short and sweet guitar solo comes in during the outro. Here's the sample and then my process:

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Analyze the Chord Progression

You might have a chord chart and you might not. If you're taking the solo, odds are you've learned or at least played through the progression a few times. Playing through the chord progression and knowing how it goes will enable you to craft an effective solo. Knowing your theory, specifically your modes and modal chord progressions, definitely comes in handy. Knowing your key signatures and the chords that are diatonic to the key is also extremely beneficial. This way, when you start to hear the jam (maybe even for the first time) you can start to pick it apart. The wheels begin to turn: My tonal center is x, and it appears to be a basic minor feel...Is it a blues progression that modulates with every chord change or is it staying in one key? My tonal center is not necessarily the key of the song. What is the chord movement or harmonic rhythm like? Do the chords change every measure, every two beats, or are there some changes on the "4"? Are there any chromatic walk downs or ups? It's all too easy to pull out the same old pentatonic bag of tricks that works over almost anything. However, if you get the wheels turning and figure out all of the available possibilities before you start playing, you'll be able to draw from a much larger bag.

Let's look at the example above with this thought process in mind. The chord progression moves from an Am to a D major with the Am being the definite tonal center. This would make the Am the "1" chord and the D the "4" chord. This is where choosing your scales depends on having some knowledge of modal chord progressions. If you haven't checked it out already, read through this article on modal chord progressions: Modal Chord Progressions.

You might already have a feel for where this solo is going to go in the modal sense. A minor "1" chord with a major "4" chord screams Dorian! The chord changes happen on the "one" of every measure. This gives some space to play around with each chord before it changes. For a passage like this, a chart isn't really necessary because there aren't a lot of chords. Also, I got lucky as there are no modulations or strange rhythmic patterns going on. It's basically a jam out after the song. This kind of track can be easier in some respects, and it's a lot easier to fake your way through a track like this if you want to. In some ways though, it's much more difficult to keep a solo interesting over just two chords, which brings me to my next point.

Always Climb and Descend the Mountain

When playing live and feeding off the energy of the crowd, it's very easy to go too high too fast. It doesn't matter if you can play 64th notes over a fast odd meter for 4 minutes using your toes if you don't know how to pace yourself in your playing. You'll shock the audience for the first 30 seconds with your blazing licks and then you'll start to lull them into complacency with unmusical repetition. One reason certain guitarists have so much staying power is that they know how to take their listeners on a journey. They sing a song or tell a story... they make you go somewhere as a listener. This doesn't mean you can't play fast or inject guitar gymnastics into your solos. They just have to make sense as part of the story. This philosophy works in all genres of music and your pacing, speed, note choices, technique, solo lengths, etc. will vary depending on what kind of story you happen to be narrating at the time.

Play Like an Eloquent Speaker Talks.

Listen back to the example above one more time. You'll notice that the solo is pretty clearly divided into musical sentences. See if you can identify where those are. They also lead into one another, and there is a sense of either more or less intensity based on the phrasing used. There might be a note held out for a few beats, but the vibrato and tone of the note suggests more intensity than the 16th notes played before it. If one were to draw the intensity of the above solo example, it might look like this:

Guitar Solo Like a Pro

This energy curve / graph, created after the solo was played, was premeditated before the solo started. I knew where I wanted to take the listener before I even started playing. Here's the catch with improvisation though: I didn't know exactly what licks were where going to come out or how exactly I was going to connect them all. I had a pretty good idea based on my analysis of the music foundation, but nothing was set in stone. It's like a good public speaker in a debate. It's not scripted, but the goal is, when its time to talk it better make sense, it had better go somewhere, and it is largely reactionary.

When I started to listen very carefully to guitar solos, I would draw a curve much like you see above while I was listening. It always seemed like the ones that were shaped like mountains or hills were more interesting to me. So, whether I'm in improvisational mode or composition mode, I try to make my guitar solos curve up and down, taking the listener on a musical journey.

Some 'Notes' About Grammar

It can be quite the shift to transition from learning licks and scales to connecting musical words and thoughts together in a pleasing and natural way. We've talked about the goal to take people somewhere with your playing on an intensity level. Now we're going to look at the journey in terms of structuring your musical sentences. You might choose to shout a controversial claim with some of your sentences, or you may choose to whisper a calming word for your tired baby. Let's look at how to accomplish this.

Think about your first grammar lessons. Remember 'subjects' and 'predicates?' The subject is "who" or "what" the sentence is about. The predicate describes or tells something about the subject. Here's a simple sentence: "Steve shreds." This sentence gives the reader or listener a pretty clear picture in their head (as long as they are a guitarist). You picture a guitarist you know named Steve who is burning up the fretboard. You could add another element to this sentence called a 'direct object' and state: "Steve shreds on stage." The word "stage" adds further description to the original meaning extracted from the first, simple sentence.

Every complete sentence must have a subject and a predicate. Some sentences might have a direct object. I like to approach my solos with this grammar lesson in mind -- especially when in the "come up with something quick, you are about to take center stage mode." A lot of times, sentences in my solos start with a single note (the subject) followed by a group of notes that sort of describe the first note (predicate). My musical predicates are usually pulled from a familiar lick that is tailored on the fly to better support my subject. Following my predicate(s) I usually choose another note as my direct object. I try to make this note point back (in some way) to my first note. Then, I'm on the next sentence. The next sentence should probably add some more meaning to the previous sentence as a whole but doesn't need to hone in on any one part of the last sentence.

This sounds like a lot of tedious garbage to think about, but after you make it a habit and infuse it in your playing style, you won't be rambling in your mind as much. Again, go back to the musical example and listen for this kind of development. Let's also listen to another example of how to effectively connect two phrases. This sample is an improvised 'solo' based loosely around a G major chord and is played to a click track.

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After having heard that example, let's take a look at its grammatical composition. Again, we're analyzing the solo after the fact, learning from it, and moving on for the next time we need to pull something out on the spot, (although these tips work very well for the compositional route as well).

This little bit started with the strong G note as the subject followed by a G triad to establish the chord. An ascending G major lick describes the G chord in further detail. That lick connected to the B note that was held and bent up to. This note could be considered the subject of a new sentence. The B note connects to the chromatic "walk up and down" lick. Right from the top, there are two instances with a target note (or subjects) and their licks that follow them (predicates). The predicates provide support while leading to the next target note.

The chromatic bluesy lick connects to a b6 note in the key of G (an Eb). This new 'outside' note gives the ear something new for just a second until the supporting legato line barks out a few more short thoughts before the ascending octave D notes scream at you. If you listen to the solo, that section sounds like a run-on sentence! It worked out just fine though. Sometimes run-on musical sentences add to the intensity because they threaten to drop you over and over again -- toying with you until they finally lay you out flat!

After getting yelled at, the calm bluesy walk-up followed by the descending 6th line apologize for the noise, and the world seems alright again by the end.

Notice the motion created with the ascending and descending lines to and from the target notes (subjects). Notice the dynamics created with the use of picked notes vs. legato lines. Also note the rolling back of the volume knob for the 'apology' at the end. If you start thinking about your solos in these human-like, language-inspired terms, your playing will take on a whole being of its own. You're giving life to your playing.

Choosing Your Tone

Your guitar tone should be thought of as your vehicle to express your thoughts in your story. As a result, you should be comfortable enough with your tone to competently express yourself with it. When I'm speaking about tone, I'm including everything about your sound – fingertips, strings, guitar, volume and tone knobs, drive pedals, amp, other effects, the room you're playing in etc...Every piece should be meticulously tuned, adjusted, taken care of and understood so that when the time comes to perform, nothing gets in the way. Everything works together in this conglomerate we call "tone."

Most of us have a 'go to' tone that we feel really good about. The problem is, when we're playing with others in a variety of musical contexts, we have to be versatile in the sounds we use. For me, there is a lot of preparation that goes into tone. I want to have different sounds that I'm comfortable with and I want my playing style to change slightly with each tone that I come up with. My cleaner sound with some layered delay is going to inspire a lot of harmonic interval playing, more slides, sustained notes, and walking 6ths. My high gain sound is going to inspire a lot of licks associated with progressive rock. Your tone is part of each line that is played, so be musical about it. Having a number of different 'tones' you can pull out is like having a bag of licks you can draw from in an improv situation. Right before or during the song, you can assess which of your familiar tone setups will work best and make you feel most comfortable with what you are considering playing, and go from there. Which guitar works best for the style of music you are going to be soloing over? Will you use overdrive or distortion, or even both? What about a time-specific delay? What kind of lines would that inspire? Perhaps a little ambient / layered delay or even a light flange? Make no mistake. I'm not talking about arbitrarily experimenting with random effects just for the heck of it. The effects that you deploy in an improvisational situation should be worked on and perfected until they are part of your playing and thrown in your "bag of improv tones" that you can call up when you need them.

The tips in this article are starting points that I have found helpful in creating more musical improvisation. Most of the time, I go into an improv situation with all of these things in mind, but there have been many times when this stuff has been thrown out the window, because I'm feeling something different in the moment. I have improv'd many guitar solos that, when listening back to them, didn't climb a mountain, didn't speak in sentences, and didn't adhere to my 'rules' of analysis. A lot of these solos turned out well also. Never look at anything as a strict rule. Above anything else, be intentional about your playing and think critically about what you do. Hopefully these tips are a good catalyst for greater creativity in spontaneity!