Sven's Guitar Site
My $0.02 on learning how to play a solo
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While the past weeks, I have received many e-mail from the visitors of my site. I really appreciate that, since I like some feedback and it helps me to find some interesting new topics to put on my site.

One of the most frequently asked questions is how to learn soloing.
I would never dare to say, that I am a good soloist, but I sure have an opinion. Probably there are as many different answers as there are more or less experienced guitar players. Most of them are kinda true.

One important thing that is ignored a lot in that answer is the rythm. Most of the music, you want to play a guitar solo on, like jazz, blues or rock has some African roots. And what is that music all about? It's the rythm! Thus it is important to work on a good timing. I always thought that my timing wasn't too bad, but one day, when I was recording a solo on my computer and using the guitar synth as a midi converter, I noticed, that my solo was sounding way better, after I have quantized (that means correcting the timing) it.

You could play the most complex lines, but if you don't have a confident timing, just forget it, it will sound shitty! A simple phrase played with a perfect timing and a good expression can sound really great, though.

The main mistake that I have made, was that I have played without any "time reference". That could be a metronome, but way better is to play along with some music - that's more fun anyway. I have a metronome, but I tend to suppress it as some kinda noise.

In the "old days" you could buy something like Abersold Records on vinyl - that are long players with a trio on it (piano, bass, drums), but no melody track. That wasn't cheap and the number of pieces were pretty limited, but it was a good way to practice playing solo.

Nowadays, there are some better and cheaper ways. You have a computer anyway, so why not using it for playing along with? There is a really neat progam, that is called Band in a Box. You just type in the chord progession as text in clear (so it is really simple), select a style and that's it. The program generates a pretty decent band music (trio or more pieces) to play along with. BTW, PG-Music doesn't pay me for that statement, I just wish, I had a tool like that when I was 16. I would be a way better player!

The next important rule is to play slowly. This way, you get a better imagination of what you are playing play and a better feeling for the rythm. The speed comes sooner or later anyway. IMHO Guitarists tend to overdo that speed thing in the beginning. The speed is way less important than a good timing and phrasing and in the beginning it will just result in playing "geometric patterns" instead of music.

Another good thing to do is to learn some vocabulary. That means to learn phrases of the guitar gods and to understand them. When I started playing, I have played a lot of Wes Montgomery solos off the records. I think, I have ruined at least two tape players doing it, since I was recording the LPs on tape to spare the LPs. Today, I would use my computer for it. Just record teh solo as wave files and play them back on your soundcard. This way, you don't wear out the play, stop and << keys and the whole mechanic of the tape player.

Learning the solos of the great and famous will train your hearing and give you a lot a phrases to use in your own solos.

Now you are a great solo player, but you still can't play the themes. So, don't neglect the themes! The audience doesn't know your solo in advance, but they probably know the theme. If you screw it up, they will notice it. And why not using part or a modification of another theme for your solo. That's what the audience will notice and keep in mind... hey, they might even think, you are humorous, in case you do it in the right way.

It is sure important to learn the basic playing techniques. Such is sliding, hammering on, pulling off, bending and a good picking technique etc.

A good picking technique like alternate picking or speed picking will help you to gain a confident timing and speed. Sliding, hammering on, pulling off and bending will give you the means to express yourself.

My friend Paul Lawson once said: "jazz bums slide into some tones". This is one of the statements, I have kept in mind, cuz I think, it is kinda true. At least, sliding up one or two semitones adds some variety. I am also using a hammering on/pulling off combination to add some speed or well, whatever to my single note lines.

Learn some scales. The knowledge of scale patterns will not make you a good soloist, but it will help you to become one. The most important scales are the major scale, one or two minor scales (Dorian, Aeolian), the dominant scale and the blues scale. You should be able to play them up and down the whole neck. Be aware that there are countless scales that would fit the part of the chord progression you are soloing on. Many years ago, a great player told me, that you could play whatever tone you want, you just have to make it sound good. That statement has really impressed me, because it is right, but nobody has told me before. Every tone has a certain relation to a chord or chord progression in a certain context.

The ease of using a scale pattern in whatever key you want (that is unique for sting instruments like guitar, bass, etc.) leads to play some "geometric patterns" as a solo. This is an advantage of those insturments, but may result in boring solos. This way you can easily fill up the time, til you have the next great idea, but in excess it will please neither you nor the audience.

My relationship to the blues scale is pretty much conflicting. It is easy to learn an works well on many things, but it is adictive. Marx said, religion is the opium for the people (I don't think, he is right, I think, he is not right at all) and I say, the blues scale is the opium for guitar players. It sounds good, it feels good and it tastes good, but it is kinda limiting in long terms. Please be always aware of that.

Music theory is pretty helpful. In theory there is no difference between therory and practice. That is for sure, but if you don't have a certain theoretical atempt to a solo, you are limited to your initial inspiration. Music theory will make the learning curve a bit steeper. If you are able to look at a chord progression from different points of view, you will be able to figure out a greater variety of phrases or at least you will be able to figure out at least one phrase. When you are playing a solo, you are performing kinda mental striptease, so you better learn how to dance anyways. On the other hand, you could play whatever you want, you just have to make it sound good :))).

A good sound is inspiring and the audience will like it, but keep in mind that only professional players will be able to sound like some of the guitar gods. Buying truckloads of effects will keep you busy, but it will not help you to play a better solo. Most of the sound is in the fingers anyway. I think, it is all the micromovements of the left hand and subtile differences in the way you touch the stings with your pick. If your idol would play your gear, he'd still sound like your idol. If you'd play his gear, you will still sound like you.

Sing what you play! This helps you to make your musical thoughts come true and it gives you more expression. Most jazz musicians do it!

To be continued....

Jeff wrote:
"I am writing in reference to your solo comments. I have a few suggestions. It is important to challenge your fingering when soloing. Try newer, faster, more difficult licks all of the time. It creates a more interesting solo. Also, I think it is VERY important to know the scale in which one is playing. Knowing all of the modes of a scale provides opportunity for new licks that may not be physically possible in just one mode. The third and final portion of advice i can offer is to always use the correct finger for the fret you are playing. Though it may feel awkward, it improves the speed and clarity with which you can play a solo."

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Last modified on Friday, 2. January 2009