How To Play A Guitar Solo
JULY 08, 2020 POSTED BY: SAMUEL JAMES
It's one of the most exciting elements of guitar playing, and also one of the hardest to master. But how do you play a guitar solo?
If you’ve been keeping up with our recent blogs, you’ll know that we recently wrote about the importance of learning guitar chords (rhythm guitar). There is another huge element of learning guitar… playing solos (lead guitar).
It’s easy to be discouraged by the fretboard-shredding skills of bands such as SikTh and Cancer Bats or the deft touch of bands like The Vaccines or Deaf Havana. Whilst we can’t wave a magic wand and make you a maestro overnight, we can give you a few handy pointers to help you achieve your #shredgoals. Read on!
So… What is a guitar solo?
A quick definition: The word “solo” broadly means “by oneself”, “without others” or simply “one”.
A “guitar solo” can be defined as part of a song that features a single instrument, while the other instruments maintain the rhythm but stay in the background. Shorter solos are called by different names, such as “riffs”, “licks” and “hooks”, but they all relate to a melody line played by one instrument.
The solo itself is simply a passage of notes. Only a handful of notes are required to create an effective solo, but in certain genres, the solo is taken to dizzying new heights. Genres such as jazz, metal and rock often feature highly technical and complicated solos, showcasing the musician’s virtuosic playing ability and highlighting the nuances of their unique sound and style.
How do I learn a guitar solo?
The most important aspects of learning guitar that will help you play a solo are scales and arpeggios. Whether you’ve never tried to play a solo before, or even if you are already a competent guitarist, scales and arpeggios are the best way to take your guitar playing to the next level. Now, there are a LOT of scales, and a whole bunch of arpeggios, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. It's always best to start simple.
The importance of learning scales
One of the most popularised scales to use when constructing a guitar solo is the pentatonic scale. It is one of the easier scales to learn, as the pattern used to play it is relatively uncomplicated compared to other scales.
Very similar to the pentatonic scale is the blues scale, where two more “passing notes” are included in the scale. As the name suggests, this scale was popularised by blues musicians of the twentieth century, and the addition of the “blue notes” characterised an entire genre.
These blues musicians also established the format for the guitar solos we are accustomed to today. Guitarists such as B.B. King, John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters pioneered the guitar solo as an instrumental break to their songs, separating verses and choruses and adding something different, expressing themselves and showcasing their style.
Fretting hand and picking hand techniques
Solos are predominantly made up of single notes. Using a plectrum (sometimes referred to as a “pick”) will greatly assist you when picking them out. You can also use your thumb and index finger (like Lyndsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac or Jeff Beck), but a plectrum will definitely help you on your way in the beginning.
Picking Hand Method:
- Hold your plectrum between your thumb and your index finger and get comfortable with picking an open string. Everyone holds the pick a little differently, so it’s just a matter of finding out what is most comfortable for you.
- Make sure you’re not gripping too tightly and that the rest of your hand is relaxed, otherwise you’ll likely get cramp and struggle to play for any amount of time.
- Pluck the string gently. It’s only a small motion, and if you’re picking too hard, it’ll be difficult to repeat the motion. Even worse, you might break a string!
Once you're comfortable with holding the plectrum, it’s time to add your fretting hand and start playing some notes!
Fretting Hand Method:
- Hold your hand up as if you were holding an apple. Use that shape to hold the neck of your guitar. This should be a natural position for your hand, with very little tension in your wrist.
- Place your thumb on the back of the guitar neck and bring your fingers towards the fretboard. Again, stay relaxed and don't grip too tightly.
- When fretting the note, push the string down close behind the fret itself (the brassy coloured metal strip). Only push down so that the notes come through clearly.
If you watch our videos closely, you’ll be able to get a really good idea of how different musicians all have different techniques which have developed into their own unique style.
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There are a vast array of techniques to use when crafting a guitar solo. You may have come across some of these phrases already, but it’s handy to know what the most popular techniques are called so you can quickly add flair and expression to the notes you play:
Slide: sliding one or more fingers from one note to another, without removing the finger from the fretboard (you can also use a specialised metal or glass “slide” (or beer bottle!) to enhance this technique, like in lap-steel guitar)
Bend: changing the pitch of the note by bending the string until a new pitch is achieved, usually a whole note (two frets) above where the initial note was played
Half Bend: similar to above, but only bending the string until a new pitch a semitone (one fret) above the initial note is achieved
Vibrato: bending the note up and down, creating a pulsating change in pitch. This can be used in conjunction with a bend for added effect
Hammer-on: using another finger to fret another note whilst the original note is being held (sometimes this is repeated in quick succession for full effect)
Whammy: using your picking hand to move the tremolo arm (also called the “whammy bar”) attached to the bridge of the guitar to manipulate the pitch of the note(s) being played
Harmonics: lightly holding your finger over a note or notes to create a lighter sounding harmonic or overtone (primarily created by the fretting hand, but can also be created by the picking hand)
Pinch Harmonic: using the plectrum to glance the string in a manner that creates a harmonic at the point of contact, creating a high-pitched harmonic squeal
Sweep-picking: playing across the strings with your picking hand in a “sweeping” motion, whilst the fretting hand plays multiple notes in conjunction with the picking hand’s motion
Tapping: using your picking hand to hammer-on notes by fretting them with your picking hand. Useful for notes that you couldn’t otherwise reach with your fretting hand
How to play a great guitar solo
Now you understand what goes into making a solo, here’s some final tips for creating some great music. Whether you’re crafting a hook for your new band’s new hit single or penning an epic solo, here are some key things to bear in mind:
Find out the key of the song
Make sure you’re playing the right notes. You can do this a number of ways:
- Find out what the first and last chords of the song are. For example, if the song starts and ends with an E major chord, you can assume that the song is in the key of E major, meaning you can use the scales and arpeggios of E major to form your solo.
- Use your ear and eyes to find out what notes work. It’s great practice to train your ear and your eyes to recognise the sounds and shapes that form different chords and scales. They all follow patterns, so you’ll get to know what these look and sound like over time.
- If all else fails, just ask someone!
Listen carefully to the music
It’s imperative to listen to the music around you. You need to adapt your solo to what’s happening in order to create a fitting solo:
- Think about the volume and performance of the other instruments. Don’t go screaming headlong into a solo whilst the other instruments are quietly going about their business!
- Don’t play ALL the notes you could possibly play. Give your solo some space by utilising silence to punctuate the musical conversation
- Watch your (guitar) tone. Use pedals and amp settings wisely. After all, you’ll want everyone to hear what you’re doing, so a hint of overdrive and reverb will go a long way!
The most important thing to remember! The solo is YOUR time to shine. It’s a chance to showcase your hard work and creativity. Of course… don’t go overboard, nobody likes cleaning beer out of speaker grills! Enjoy the moment and learn from the experience.
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