How To Write Better Guitar Solos

Some questions will be around forever in the guitar-playing world – “How do I play faster”, “How long does it take to get good” and “How can I write better solos”. In this article I will address the question of writing better solos. There are many examples of brilliant solos and improvisation on all instruments – from David Sanborns unleashing on Little Wing with Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow, to John Bonhams powerful playing in Moby Dick – but we will focus on the guitar for now. It is my hope however, that those that play other instruments also try some of the exercises in this article. Before we delve deeper into it I would like to start with two simple tips for players of all instruments who wish to write better solos:

1. Be Open To Learning

As mentioned in the last article, Zooming In On Techniques; growth can occur when one learns from the traditional but is open to the new. So many players say that they wish to write better solos, but in the same breath say they aren’t interested in learning music theory or getting lessons from an experienced teacher. This can be a self-imposed ceiling a player puts on their progress, often brought on by past experiences with an unsuitable teacher or from buying in on bitterness or negativity cast about by their peers. It makes sense, however, to learn from those that ‘can do’. Getting a teacher that you get on with, and who has great experience and attitude, can speed up your progress tremendously (provided you practice well between lessons). By learning and applying some theoretical knowledge you can also grasp a solid understanding of how music can be put together – which gives you options that you might not have had before. It is then up to you to use it. Remember: learning theory is like using a red pen – you use it as a tool for when you need it, but you still have the option to ditch it too. If you are closed off to theory altogether, you lose that tool that you could use in your creativity. Trying to improve without learning is like staring anxiously without imagination.

2. Spew First, Craft Later

That is my technical term used to describe the healthy process of creating initially without letting self-doubt or skepticism block the flow. When an author writes, it is best that they write down the words without self-criticism first. If one lets the critic in their head affect the flow as they write, it often stops them from writing anything in the first place, leading straight to writers block. Rather than editing the ideas as you go, play and/or record all of your ideas first. Just play. Just write. Get the ideas out and recorded, either written physically or recorded in audio form. Then, after they are put down in tangible form (or at least memorised) you can start to craft.

I liken the process of progression of creation – whether it’s a simple lick or a complex and complicated solo – to sculpture (you are sculpting sound). Start with a basic form first. Making a start is the most important thing. If you were sculpting a human form, it would be highly unlikely that you would start with the eyelashes, or the details. Just get the basic form first and then you can edit, sculpt, cut, paste and form the details. Just make a start and get the initial ideas out, then comes the details. Using technique and/or theory does not have to take away the soul of the music – in fact, if your heart is in the right place it can enhance the expression of the soul in your music. Spew first, Craft later.

What, Who, When, Where, Why and How

What…

The 5 W’s and the H – such a basic concept, often taught in early childhood, that is as beneficial to professionals as it is to beginners. Starting with ‘what’ is a good idea; the reason is that, more times than you might think, people put something in because they think that they should, without really knowing what it is that they are putting in. An example would be wanting to learn modes because they sound more technical than the word ‘scale’, without knowing what a mode is. Another example is saying that you want to be more confident, but not being aware of the definition of confidence. There are no rules in music, though having an understanding of the definition of the idea, technique, or theoretical element that you are applying, or wanting to apply, is a good thing.

Exercise: Look into the definition for ‘solo’ in relation to your song. You will see that ‘solo’ can refer to a solo musician, or a solo arrangement, or the line in a piece of music which focuses heavily on a single instrument. Even in the simple task of reading about the definition of ‘solo’, you will find ideas that you can play with.

Who…

Perhaps an appropriate ‘W’ to follow with is Who. As mentioned in Use Your Buzz To Play The Guitar –modelling is a way of learning and adopting ideas and techniques from role models. If you would like to get better at playing and/or constructing solos, start by listening and looking deeper into the solos of artists whose music you enjoy. Here are some examples of solos that I personally love. Some are live so there is room for improvisation, but the basic core of the solo as in the respective studio versions are still there:

I’m So Afraid by Fleetwood Mac

The Godfather Theme by Slash (improvisation based on The Godfather Waltz by Nino Rota)

High Hopes by David Gilmour 

Exercise: Find and list 5 solos that are in a similar style to what you are hoping to do. Once done, watch interviews with the musicians behind the solos, in which they talk about how they write music. Note down any tips or tricks, and it goes without saying – if you can find out more information about the ways the specific solos on the list are constructed – write it all down and try the ideas that you learn along the way. Keep in mind: constructing solos is like anything – you will get better with practice, so don’t be disheartened if your first attempt is not too fruitful. A little idea or lesson gained will be a part of the big picture of your growth as a musician (and you can always grow).

When

With regards to the above examples of solos, whether you are playing live or on a studio recording can affect your approach or execution of a solo. Sometimes artists choose to extend a solo when playing live – or spontaneously introduce the vocal harmony to get the audience singing along. You might like to compare live versions to their studio counterparts, and see what differences – if any – there are. Always be receptive to those ‘happy accidents’ – an impromptu lick or riff you play live might spark an idea for your recording.

Exercise: look at a favourite live version of your favourite solo and see if there are changes that you can apply to one of your own solos. This is similar to the last exercise, however we are looking more specifically at changes made here and how they were made, rather than the parts on their own.

Why

Having a purpose for the solo can often give you more of a clue as to how you want your solo to be. Is your solo there to flow the main melody of the piece, is it there to provide a nice instrumental break to a verse-heavy song, is it there to add dissonance to the section, or is it just there for the sake of it? Once you think about the purpose for the solo, you will then be able to decide what to look at – increasing or decreasing the speed, using dynamics to express the feel, using the notes from the underlying chords etc.

When you are looking at the purpose for the solo you might consider traditional reasons, such as reinforcing the vocal melody (Flow by Dub FX feat. Mr Woodnote) or try more avant-garde experiments with cluster chords or physical objects.

Exercise: Look at the solo you are working on. Write down why it is there – what purpose it serves in the song, and how the way it is played shows this. Do this for one cover, and one of your own songs.

Where

One of the great things about music is that there are no rules. There are guidelines, and it’s smart to understand them, but as far as solos go – you can do what you want. Changing where you put your solo, however, can affect the flow of the song, and the solos impact. Is it early in the song, or is it near the end to build intensity or take the listener into a dream? One thing I recommend is not being stuck to your first choice, and to be aware that if you do create more versions of your solo – you can still come back to the first one. Be wary of demo-itis!

Exercise: Try placing the solo in various parts of your song – just because you try it somewhere else doesn’t mean you have to keep it there, but by trying different things, at least you are open to crafting with your skills, and you will learn a bit in the process, too. This is a good chance to brush up on modulation skills and harmonic theory as well, as these two things can springboard ideas for solos.

A little idea or lesson gained will be a part of the big picture of your growth as a musician (and you can always grow)

How

Okay, so after all this – how do you write better solos. The answer is that putting all of the above will help but nothing will come from it if you don’t devote time to the craft and physically apply what you know. Here though, for after you have tried the exercises above, are a few tips which you can incorporate into your solo constructions immediately:

Draw the shape: When first beginning the crafting of a solo you can literally draw the shape of a solo – in line graph form (you can use this same idea for set-lists). Does it start with impact then dip in the middle to a milder feel, then rise up again – forming a ‘U’ shape? Does it start in a higher key and descend fairly evenly to a lower key – creating a ‘ \ ‘ shape? Have a go a drawing the shape of your solo first, and you might choose to do a shape for speed, intensity, a visual shape on the fretboard, or even a shape for attack.

Post to post: This is a method I used for learning solos in the first few years of my playing. If a solo was above my level, or contained very tricky parts, I would master the more simple licks first and use those as signposts – helping to at least grasp the main structure of the solo. Then it was a matter of using patience and repition for the parts in between and connecting the dots, from post to post. You can use a similar idea for composing solos – take motifs or licks that you feel are right for the song and use your skills to craft the joint passages.

Shoots and ladders: Similar to the above, you can often use ladders to connect places on the fretboard or keyboard. Although I would recommend understanding what you are doing, this option is useful if you don’t have the patience for learning theory. You can use a ladder, which is a joining series of notes, often unintentionally using chromatic runs or dissonance, to connect parts that do fit harmoniously with the music. Again, I recommend being open to learning and applying theory to avoid laziness, but the reality is that some guitarists just aren’t interested. In that case, this is an option to start with. You might like to use a diagram of the notes of the fretboard to help you.

Let feel dictate technique

Sometimes ‘not thinking’ is more constructive than ‘over thinking’. When we first learn an instrument we don’t yet have the fluency or skills to express a lot of what we feel on the instrument, so we focus on techniques on their own and do what we can with what we know. After a while, expressive techniques such as string-bends and hammers become second-nature, so we don’t have to think as much about how to use them. This is where feel starts to dictate technique rather than the other way around. If you find yourself straining to think about what to put in your solo, stop and just listen to the chords or imagined harmony as a listener. Detach yourself from trying to ‘get it right’ and instead pay attention to what you feel as you relax and listen to the song as a whole. More times than not, you will ease up on putting pressure on yourself, which lets the creativity flow again.

Use Restriction As A Tool

Arguably – and admittedly as big generalisation – youth rebels against restrictions where maturity uses restrictions; though both can benefit from or feel caged as a result. In playing the more mature player knows ‘what not to play’ as much as what to play – especially in group situations. There are strong arguments from each side though I recommend using an ‘and’ rather than ‘or’ approach for this one: use subtlety, taste and ‘less is more’ when needed, but also be able to completely let loose when the music calls for it. There are no rules though keep in mind that if one yells constantly, the impact of the message can be lost. At the end of the day, it comes down to player discretion, listening to what the other musicians in the group are doing, and trusting your energy. As a player you might find that ‘maturity’ has caused you to stay on the side of restrictiveness too much, to the point of becoming stale or stuck. In this case, keep travelling around the circle and come from a more youthful ‘what if I do this?’ angle again.

Leave Room:

Along similar lines to the above, the ability to ‘leave room’ for and alongside the other instruments in a group or ensemble, is a useful skill to have as a player of solos. Try playing along to a song such as Strange Brew by Cream, where a few guitar parts are already there, and it will help with this. When recording, you can use little ‘stabs’ or arpeggios here or there on doubled tracks, or highlight certain chords with a bright strum or broken chord – just subtle things that add texture to the overall sound of the recording without crowding the music.

Try the un-pretty: Dissonance

As nice as it is to hear harmonious things, music represents feelings and not all feelings are harmonious. Sometimes the music will call for an edgy, uncomfortable feeling and this is where dissonance is a really useful tool to use in solos and composition. Experiment with bending an oblique bend so that the strings are not quite bending in tune, and you will hear the pulsing of the notes. You can play with this oscillation and speed it up or slow it down by raising or lowering the the string that you are bending.

Another idea is to add notes from outside of the scale, or purposely use dissonant intervals – these are especially effective when ‘sandwiched’ between two harmonious sections of the solo or song.

Learn from other instruments:

An exercise I recommend for intermediate to advanced players is to transpose/transcribe or improvise over songs originally written for other instruments. One of the albums I would often ask my guitar students to play over, under, through and around is Bongoland. I would usually get them to improvise with the track ‘Dr No’s Fantasy‘. It is percussion-heavy and not a guitar-centered track, so as well as learning from playing a different style, it would also be a chance to pick up ideas from other instruments. Try to play songs from albums where your instrument is not the main focus (or not on the album at all!). Here’s a few to start with: Hip Harp by Dorothy AshbyThe Art of The Theremin by Clara RockmoreMusic For Airports by Brian Eno

Use the chords underneath:

Knowing what chords are being used in the song obviously gives you clues as to suitable scales to apply, but even with limited theoretical knowledge, just by knowing the starting note of the underlying chords can help. A classic example of using the main notes of each chord for the solo is in the harmonised outro solo of Hotel California by the Eagles. The guitarists are simply using the 1, 3 and 5 of each chord (for Bm it’s B, D and F#, and for F# it’s F#, A# and C#)

There are no rules in music, though having an understanding of the definition of the idea, technique, or theoretical element that you are applying, or wanting to apply, is a good thing.

Play the vocal melody:

One of the reasons why the solo from Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana is effective is because even on the first listen, the listener has heard the melody before – in the singing. Using the vocal melody for the solo is such a simple but effective technique for songwriting, and for beginner guitarists is an easy way to develop your ear whether you are using either a ‘trial and error’ method, or scale/theory knowledge to work out where the notes are.

Repeat the hook:

As with incorporating the vocal melody, repetition is one of the keys to having music stick in peoples minds. Whether that music is good or bad is debatable, but what is clear is that repetition in listening and in learning, works! It is extremely common to repeat the main hook of a song as a riff or motif, but what is not as common is putting it in ones solos. Doing so is an extremely effective way to thread a solo together, so start using this idea immediately in your solos and improvisation, too.

Phrasing and Texture:

Another thing that can make your solos interesting is to write with another instrument in mind. Similar to learning from other instruments, but more or less the other way around – you are still writing on your instrument but phrasing or feeling the music as if you were playing on another instrument. Try phrasing your playing in a different way…

A sister approach is to use other instruments on the recording for texture, or to use your main instrument for the solo, but use a different type. For example if you play guitar but usually use a standard 6 string electric, try an acoustic 12 string through an effect, or a pedal-steel guitar.

Incorporate Chords:

As mentioned in Chords: More Than Meets the Eye, one way that you can use chords is to put them in your solos! Solos don’t just have to be single notes. See this article on Signature Chord Shapes for more ideas…

Combine Techniques:

Learn any sport and you generally will be asked to learn techniques individually, then as you progress you will start to combine those techniques – eventually putting them into a game. A similar progression often happens in music where the beginner learns chords or techniques one-by-one, then starts to combine techniques to create interesting riffs, licks, ostinatos and motifs. When writing solos, try consciously using combinations – a hammer to a slide, or a doublestop with a vibrato. Of course these things will happen naturally, but you can always slow down and deliberately experiment with combinations of which you would not normally use.

Swap! Swap! Swap! 

Learn the rules so you can break ’em! If you have learnt or been shown an idea for rhythm playing, try it in lead! Swap ideas and even whole parts to unlock a world of possibilities. See here for two simple ideas

In Conclusion

After all is said and done, music is an art form – so there are no rules to making solos, but there certainly are tried and true methods and guidelines which can be helpful to at least try. With a closed attitude towards learning it is hard to progress, and this is where that feeling of being stuck can come about. Stay open to new ideas and put in the time to applying newly learnt skills to your composition, and you will hear the benefit in your music. Remember the 3 P’s: Patience, Practice and Perseverance.

Oh, and there’s a fourth one…

…Play!

Author Bio: Ryan Kershaw is a professional recording artist, author and music educator. He has recently released ‘Make Money Teaching Guitar’ – a complete guide to having your own successful music tuition business, and is the co-founder of Goldirocks in Ireland. Music Managers Forum award winner and contributor to Muzic.net.nz, Tune Me In magazine, Audioculture, and the Guitar Association of New Zealand; Ryan’s students have gone on to record, tour and become guitar teachers themselves. His new single ‘Make It Go Away’ , and guitar instrumental ‘Inspiration’ are out now!

Coaching sessions available for musicians and music teachers. Book yours by sending an email to info@ryankershawmusic.com

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