How to play (better) guitar solos
When you see a guitar god deliver a perfect solo on stage, it often looks completely effortless. Like it’s the most natural thing in the world. Every note is where it needs to be. The whole solo sounds convincing from start to finish.
In this article I want to delve into a couple of issues that many guitar players run into as they try to become great improvisers themselves. In the first section, we’ll take a close look at these three issues:
The Enemies of Great Guitar Solos
Villain #1 - Scale Patterns
“My solos sound like scales.”
Villain #2 - More Scale Patterns
“I’m stuck in a box, position or scale pattern”
Villain #3 - The (visual/mathematic) fretboard
My solos sound ‘guitarish’. I want my playing to sound more melodic.
Let's dive right in!
The Enemies of Great Guitar Solos
Villain #1 – Scale Patterns
“My solos sound like running up and down a scale”
Many guitar players feel like their solos sound too much like running up and down a scale. This is a typical guitar and piano problem. Singers, for example, have few problems with sounding 'scale-like' when they improvise. This is because they need to hear every note they sing. When you sing, you need to manipulate your vocal chords to match a specific pitch you have in mind. But with a guitar or piano, you can just press a ‘button’ and voila, you get a note! It’s super easy and that’s exactly the problem. It’s possible to play a note without imagining it first. It’s possible to stop listening to your musical imagination.
This is made worse because of how guitarists are often taught to play a solo. The number 1 advice is always: learn the minor pentatonic scale. It’s super easy to learn, memorise and play. And I admit, it will get you up and running fairly quickly and make you sound sort of decent. The issue with this is that a scale is presented as a ‘correct note map’. The message is: ‘You can play any of these notes and it won’t sound wrong’. And while it’s true that it won’t sound wrong, it usually also won’t sound right.
Think of it like this. Say you’re visiting Paris and someone has taught you a bunch of phrases in French. You arrive and get in a cab and the driver asks how you’re doing today. You answer “Hello, my name is Judith.” You get to your hotel and you’re asked how your flight was. Your reply: “Thank you, how are you?”. People will understand what you’re saying because it’s in the correct language, but they’ll still look at you funny because it doesn’t make any sense in the context of your conversation. It’s not wrong per se, but it certainly also isn’t right.
So what’s the solution? How do you stop sounding like a robot hitting theoretically correct notes? Guthrie Govan has a great analysis of the problem with scale patterns:
“It’s like the scale is telling you what to play rather than you owning the scale.”
So instead of the scale or the fretboard telling us what to play, we need to start with what we want to play. In other words: we need to play from our musical imagination. Learning scales is just a way to make it easier to play whatever we hear. That’s the first solution you need to look to: play what you hear.
The second solution is to increase your vocabulary. It might very well be that you’re trying to improvise in a genre that you’re not overly familiar with. So what you need to do is start learning riffs, licks and phrases that are commonly used in that style of music. Just like more French phrases would allow you to respond to situations in a way that makes sense, learning more vocabulary will help you play musical ideas that make sense in the music.
Villain #2 – More Scale Patterns
“I'm Stuck in A Box or Scale Pattern”
You might've seen many great players playing solos all over the neck, while you tend to stick to the same position over and over again. You might feel stuck in that single ’box’ or pattern on the neck. Seeing guitarists fly around the neck, it can be tempting to double down and think ‘I just need more information’. It might seem you need to learn more shapes, scales, boxes, patterns and arpeggios so that you have more to choose from. It seems reasonable that that will ‘free you up’ by giving you more options.
Now, it’s certainly useful to learn to play in different positions. But if you don’t sound good in just one position, you won’t sound good in two, three or four positions. Sadly, every once in a while, I’ll see someone posting online saying “I was told I needed to learn all the scale positions in order to be able to solo. I’ve spent hours memorising them all, but I still suck.”
So what’s going on here? Let me ask you this: is ‘being stuck in a box’ really your problem? Playing in one position isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you know how to play a scale in one position, that’s two octaves right there that you can use to make a bazillion different melodies! There are countless world-class solos that are played in just one position. To name a few:
- Oye Como Va by Santana
- The intro to Fleetwood Mac’s Need Your Love So Bad
- Hey Joe, Foxy Lady and Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix
- The intro to John Mayer’s Gravity
So, if you feel stuck in one position, chances are the problem isn’t a lack of knowledge of scale positions. The reason that you’re ‘stuck’ in that position is that your musical imagination has never forced you out of it. This might be because you never imagined a melody that didn’t fit into the box. But more likely, you weren’t listening to your musical imagination (enough). Instead, you were starting from the fretboard, starting from patterns.
So, how do you tackle this issue? The solution is very similar to what we’ve seen above. You need to tune into your musical imagination and play what you hear. Secondly, a great exercise is to play solos on only one string.
I'm working on expanding this article! I'll be adding two more 'villains' of great guitar solos, as well as more advice on how to beat them.If you have any thoughts or questions about this article, please let me know! Just leave a comment or email me: just(at)stringkick.com