How to play (better) guitar solos


How to play better guitar solos

'My solos sound like scales.' 'How can I break out of the box?' 'I’m stuck in theory-based playing.' 'How can I play solos over the whole neck like I see other guitarists do?'

Soloing on guitar isn't easy. For a number of reasons, you can be unhappy with your soloing. There’s just something about it that seems stale, boring or just very... ‘not good’.

How to improvise on guitar

In this article, we'll look into a number of common problems and issues and how you can overcome them. We'll look at how many of those issues dissolve as soon as you tap into your musical imagination and play what you hear. But what does 'play what you hear' actually mean?

This is very much a ‘choose your own adventure’ thing, so just pick whatever seems relevant to you.


Stuck in Scales and Theory

In this section we'll take a look at some issue related to scales and patterns on the neck.

My solos sound like a scale

Singers have few problems with 'theory-based playing' or 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. Whereas with a guitar or piano, you can just press a button and voila, you get a tone! And that’s exactly the problem. It’s possible to play something without imagining it first. It’s possible to stop listening to your musical imagination.

So, if you find that your solos sound like running up and down scales, your problem is that you’re not listening to your musical imagination. (Or at least not enough or not all the time.)

Think of your instrument like a chef, ready to make any dish you want. “What are you hungry for?”, the chef asks. And instead of asking for a chocolate spaghetti burger you say: “I dunno, you got a menu?”

You need to forget about that menu. The menu shouldn’t tell you what you’ll be eating. You should be telling the chef what you want to eat! The challenge is to forget about the menu and to think of what you really want to eat.

As John Mayer puts it:

“What I’m trying to do is see the guitar as a thing that will do whatever you want it to do. Every time you pick up your instrument, ask the chef to make something different that’s not on the menu.”

The answer is to play what you hear. (Scroll down for step-by-step instructions.)

I'm Stuck in A Box or Scale Pattern

You might've seen many great players playing solos all over the neck, while you’re stuck in a single ’box’ or pattern on the neck. Seeing that, 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 and patterns 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 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!

Chances are, you’re not stuck in one position because you only know one position. You’re stuck in that position because 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.

Are Scales Telling You What to Play?

I’ll get to the solution to this problem in a second, but let’s dig into the problem a bit deeper. You might not know who Guthrie Govan is or you might be into his music (personally not my cup of tea), but he’s an incredibly fast player, known for his shredding skills. That makes it all the more interesting what he has to say on scales:

“A scale is an easy thing to teach, it’s an easy thing to learn and it’s a very easy way to measure your progress in terms of how many different shapes you know and how fast can you play them.

I’ve met a lot of students who started out as great blues players and then became un-musical shredders because they were looking for the wrong solutions within the scale shapes.

I guess the danger is when you learn a new scale and you play as fast as you can on each string and then move on to the next string.

It’s almost like the scale is telling you what to play rather than you owning the scale.”

That last sentence says it all. While learning shapes all over the neck is certainly useful, it’s not the way to make your solos sound more musical and natural. You need to know how to use them. This is not only true for scales, but for music theory in general.

Solution 1: How to Play What You Hear

You might’ve been told to ‘play what you hear’. But what does that really mean? The phrase can be a little confusing. What musicians mean when they say 'play what you hear', they mean something very similar to talking. When you’re having a conversation are ‘saying what you hear’? Not really, right? You’re not first thinking your thoughts out loud and then speaking those exact thoughts. The process is much more streamlined. More automatic. ‘Playing what you hear’ is exactly like that. You're listening to your musical imagination and more or less at exactly the same time playing the stuff your imagination is coming up with.

So how can you tune into your musical imagination?

1. First, let go of your guitar for a second. Listen to the music. Wait (really wait!) until something pops into your head. This state is called the zone or the space. Looking at live musicians, you can often see them taking a couple of seconds to enter this space.

2. Hum or sing whatever pops in your head. Everything that you’re now singing or humming is coming from inside. This is your true musical voice speaking!

3. Keep listening to your musical imagination. Start playing whatever you hear and try not to think of what scale it is or in which position you’re playing (yes really, see below for the explanation!). If it helps, play in the dark so you can’t really see your fret board. This might be pretty difficult at first. You might be coming up with lots of stuff that you’re not immediately sure how to play yet and you might make mistakes. That's okay. Check out this article on playing guitar by ear for a step by step plan to get better at this.

Tapping into your musical imagination is how you unleash your creativity and start treating your guitar as an instrument through which you express yourself. Hidden inside of you is all of the music you’ve ever listened to. Indie bands, movie soundtracks, pop songs on the radio, random Spotify and YouTube playlists, video game music… Much more than just the guitar riffs and licks you’ve learned. You just need to listen and let it out. (This might be a bit scary at first, because you’re not used to it.)

Whatever you come up with will sound much more natural, expressive and in tune with the music than ‘theory-based playing’. Why? It’s actually pretty hard to come up with musical non-sense. Sure, it’s easy to press random keys on a piano or hit random strings and frets on a guitar that sounds like non-sense. But to actually imagine complete non-sense? Try it, it’s incredibly difficult.

So whenever you play something that sounds un-musical to you, this is probably not something your musical imagination suggested. It’s your hands just pressing buttons and a sign that you need to gently remind yourself to bring your attention back to the music and listen to the musical ideas that pop into your head.

Solution 2: Play Solos on Just One String

One way to get away from the scale patterns is to restrict yourself to just one string. You won't be able to rely on licks you've learned or scale patterns you're comfortable with. Instead, you'll just keep things simple. So: put on a track you like, pick a string and try to play some simple melodies on just that string.


So What About Theory?

Learning scales, arpeggios and music theory can be incredibly beneficial. But there’s a danger to it. Your theoretical knowledge can start to dictate what you play, making your playing sound bland, boring, ‘scaley’, theoretical or unmusical. It’s something that many guitarists run into at some point.

I suspect this happens because the guitar is such a visual instrument, unlike a trumpet for example. There are shapes and patterns you can learn that ensure you’ll never play a ‘wrong’ note. (Which is a bit short-sighted, but more on that later.) While this can make it easier to get started with playing solos and improvising, the danger is that you start ‘pressing buttons’ instead of playing music. Yes, all the notes you play will sound like they are in the 'correct' scale. In fact, that’s exactly what it will sound like: a bunch of notes in a scale instead of a melodic, musical story.

The solution is to tune into what you hear and just play that, as I’ve outlined above. But you might be thinking: ‘Wait a second, so I just shouldn’t bother with music theory at all?!” And that’s a fair question: what role does music theory play in this story?
Here’s the short answer:
“You need to learn everything, then forget everything you learned".

To find out what that means, here’s the longer answer.

Thinking, Fast and Slow

Take a look at this:

- What is 2 + 2?
- Complete the phrase ‘bread and ….’

As you read these questions, an answer immediately popped in your head. It is your mind in ‘automatic mode’. You didn’t try to solve them, it just happens. It’s fast thinking. Similarly, your mind is in ‘automatic mode’ when you:

- are driving on an empty road
- detect that one object is closer to you than another
- orient yourself to a sudden sound
- read words on a large bill board

Now take a look at this:

- 17 x 24 = ?

You immediately know it’s a math problem and that you can solve it. You also instantly know that 153 and 12,909 are both implausible answers. But without spending some time on the problem, you can’t be sure that the answer isn’t 568. An exact answer didn’t come to mind as you read the question and you can choose whether or not you want to engage with the question to figure it out. Try to solve the problem if you haven’t already.

What you’ve just experienced is slow thinking. You’ll notice this is a pretty slow, deliberate and effortful process. You felt the burden of holding all the information in your head, while going through a series of steps to get to the answer (which is 408 by the way).

This is the explanation from the first couple of pages of Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. Kahneman demonstrates that we have two systems. A fast, automatic and effortless system and a slow system that you can choose to use for complex computations.

Slow and Fast Music Theory

Let’s circle back to music theory. Say you’re playing a solo and think to yourself: “Let me try that new scale I learned last week.” You might get lucky and sound half-decent, but most likely whatever you play will sound forced and unnatural. (I’m speaking from personal experience here – this is something that happened to me all the time when I was at music school and had to learn a ton of new scales and positions etc.)

Contrast that with a situation where that scale has become part of your ‘fast’ system. You hear a melody in your head and instantly know which scale pattern it corresponds with and how to play it. The line sounds good, because it’s pretty difficult to think up stuff that makes no musical sense.

In other words, we should get music theory to a point where it’s ‘automatic’. It shouldn’t be something that you choose to use, it should just be there. A painter isn’t racking his brain to remember whether this or that colour is called mint green or magenta. He simply knows. He isn’t thinking about drawing a ‘circle’, he just does it.

When theory becomes automatic, everything slowly fuses together. You know what a note will sound like, you know what that sound is called, and you know what my fingers have to do… There isn’t one thing that comes first. It all happens simultaneously.

The million dollar question is of course: how do you make theory automatic? How can you make it part of your fast system? The answer, I think, isn't all that complex. It's exactly like how you learned to read and do math: a lot of practice and repetition.

Forgetting What You've Learned

Even though certain theoretical concepts might be becoming part of your fast system, you might not automatically get away from theory-based playing. For many players, knowing the 'correct' scales feels safe and secure. So a great way to get rid of that and start playing from your musical imagination is to play freely improvised music. Play along to records without having any idea what the chords are. Meet up with a friend and just start playing. One fun exercise is to agree on a title such as 'Outer Space Love Story', 'Canadian Rain Dance' or 'The Coronation of the Emperor' and see what you collectively think it should sound like.

The great thing about these exercises is that it’s impossible to rely on theoretical knowledge all the time. You have no idea what the key is or what scale you should use, so you have to trust your ears.


Playing More melodically


Here’s a challenge. Grab your guitar and play a famous melody. Beethoven, Miles Davis, Pharell Williams…. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s a melody. Not a riff, not a lick - a melody. Something you can sing. Got that? Excellent, now play ten more.

Surprisingly difficult isn’t it? As guitar players, we play a lot of chords and ‘cool’ guitar lines, but melodies… For some reason, we often leave it to the pianist, saxophone player or singer and wait until the solo comes so we can showcase our mind blowing licks.

It’s weird. Many guitarists can’t play a simple, but beautiful melody to save their life. This is largely because we’re so used to playing stuff that’s comfortable to playing on guitar. But a couple of years ago, I felt a lot of my playing sounded a bit ‘guitarish’. I wanted it to be more melodic.

My teacher told me to learn more melodies and I went a bit over board and decided to create a list of 100 melodies. I’d use anything I liked. Indie guitar riffs, movie themes (The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; The Godfather), jazz themes, melodic bass lines from Hip Hop songs… It helped me to get away from the ‘guitarish’ pentatonic blues lick playing.

Creating a list like this will make you explore other less obvious options on the fretboard. It will also make it easier to play all the stuff you hear in your head. The stuff that doesn’t really care whether or not something is ‘comfortable’ or obvious to play on a guitar.

(Plus maybe, you'll start to see the scale patterns you've learned, used in a completely different way. Plus, if you learn them by ear, you're ears will become awesome.)


Summing up

I hope this article has given you some idea of the direction you should be heading in to play even better solos. I know that the answer often seems to be ‘more theory and scales’, but that’s rarely the case in my experience. It’s more about tapping into imagination. Every single time.

As always, I'm trying to make this article as good as it can possibly be. So if you have any thoughts on how this can be better or questions, please let me know! Just leave a comment or email me: just(at)