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Crafting a Great Guitar Solo
Written by Josh
Topics: Lessons
Randy Rhodes - Guitar
Soloist Extraordinaire
Most of a guitarist’s reputation is staked on how good their guitar solos are. You can have the
most rockin’ rhythm playing in a song that grooves to all hell, but if you clam on the solo you’re
pretty much done with. As good as you might chugga chug, without a spirit-lifting solo people
won’t say much about you. Let’s face it, the Young brothers are both great players, but Angus
definitely gets more of the attention than Malcolm. By comparison, players like Andy Timmons,
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Greg Howe, and Guthrie Govan don’t typically get praised showered
upon them for the cool 9th chord they played.
But what makes a solo great? Are there common threads that run
through the great solos in rock history? Better yet, how can we write a
guitar solo that both moves and inspires?
Today I’m going to share some ideas with you, devices and techniques
you can use to create a great guitar solo.
My personal opinion is that there are four parts to a great guitar solo:
Intro, Development, Climax, Outro. Here are some suggestions on what
you can do in each part to craft that Grammy-winning performance. This is by no means a
complete list, but at the very least it should spark some creative ideas.
Paul Gilbert
As is quite obvious, the introductory phrase or line of your solo must immediately grab the
The fast scale lead-in - This typically seems to start a little bit before the first bar of the
solo, during the tail end of the vocals. The end of the fast scale then usually gets capped off
by a longer, held note.
The big, slow bends - The beginning of Slash’s guitar solo on the song November Rain is a
good example. A big string bend (or bends) with good vibrato will instantly connect your
listeners with the emotion of the solo. For vibrato inspiration, look to John Sykes.
Restate the melody - Using the vocal melody as a jump-off point is an excellent way to
instantly connect your solo to the rest of the song.
Fire up the effects - A great wah-wah sweep, envelope filter, or delay can do wonders for
grabbing attention quickly. If you are planning on doing this, I would suggest that a little
less subtle will probably go over better in the introduction.
This is where you start to get more harmonically and technically creative. You’re building up to
the most important part – the climax – so what you do here can literally make or break the money
Variation on the melody - If you use device #3 from the Intro section, it might be a good
idea to reshape and restate the melody. Vary the the rhythm, change up some of the note
choices, or put in a few interesting connective runs between notes.
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Harmonize - There aren’t very many things cooler than a harmonized guitar line.
Personally, I don’t like entire guitar solos to be harmonized, but using two or more guitars
in harmony for part of the solo is awesome.
Rhythmic/Harmonic Complexity - Challenge the listener a little bit. Give them a puzzle to
solve, whether it be via a complex rhythmic pattern or sophisticated harmonic device
(Indian scales are great, for example). Syncopation, triplets, and 5:4/7:4 work very well, too.
Shock and Awe - Sometimes you just have to throw something into the mix that completely
turns the listener on their ear; something totally different that they were completely not
expecting. I’m not sure you would want to do this in every solo, but once in a while you
have to smack people in the back of their heads to wake them up.
Everyone’s favorite part, this is where you earn your paycheck. This is the highlight, the one part
of the solo that everyone will talk about as “the coolest part.”
Arpeggio hell - Yeah, this is the time to break out that monster two-handed, three-octave
arpeggio you’ve been practicing for two years.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat - Take a small melodic fragment and keep repeating it for a few
bars. I honestly do not know why people respond so favorably to this device (I personally
find it annoying), but it works. For an example of the extreme, start watching this Pat
Martino video at around 2:45; you’ll see what I mean.
The big bend, again - This is especially great in slow songs. Put a monster string bend right
at the pinnacle (that means the highest point, folks) of your solo – and hold it!
Play Really, Really Fast - I almost hate to add this one in, as I’m no longer a fan of the
useless wanking that I used to like growing up. But, I fully admit that many still do like it,
and so there is no better place to shred those 128th note runs than in the solo’s climax. If
you can play really, really fast, you should probably do so here. Just do me a favor and
don’t overkill; I’m begging you!
Depending on what your solo is like, you may or may not need an outro. Quite often a solo will
actually end during the climax. If you do need/want an outro, however, I think it should typically
only last for a bar or two. An outro is akin to saying “And stay out!” after you’ve already thrown
someone out of your house. Think of it as a time for punctuation rather than for introducing new
ideas. Unless, of course, the “new idea” is actually the next part of the song which has not been
playing previously.
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As I said in the beginning, this is by no means an exhaustive list; it is simply food for thought.
Everyone’s mileage will vary. The point I’m trying to make is that unless you are a world-class
improviser, your solo should be thought out and planned. Just like any good story, your solo needs
to have a beginning, middle, and end. Don’t blow your chance to shine because you got lazy and
just “went for it.”
Posted on 6 May 2010
Tags: AC/DC, Andy Timmons, delay, envelope filter, Greg Howe, guitar, guitar solo, Guns n
Roses, Guthrie Govan, John Sykes, November Rain, Pat Martino, Randy Rhodes, Slash, Stevie
Ray Vaughan, Sunny, wah-wah
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