by Randell Young
In response to my article “On Soloing”, I received a number of emails from players who loved the concepts and were trying hard to incorporate them into their performance but still felt like they were stuck in a rut of playing the same tired riffs over and over. “I feel like I’m playing in circles. What additional advice can you give me to help me break out of this pattern?”, many of them asked.
So it occurred to me that my original piece was oriented to more a advanced player and that it probably wasn’t worth spit to a lot of guys who were more in need of a practical, step-by-step method rather than some theoretical overview.
If you’re one of these guys, hopefully, I can make amends here and get you to a place where the first article will be of use to you as well. So, here we go.
A central concept that is generally lost on most guitar players is that soloing is actually composing.
Most guitar players have oriented themselves to think of a solo as an opportunity to demonstrate how fast they can play and/or drop in some licks that they think are impressive.
When you hear a great melody sung by a vocalist, are you impressed by how “fast” they sing? Of course, not. How about when you hear a great sax solo, are you impressed by how fast the sax is played? Again, no way.
So why is it that guitar players think that by playing a lot of notes they are going to win some prize? And we make jokes about drummers being crazy.
Let me take a stab at an explanation for this speed obsession thing.
When one is learning how to play the guitar, one passes through a stage where it is difficult to play things at quicker tempos. So one feels challenged by playing eighths or 16ths and when performed successfully, one feels a certain sense of satisfaction.
It is this sense of satisfaction gained during the learning stage that leads guitarists to think that by choosing notes of shorter duration (and thus playing a lot more notes) that the solo must be good. But this is an illusion and until one gets over this illusion, it is simply not possible to play a decent solo.
Another problem with a bias to play “fast” is that it seems to lead guitarists to play out of time with the track. If they are playing 16th notes but they are not at the top of their speed range and they can’t play 16th note triplets or 32nd notes at that tempo, then they play their 16ths faster than the track. Before you know it, their rushing becomes habitual and then absolutely everything they play is fighting the rhythm track.
You may have read somewhere that it is a good idea to sing along with your solos in order to slow you down and give you a better appreciation for the melodic value of what you are playing. This technique has some value and works wonders for some people but it also has its limitations.
For one, nobody has a vocal range sufficient to accommodate the range of the guitar. Also, once one has fallen into a pattern of repeating the same riffs over and over, singing along with those same riffs isn’t going to make much difference.
Again, the central concept is that solos are compositions. In order to solo well, one needs to develop an ability to compose melodies. So how do you do that? Well, here is what I suggest.
Start by playing the melody of the song.
Now a guitar creates sound differently than a voice so allow that to effect the melody and color it. For example, use hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends to give the melody a slightly different interpretation. Play the same notes as the vocalist is singing but let the guitar be a guitar. You will find that there are many songs where this is all you need to do and you will have a fine solo.
Finding those songs within your existing repertoire will not only improve your show; it will also help you to begin to approach all of your solos differently.
Playing riffs that you have copied from other guitar players is probably the second worst approach, the first being just running through scales as quickly as possible. It is not only that one needs to develop their own unique voice (and copying licks is not taking you in that direction). You also need to think in terms of composition and melody rather than technique and regurgitation.
If you go back through your repertoire of material and rework your solos by interpreting the vocal melody on the guitar, you are going to imprint into your subconscious mind a number of melodies. You are going to start to work in terms of simple musical phrases rather than meaningless barrages of notes. You are going to learn some things about how variation in note values, rhythms and spaces can create tension and interest. And, hopefully, you are going to begin to move away from a riff-oriented approach and become more composition minded.
After you have learned all of the melodies in your repertoire, go back and see where you can deviate from that melody in just a section or two. In other words, let’s say that you are playing over a 12-bar progression. Maybe there is a measure or two during which you can play something with the same rhythm as the original melody but using different notes. Or maybe there is a measure or two where you can play the same notes but apply a slightly different rhythm. Or maybe there is a place where you have a different phrase altogether but it lands on the same resolving tone.
So now you have two categories of solos in your repertoire. One, solos where you are going to give a guitar interpretation of the vocal melody (using the unique elements of the guitar such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends) but still sticking with the vocal melody. And two, solos where you have kept most of the vocal melody intact but in a few places you have altered a phrase or two.
You will find that there are certain songs in your repertoire where one of these two approaches is perfect and you will never want to play anything else. Great. From now on, play these songs in live performance just like this with no additional improvisation. They are perfect as they are so leave them alone. Don’t think of them as “throw-aways”. Play them with as much emotional intensity as you can muster even though you know exactly what is coming.
Next move on to those songs for which this approach does not seem to be a perfect fit. On these songs begin by learning the melody and adding certain embellishments or modifications. Then move on by using the same beginning and ending notes for the phrase but making up something different in between. This will help you to learn and internalize the concept of resolving on the right note and will give both you and your audience some basic outline of where you are going.
As you compose your phrases, try to interject as much variety as possible consistent with maintaining both the musicality and integrity of the idiom, i.e., don’t play licks that don’t fit either the mood or the style of the piece.
Here are some types of variation to try.
Use a range of note and rest values, e.g., whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, eighths, dotted-half’s, dotted-quarters and triplet-half’s, quarters and eighths. Whole rests, half rests, quarter rests, eighth rests, use them all. Use staccato and legato devices. Until it becomes natural, make a mental note to work in as many value variations as possible. It is amazing how many amateur solos consist of only one note value (using eighths or 16ths or eighth-note triplets) – and no rests – throughout the entire solo.
Play, at various times during your solo, on both the middle, lower and upper registers of the guitar. Don’t just riff on that one part of the guitar where you feel most comfortable. The same note played on a different string will give you a completely different tone and texture. Be aware of this element and use it to select the best place to phrase both your chords and passages and to create additional variety and interest in your solo. And use the different registers of the guitar to add variation to your solo and to give you different ideas.
Depending on the piece, use both your major scale and your blues scale. And play these in different positions on the neck. When you go to the 4th or 5th chord in your progression, change scales and then come back to your original scale when you come back over the one. This works going from major to blues or blues to major, either way, as long as you are in a major key. And in your blues scale mode, do not limit yourself to just the pentatonic notes. In blues mode, let the pentatonic notes do the heavy lifting but color your solo with a few well-chosen outside notes as well.
Also keep in mind that soloing using just the notes in a scale is only one approach. You might call this a “horizontal” approach. The “vertical” approach would be to select your notes from the chord you are playing over. Keyboard players seem to have a pretty easy time with this concept but guitar players often struggle. Having all your sharps and flats all singled out on the black keys does make certain things easier to visualize on the keyboard but it’s really not all that difficult to apply this concept to the guitar.
A good way to start would be to add a section, somewhere in your solo, where you would play a three-tone chord on your E, B and G strings using your open D or E finger positions and moving them around to create your chord. Then, go right back into your scale. Just a little bit of this will add a huge amount of variety and interest to your solo.
So now you have three types of solos in your repertoire. One where you play a guitar interpretation of the melody, one where you add embellishments or modifications to the melody and a third where you begin and end on the first and last notes of the melody but apply your own phrases in between.
Once you have mapped out your night’s solos in this fashion you will be able to see which strategy works best for each tune. Then, on those tunes where you still feel compelled to go further away from the original melody, make up your own beginning and ending notes and compose completely new phrases.
If you have not shorted yourself by skipping over the first three solo concepts, you are bound to come up with much better ideas now that you have reoriented yourself to think in terms of melody and not technique and to apply the more esoteric concepts that you read about in “On Soloing”.
Don’t give up your first two solo modes. There are songs where it is simply perfect to play just the melody or an embellished melody. And there are many songs where you want to begin and end at the same point as the melody. When you do get to that third or fourth mode, your ideas will not only sound fresh to the audience (since they haven’t been listening to the same riffs all night) they will actually be more creative because your imagination will be working along more musical lines.
One final idea. When you play with other guitar players or with other guitar players listening, you will have a tendency to fall back into the bad habit of riffing as fast as you can.
If just their presence doesn’t cause you to do this, as soon as you hear someone else play a bunch of notes, you are going to want to play at least that many. But don’t. Instead have the self-confidence to let the other guy win the who’s faster contest. If you don’t have the self-confidence to do it, then, trust me and do exactly as I tell you just this one time.
If you are following another guitar solo, always play fewer notes. In fact, the fewer the better. Concentrate on playing a great melody.
While the other guy is focused on winning the who’s faster contest, you will be focused on winning the who’s more musical contest. And unless he figures out what is happening and gives up his fixation with speed, he will have no chance to win the later.
If the guy in front of you has just rattled off a mindless succession of same note value scales and you follow that with just the melody of the tune, you will get a better response from the audience every time.
On the next tune, “your opponent” will play even more notes (and probably rush the tempo if he wasn’t already). Just come back and play the melody or a slight embellishment of the melody. Again, you will get the better audience response and the other guy will get even more frustrated and play even more stupid shit.
After you have used this technique to establish yourself as the more musical soloist, you may as well go back and win the who’s faster war as well – but not by playing more notes (or by actually playing faster). If you’re both playing eighth note triplets at a 120 bpm tempo (and you’re both playing in time), obviously, your both playing at the same speed. But if you save your little flurry of notes for the last bar or two of your solo (and work up to it by playing a nice little simple melody) the contrast will make it seem to the audience that you are playing much faster than you actually are.
I am not a proponent of the concept of music as a competition or of trying to outshine or upstage anyone you are playing with either live or in the studio. I just don’t see music that way.
In fact, I’m not really all that comfortable giving you the tools to frustrate your other guitar player friends at your local jam session but I do so in the hopes that you (and maybe even your victims) will gain something from the experience.
Until you get to a certain level, when you are around other guitar players, either at a jam session or on a gig or even maybe in your own band, you are going to be tempted to get into the “who can play faster” thing.
Since we have no music police in the free world, I’m trying to give you a technique to help you change your solo mindset, break some bad habits, teach yourself the power of eloquence and perhaps even rid the world of a few million superfluous guitar notes.
If you try the strategy of playing fewer notes, composing melodies rather than throwing off riffs and saving anything quick for the last bar or so, you are not only going to sound better, your audience (by way of their response) is going to give you (and everyone else on stage) a great lesson in the value of these techniques.
As a result, you will develop more confidence in them, apply them with greater consistency and, practically overnight, become a much more seasoned player.
Best of luck to you.
And if all else fails, you can always take up the drums.
See also On Soloing.