If you are like most guitarists, you probably, at one point or another have found it difficult to improvise solos on guitar. Even if you possess a high level of technique and good knowledge of music, sometimes your advanced skills (ironically) can be a detriment to self expression if used inappropriately or at the wrong moment.
In a way, sometimes it is possible to restrict your own creativity by being "too advanced". When you have many techniques, areas of knowledge and skills to choose from and are forced to make soloing decisions quickly, you may often end up making bad musical choices which distort your creativity. Fortunately, there are solutions to solving this problem.
I want to offer you several suggestions on how to make the most out of any soloing situation you may find yourself in and give you general ideas which you can apply right away.
If you want to see and hear how all of the concepts (that I am about to describe) were put into practice, you can watch a free improvising video of me playing using the concepts I will discuss below. It is available to my free newsletter subscribes. Otherwise, simply follow along with the rest of this article, and apply these ideas into your own playing.
You probably know that it is important to think of "melody first" when starting to solo, but I am going to tell you a bit more about how you can use melodic tools to establish a "basic framework structure" in your solos that will enable you to add faster parts later without taking away from self-expression.
So let's imagine that you are about to start soloing. What should you do or think about first? Here are my recommendations:
1. Start simple. Don't be tempted to shred too much in the beginning of your solo! This may seem like an obvious point to some, but I want to make sure we are on the same page. Think of melody first and treat your slower melodic lines as a "skeleton" and think of any faster fills as "fleshing out" the skeleton. It may be tempting to play fast too soon (especially if you are able to play fast), but when you begin any new solo it is much better to think of melody first.
Don't get me wrong, I love to play fast and shred in my solos, but I always make sure that there is a melody in them first, before thinking about adding faster parts. (In the video I mentioned above, although I do play a fast lick leading into the main solo, the majority of the solo is very melodic and slow on purpose). Even if you choose to play faster licks, they need to "lead into something" and serve a musical purpose.
2. Practice "saying more" with only one note. When I was taking improvisation guitar lessons with my awesome guitar teacher Tom Hess, one of the things he had me practice was playing only one note, using only bends and vibrato as my phrasing tools. This one technique has done an incredible amount not only for my vibrato, but for my overall creativity and expression. In fact, sometimes I even use this technique in actual soloing situations when it is appropriate to create actual phrases with only one note (more on this later, in point 4 below).
3. To get the most dramatic effect possible from your solos, try to create a harmonic background that has a lot of extended chords (seventh chords, add note chords, etc.) For example, in the solo that I improvise in the video mentioned above, I play over one of my most favorite progressions, iadd9 - VI7 - iv7 - ii half diminished add 11- V7 add 13. Because the chords in this progression are "add note" chords or seventh chords, soloing over them lends itself very nicely to melodic playing.
Record this progression yourself and you can hear what I'm talking about when you try to solo over it (or you can download a free backing track that I use here).
4. Take advantage of common tones. This is one of my favorite things to do when soloing melodically over chords that have a lot of notes in them (such as the progression used above). For example, the chords listed above offer several possibilities for common tones. Even if you did nothing else except hold one note (that is common to all chords) with heavy vibrato or bending a short distance away from that note while the chords change, you will still get a very cool sound. In the progression above, the note "C" is a chord tone in all but one of the chords, and you can take advantage of this when soloing to create passing tones, suspensions and other effects.
5. Repeat phrasing ideas in different octaves. It is a very cool thing to do that will help you get more expression out of shorter phrases, particularly if you make subtle variations in the phrasing using vibrato and other things.
After you have an identifiable melody in place (using ideas such as above), it is relatively easy to add more advanced things from that point such as, targeting melodic notes with a faster scale sequence, using arpeggios, etc. The good news is that if you approach soloing in such a way, your "shredding" will become very appropriate and will add to your self-expression rather than take away from it.
In the guitar solo video that I mentioned above, I tried to incorporate all of the five main points discussed in this article to show you how a basic melody can be developed. This outline is of course, not the only method of creating solos (there are many more), but it is one of my favorites.
I encourage you to give it a try and have fun with it!
Mike Philippov is a professional guitar player, recording artist and guitar/music teacher. His guitar practice columns about learning to play guitar are read by guitarists worldwide.
His instructional music web site PracticeGuitarNow.com contains advice for guitar players on overcoming the most common problems faced when learning to play guitar.