What Makes a Great Guitar Solo?

Maybe you are content to just bash out a few power chords with attitude on your
Gibson Les Paul (or look-a-like copy), having mastered your A, C, G's, or perhaps you
are happy to strum a few party tunes in open chords on an acoustic guitar. But what
if that is just not enough? What if you dream of the glory days of the mighty guitar
solo, and want to emulate your heroes? Let's face it: how many of us are still in
love with geat guitar solos? So what makes a great guitar solo? Well I have thought
of a few ideas that I feel help make up the great solos.

Firstly, to me it is all about getting your guitar to tell a story. When there are
vocals happening, they are telling a story, and people listen to the words to pick
up on the tale being told. So, when the vocals stop and the guitarist takes over,
the guitar should have it's own story to tell. Take the listener on a journey
somewhere through the notes you play. No matter how fast you play, or how stylish
you look, you will lose the listener pretty quickly if they don't sense a pattern,
or feel that the instrumentalist is taking them somewhere. Use the guitar to create
a mood. To do that, chose the right scale or mode to acheive the type of mood you
want to create.

And what you don't play is as important as what you do play. Leave
breathing spaces, and don't try to cram in too much. Pink Floyd guitarist Dave
Gilmour was a master at this. Never overplaying, he seemed to have such a brilliant
knack of finding just the right notes to tell a mesmerising story in each solo. You
would not say he had lightning fingers, or space race chops, but solos like the two
in "Comfortably Numb" or those in "Another Brick in the wall pt 2" and "Time" will
go down as some of the most loved ever. And what feel! Some elastic stretching
string bends were trade marks. Which brings me to a point here: Bends are great, but
practice until you can get them precisely in tune, because a string bent too flat,
or too sharp is not a nice sound for your average listener to hear. But a slow or
fast bend done right, is an asset to any solo.

Also, try to develop a nice vibrato to use when holding long notes. And then, if you get really good at it, you might want to try adding a vibrato at the top of some of your string bends before releasing the string. Some guitarists have a really quick vibrato, some do it slowly. Brian May is a great player to watch for studying vibrato.

Get familiar with scales and modes, and try to learn to play them in different
positions. Also, learn the notes on the fretboard on every string, so that you can
consciously think of which notes will fit the chord structure and rhythm underneath.
It can sound great to play a scale on a single string, hammering and pulling-off, on
the way up or down the neck. But you need to know the notes to play, or it will not
sound good at all. So memorize the neck and each string's notes.

Speaking of hammers and pulls; put them to good use in a solo, but try also to use
picked notes and some long held notes, with bends or vibrato for effect and
variation. When hammering and pulling, it is important (as with picking) that each
note is distinctly heard, and not a slurred mix of notes that are indistinguishable
to the listener. Aim to finish each phrase on a root note, or a nice harmony. The
last note of the solo may be the most memorable, so make it sweet to lead back out
to the next verse, or whatever is to follow.

The main points for me with soloing are these:

a) Don't overplay. Remember most listeners are not other guitarists impressed by speed and glamour, but rather, Joe (or Jane) Public who want to hear melody.

b) Be precise in all you do. Slow it down if that is what it takes to make every
note clearly heard.

c) Think melody, story, journey to some destination musically.

d) Get your tone right and your pitching right.

e) Use effects that compliment the song. Correct delay and reverb times etc, and don't overdo them. A nice guitar and amp with good tonal settings is a great start
to a good overall sound.

f) Be confident and energetic, or slow, moody and brooding . Think about what the song needs, and then play accordingly. Don't try to fit every trick in your bag into each solo.

Well I hope this has been some help to you. A good idea is to listen closely to some
of the best guitarists, and classic solos, and try to figure out for yourself what
it was that made them so good.

And if all else fails, get an electric drill and play your solos with that. Or grab
a violin bow, use your teeth or buy a plastic guitar with juke box music programmed
into it. But whatever you do: have fun!

Tony Koretz is a musician, singer, songwriter and audio engineer, based in New Zealand. He is involved in all aspects of music production, from writing and playing music to recording, mixing and mastering.

He runs Rocksure Soundz Ltd, a recording and production company.

Tony Koretz

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