How To Write A Great Guitar Solo
Being creative in the moment and making musical sense of the chaos of improvisational moments is a core skill for every developing guitarist. Can the practice of writing guitar solos tap into a better version of our soloing prowess? When given the time to write and react to music, do you have a show stopping guitar solo in you; just waiting to be discovered?
Why Practice Writing Solos?
Of course we can’t pre prepare every guitar solo we play and our improvisational skills still need to be top of the pile, but the pressure of ad libbing lines and phrases can often see us playing well within our comfort zone. During the throws of improvisation we are less likely to consider our choice of notes, take musical risks or consider how well our off the cuff lines really compliment the music to which we are soloing.
If penning guitar solos from scratch is not something you do regularly then here are some key pointers to help you on your way ……
1. Write Away From The Guitar
Thats right, put your axe away! Seems counter intuitive, right? However, coining melodies and songs without your chosen instrument has been the main stay of song writers since the dawn of songwriting itself. We guitarists tend to be led by our fingers and as such, we more than often produce ideas based on familiar patterns and fingerings; taking your fretboard out of the equation frees you up from the restrictions of scales or those troublesome signature licks you always play!
Try to listen to the backing track and simply hum or sing a solo, find a recurring melody you like the sound of and make a mental note of it. Listen to the parts where you feel that speed, drama or tension may sound good and conversely where subtlety or softer dynamics would work better. You’ll be surprised at the melodies and phrases you come up with when you don’t have licks and scales to set the borders.
2. Avoid The Home Notes (at least for a while)
So, your backing track is in A minor, let’s kick your first lick off on that A or C note and land on the A root again just to be sure! We all do it. But, considering a good guitar solo as a well told story, this has the narrative affect of a predictable movie plot, where you have already guessed the ending after 5 minutes. Leave your listener waiting for the resolution to those roots, 3rds and 5ths, throw in some plot twists by writing phrases which start on the less obvious notes from the scale - in A minor: F (the 6th) and D (the 4th), for example, are less stable than your A, C or E.
Holding out on landing on your key, predictable notes creates a sense that your solo isn’t finished - there’s more to your story. This entices the listener. If you choose to end a lick on a strong note; try displacing it so that it doesn’t land on the beat, or better still proceed or follow it with a rhythmically or musically tense/outside phrase.
3. Tell A Story
Following on from point 3, giving your guitar solo a narrative - a beginning, middle and end - is a common theme in most legendary solos. Now that you have time to plan your solo, think about its direction; like a good story, you may want to start with an action packed event to grab your audience’s attention - a fast lick or aggressive bend. Or begin by introducing and establishing your characters, before launching into some fancy finger work - choose a single melody to develop over the first few phrases or pick a single note/rhythm you want to set as a returning feature.
Add a different mood in the middle of your solo for contrast, shock your audience with another plot twist - if they are expecting a quiet lick, write a zinger to throw them off guard! Add all your drama and musical climaxes in the final part of your solo - save that big run or expensive lick you have written for the end and bring things home by landing on a strong note to finish your final phrase. Like a good story, your guitar solo should have twists and turns - a balance between stable and unstable sounding licks.
4. Use Rhythm As Your Blueprint
When all else fails to engage your writing muse, stripping things back to rhythm only will save the day. When all is said and done, it is the rhythm of your solo which most people will latch onto first. Much like point 1, put your guitar to one side and tap or clap out the contour of your guitar solo to the backing track; be inventive and consider rhythmic tension and drama/speed in the appropriate places. Once you can create something rhythmically interesting, then adding the notes is the easy part. You are more likely to think in terms of distinct phrases and musical sentences this way.
Once you are comfortable developing rhythmic themes, transfer this to one or two notes on your guitar - and be sure to continue to listen to how your rhythm compliments the other instruments on the track.
Finally - be sure to record your efforts. Sure, they will all sound rough around the edges when you are developing your ideas but this will give you a base from which to build full lines and phrases/melodies.
Writing a solo or two is a perfect way to investigate your musical potential. If you have struggled with improvisation in the past then this will also provide you with another creative outlet for your lead guitar playing.
Want to learn more about hitting those wrote notes during your solos? Levi Clay shows you how in part one of this lesson series: