What Makes The Perfect Guitar Solo?
Ok, admittedly this is very subjective topic and, click bait title aside, one person’s idea of a show stopping guitar solo is another’s musical nonsense. When thinking of the ‘perfect guitar solo’ (if indeed there is such a thing) plenty of famous offerings spring to mind. Rather than discuss or rank the best guitar solos from highest to lowest, we are going to take a peek under the hood and investigate the elements which unite the most popular solos of all time.
1. They fit the song!
Having the musical awareness to create something which serves the music which forms the back drop of a guitar solo is actually half the battle and a preserve of every great guitar player you can imagine.
Now, we are not necessarily just talking about something as stylistically ‘on the nose’ as Stevie Ray Vaughan not choosing to add some tapping licks to his Texas Flood solo (although you are welcome to try this yourself!). This is a simple case of a great solo never sounding ‘forced’ - as if the guitarist has built his solo around a lick or musical idea. Or shoe-horning their favourite, muscle memory based ideas over the top.
Think of any Santana solo - whilst you may not be instantly blown away with a tsunami of shred - listen to his solos with a different perspective and you will hear how he mirrors and matches the rhythm, feel and ‘bounce’ of the band behind him; particularly the rhythm section.
In our case this may mean paying close attention to what the drums or bass are doing and trying to emulate their feel and accents - even when jamming to simple backing track in your bedroom!
This leads us on to the next feature, which also crops up in the best solos ….
2. Non guitarists love them too!
What does this tell us? In a word - melody! For example, think of any drunken impromptu sing-along of Bohemian Rhapsody (you know you’ve all done it too!), when it comes to that guitar solo, not one non guitarist in the room is unable to sing the whole thing note for note. Apply this same reasoning to any other famous guitar solo, even the speedier ones, and the chances are you could sing it back from memory.
In short, a great guitar solo is as memorable as a good movie - there is a story, a journey - a beginning, middle and end, with distinct points which make it unique and distinguish section from section. Like a good movie there is also a balance of drama, plot twists and interesting themes; creating a musical piece of work which stands on its own and has merits as a piece of music within the song.
For the shredders - consider any extended John Petrucci guitar solo - when given space to create a longer solo - he doesn’t melt your face off straight off the bat, there is an opening repeating melody which is embellished, the solo either builds in intensity or speed and takes the listener on a journey.
For an example of a guitar solo which creates a story and a theme, you can’t go wrong with November Rain; each of Slash’s lead breaks offer something of a new melody and match the mood of the song section, but the real money is in that outro guitar solo! There is a returning melody which is a running theme throughout and Slash builds in intensity and speed in-between each repeat (note how the drama of his licks also match the orchestra behind him!).
What can we learn from this? Build things around a simple melody, even if you plan on shredding in and around it. This will give you a musical base with which to anchor your ideas. If you are singing your last improvised guitar solo in the shower - you are winning!
3. They say something!
Now, I know describing a guitar player as having ‘something to say’ is almost as much of a cliche as the cliched guitar licks many try to avoid! Guitar cliches have their place, and in some situations we really want to hear ‘that lick’, but think about any premier level guitar solo and you’ll find that there is a genuinely original musical statement in there; something which turns heads and grabs your attention. Players like Steve Vai and Jeff Beck excel in doing this and their solos exude their individual personality and character.
Sometimes a great solo is all about making a statement - something to get people talking or to challenge the normal conventions of what is expected from a guitar solo. Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine is a famous champion of this idea and approaches each guitar solo with the express intention of playing something he has never played before!
4. They make you feel something!
If we are talking David Gilmour then emotion, expression and tone are very much in spectrum of dynamics and subtly, pulling on your heart strings with every fluid bend. But it doesn’t have to be this gently emotionally charged; take Zakk Wylde’s No More Tears solo and what you feel is his aggression and energy, similarly any Dimebag solo. We can attribute as much emotional content to a guitar solo which makes you feel uncomfortable with the use of darker sounding tonalities or angst too!
So there we go, sure, you may have your own ideas about what makes the perfect guitar solo, wether it is non of the above or a combination of all 4!