Anatomy of a Guitar Solo


So I’ve done two posts for my Great Guitar Solos series, and I realized… I never really explained what I like in a guitar solo… that what… what good guitar is too me.

Now, of course, what makes a guitar solo good is a subjective question. There are even people out there who don’t like guitar solos!

I know… right? Seems like a mythical concept, like gods! But oh… they exist. They’re out there…

😛

Anyways…

This post explains the kind of guitar that I personally like to hear. This is only my subjective tastes, so…

Yeah…

People write off soloing today because they consider it self-indulgent. And yes, in many ways, that’s very true. It doesn’t help that in the 80’s we had lead guitarists who honestly did not know how to solo. Sure, they knew the technique. They could shred and sweep n’ shit… but they couldn’t solo. They would play these insane shredding solos on slow, emotional songs. They would even insert solos into songs where they just didn’t fit!

So the first thing I look for in a guitarist is how well they know their music. Technique is only a small part of it. You also have to know if a guitar solo will even fit, where in the song it will fit, what kind of solo will fit, and how you’re going to play it. You can’t shred over a slow love ballad, and you really can’t solo over most pop songs. If the song’s an acoustic song, don’t throw in a heavily-distorted shredder. If what you have is an experimental psychedelic piece, don’t play a bunch of straightforward metal licks.

In other words, before you write that solo, ask yourself if, what, when, where, and how.

A good guitarist is a guitarist that almost always has a good answer for each of those questions.

The second thing I look for is how they use their technique, and how much knowledge they have of different techniques. Knowledge of each the scales and theory only gets you so far. The question is whether or not you know how to utilize them. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Change it up! Also, sloppy is not necessarily a bad thing. Jimi Hendrix proved that. Sloppy can actually be one of your techniques if you know how to use it. Shredding is another great technique, but like all techniques, only works in some situations, and not always.

In most songs with solos, the solo is only effective when it’s a part of the song. It should drive the song forward, not stop everything and break the mood. David Gilmour is the master at this. His solos always propel the songs he plays on forward. He never plays anything that doesn’t fit. This is also why Jimmy Page’s solos in “Stairway to Heaven” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” are so damn good.

The third thing I look for is something I talked about in my first post of the Great Guitar Solos series:

How slow can they play?

For this one, I’m just gonna quote what I said in my first Great Guitar Solos post about “Comfortably Numb

My measure of a good soloist is not their breadth of knowledge on the techniques, or their ability to use them. I really don’t care how fast they can play. I couldn’t care less that they can play a whole solo of nothing but pinch harmonics. I’m appreciative of, but not awed by, a solo of sweeps.

The reason this solo is my favorite is because it soars. It relies not on speed or technique, but on space, rhythm/timing, and ingenious use of chorus, reverb, and delay. Of course, if you don’t have rhythm, or understanding of the scale used (a basic minor pentatonic), or understanding of the playing techniques Gilmour employs, you will fail at this solo. And this betrays yet another amazing thing about it: If you just listen to the solo, it sounds very easy, but that’s actually deceptive. Yes, learning the notes, in that order, is very simple. You can even build the effects and the technique. You could play a perfect copy of this solo, make not a single mistake, hit every note perfectly, and still sound like shit. It’s the deliberateness with which it’s played. If your timing is even slightly off… even by a hair… you will destroy this solo. And getting that timing is not easy; at all.

The best part of it is that, in Gilmour’s hands, that deliberateness is actually improvised. The solo, though rehearsed, includes sections that are not the same throughout. Compare the version on the DVD to the version on the released soundtrack of the show (which, unlike the DVD, includes audio clips from different nights of the tour), and you will hear differences. Another great example, which I’ll actually be highlighting in a future post, is the song “Money” as performed on the P*U*L*S*E* tour. The solo on the DVD is markedly different than the one of the soundtrack, and yet both are brilliant and include that deliberateness that could normally only happen by way of tons of practice and rehearsal in the hands of your average lead guitarist, and yet is improvised quite well by Gilmour.

What I’m talking about here is how the solo is crafted. In many cases, it isn’t how many notes you play, but how much space you leave. That space between each note can be even more important than the notes themselves. Sometimes, you have to play slow.

But playing slow isn’t as easy as many think. You have to be very deliberately when you play slow. Playing slow requires more than just your run-of-mill Marshall distortion effect. If you aren’t careful about crafting space, your solo will inevitably sound boring, stale, and dry. You really don’t want that.

That guitar solo Gilmour plays in “Comfortably Numb” P*U*L*S*E* highlights exactly what I mean.

The fourth and final thing I look for is the uniqueness of the playing.

I adore solos that do things you wouldn’t normally hear with a guitar. It really was Jimmy Page’s use of the viola bow on his guitar that turned me on to psychedelic and experimental guitar, and it’s why I now listen to progressive rock like Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree and psychedelic rock like Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix and drone like Noveller (Sarah Lipstate… whom you’ll read about later in the Great Guitar Solos series). I want to see guitarists that break new ground with the guitar, driving it into areas it’s not normally meant to be in. Conventional is boring, so break the conventions! Good guitar solos aren’t just a few bars of scales… they are more than that. The guitar is so much more versatile than people realize. So I look for guitarists who think of new and innovative ways of using it.

Effects are a huge part of this. Some guitarists like to stick to basic distortion, reverb, and wah, and that’s fine, but that’s also boring as all fuck. Get delay! Tape echo! Flanger! Leslie! Different kinds of wahs! You don’t need to just stick with simple. When used right, effects can be amazing. Yes, you can also overuse them to drown out the fact that you aren’t that good, but I would argue that’s much rarer of guitarists who use effects than the stereotype would suggest.

So, in summary:

1. Know your music. Before you write that solo, ask yourself if, what, when, where, and how.

2. Don’t stick to one or two techniques. Incorporate all the techniques you know. Don’t be a one-trick pony in your playing.

3. Don’t be afraid of playing slow. Slow is good! But make sure you know how to craft slow. Know how to make the spaces between the notes work for you.

4. Experiment. Don’t constantly stick to conventions. Effects can be your friend. Have fun, and try new things.

Really, that’s all it takes to be an amazing guitarist. Of course, these aren’t actually easy (as a failing wannabe myself, I know). But you can get them down. And if you can, you should.

Also, if you’re hoping to suggest great guitarists to me, keep these in mind. I simply won’t listen to shredder-only guitarists. They have to do more… a lot more…

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About Nathan Hevenstone

I hate straight, white, cis-gendered, able-bodied men. I also play guitar and sing, and I'm an atheist and anti-theist. What now?
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