Guitar solos 101
September 10, 2008 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I have been teaching myself guitar over the past few years and I still don't understand how to structure and play a guitar solo. Let's say I am playing a simple blues progression (I-IV-V) ...I have taught myself the blues scale... but when do I play what note? And do I need to move the scale up/down the neck in time with the progression. I want to be able to noodle an original solo... not just copy something already recorded.
posted by punkfloyd to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly, this is why its never recommended for people to self-teach themselves musical instruments. A lot of this stuff is easily absorbed with a teacher. Trying to figure it out on your own, especially via written text, isnt the best approach.

My teacher showed me a few licks and phrases that I have used. He helped me 'break out of the box.' Its not a science. Its an art. A lot of this stuff is transferred by osmosis.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:43 AM on September 10, 2008

It's very difficult *not* to copy someone when you're first starting with blues solos, IMHO. Blues is a tradition, anyway, and is not really know for being unpredictable. Almost everyone I know (myself included) listens to someone and cops bits and pieces of their style in order to learn, and over time develops his or her own "stock" building blocks and signature style. I would go ahead and listen to some of the real masters (SRV, Clapton. Eric Johnson, Cray and countless others) and start accumulating little runs and ideas that make sense to you.

Don't get hung up on being "original"; you're not making up chords, are you? Well, then don't feel too bad about playing some vintage riffs until you've created your own voice.
posted by littlerobothead at 7:44 AM on September 10, 2008

Musical creativity is about trust--trusting that if you noodle around for a while you'll get something great. Things will be crappy at first, but then you'll get it.

Get a recorder and play chords into it and then solo over it. Keep doing it until you figure it out.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:52 AM on September 10, 2008

Eric Clapton once said the best guitar solos are ones you could *sing*. I always found this bit of insight helpful.
posted by jknecht at 8:03 AM on September 10, 2008

No, you don't need to move the scale up or down the neck at first, stay in the box and master the first position. Work on hammer ons/pull offs, string bending and vibrato. Once you've got these techniques down you'll be able to start phrasing passages, crafting licks. Once you've mastered the first position and start to understand what phrases sound good over different parts of the chord progression, you'll be ready to try different positions, moving the scale up and down the neck relative to the progression's root.
posted by The Straightener at 8:04 AM on September 10, 2008

Best answer: The advantage of the "blues scale" is that there are no "wrong notes." You can play any of the notes at any time in the chord progression anywhere on the neck. When learning to improvise, keep it very simple and slowly work your way up. For example, try a few choruses where you just play one or two notes. Play around the with the rhythm and see how the notes sound over different chords. The first and fifth notes of the scale will be points of rest and return you can use to organize the tension and release. Then add another note and another until as you feel more comfortable. (Like try to solo on just (E and G for an E blues. Next time around use E - G - A. Then add the D below E. Then D-E-G-A-A# and so on. Do this slowly: maybe over the course of days or weeks. Then work your way down the scale: E-D-B, E-D-B-A#. Once you've mastered this start adding in other notes: G# or C#. These notes won't work over every chord though, but by this time you've hopefully developed your ear to the point where you can hear things like that.). This will help to develop your individual voice as well. (I also recommend singing simple melodic fragments and then trying to play them on the instrument.) Lots of great blues soloists don't play lots of notes - they use rhythm and expression (bending notes, double stops, etc.) to build there solos.

The other direction to take is to master a few licks that you really like. Ideally, you would figure these out by ear from recordings that you like, but learning a few from tab or other written sources can be an okay shortcut. Then practice playing these licks at different times in the progression. String them together in different ways. Change the beginning and ending of the phrases. Mix them up with the simple improvised melodies you've been working on.
posted by imposster at 8:08 AM on September 10, 2008

Best answer: You don't need to move up and down the neck to match the chord changes. Assuming you do that but keep using the same pentatonic-box pattern, you'll actually be changing the key you're playing by doing that. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but it's not necessary. You can keep noodling in the same key.

When you're just starting what you can aim to do is pick a scale (preferably a pentatonic one) and hit notes at random. Do short runs of notes, bend some of them, just play around. You'll stumble across various patterns that sound pretty cool--remember those and play with them, try variations of them. Any decent guitarist will have a bunch of these licks they've either come up with or cribbed from others that they use all the time.

So let's say you're soloing over a 12-bar Em/Am/B7 progression. Go sit yourself in one of the Em pentatonic boxes, say...
E A D G B E-----------o o o o o o  12-----------| | | | | |  13-----------| o o o | |  14-----------o | | | o o  15
...and go nuts.
posted by Khalad at 8:10 AM on September 10, 2008

Here's the problem: you want to know "when do I play what note?" But you're not interested in copying other solos. Well, there's no clear answer to when you play what note ... aside from copying great solos that have already been recorded, and getting an ingrained feel for how they place the notes.

This is the key: As a beginner when it comes to soloing, you should NOT avoid copying other people's solos. Copy solos!

Yeah, it's not the most creative endeavor. But mastering the guitar is hard work. You have to get through the more menial tasks before you can really shine.

Don't worry about being uncreative or derivative. Start out being totally derivative. Then, once you've mastered what people have done before, you can take what you've copied, then mix it up, play around with it, and come up with something that's really you.

That's deliberately vague because there is no real formula. You can play notes on the beat or off. You can move around the fretboard or stay in one place. You can play a minor or major pentatonic scale over a major key. (Don't play a major scale over a minor key, though -- there are some rules.)

If you don't copy other people at first, you'll be holding yourself back from developing chops, which will prevent you from fully expressing yourself in an original way. If you just learn soloing through pure, original noodling on, say, a blue scale, you'll block yourself off from seeing the ways that the great guitarists deviate from that scale to enhance their expressiveness. Avoiding influences altogether is not liberating; it will keep you trapped in the rules, which, needless to say, won't make you a very interesting player.

Also: don't just copy your favorite mind-blowing solo from obvious guitar giants like Hendrix or Clapton. Copy subtler guitar melodies by less flashy players like George Harrison. You can craft a whole solo by stringing together a bunch of short licks.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:17 AM on September 10, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks everybody! For reference, my guitar influences..and who's licks/style I have tried to play... are Keith Richards (can you solo in OPEN G?), Ron Wood, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Jimmy Page, Lindsey Buckingham, Joe Walsh, SRV, etc... so I am setting my site a bit high!
posted by punkfloyd at 8:25 AM on September 10, 2008

Aside from the great technical advice, here's a step back to some of the more mundane.

LISTEN as much as you can to music that inspires you. Everything is fodder for solos-vocal melodies, drums, everything. Listen and take the time to really think about what is going on and why you like it and how you can incorporate it.

PLAY with other musicians. Teaching yourself is great but soloing in a vacuum won't make you a good soloist. Interaction and sensitivity to what other players are doing is key. Don't wait too long to do this. Craigslist.
posted by quarterframer at 8:37 AM on September 10, 2008

You should use your ears and learn other people's licks. But there's a more straightforward answer to your questions.

The I7 chord contains the 1, 3, 5, and b7 scale tones. Therefore those notes will sound the most consonant. The typical blues scale is a minor pentatonic, which contains all of those notes except it has a b3 in place of the 3. Experiment with using both major and minor thirds over the I7 chord. The 5th and 1st scale degrees are good places to end a phrase.

The IV7 chord contains the 4, 6, 1, and b3 scale tones. The minor pentatonic in the key of the I chord contains all of those notes except for the 6, which is found in the major pentatonic.

The V7 chord contains the 5, 7, 2, and 4 scale tones. The major pentatonic has all of those except for the 4, which is found in the minor pentatonic.

So to sound consonant over a progression with I7 IV7 and V7 you'll want to employ a mix of the major and minor pentatonic scales in the same key, which is what most experienced blues players do. Now of course the chord tones aren't the only notes you should play -- that would make for a pretty boring solo. But they're the notes you should rest on and end phrases on, and they're good notes to hit just as the chord changes. When the I chord moves to the IV chord and you end your lick on the 4th scale degree it'll sound good.

Also learn a bunch of turnaround licks, which are distinctive phrases, usually kind of chromatic, to be played over the last two bars of the blues progression.

You don't need to move around the neck as the chords change, but you should learn the pentatonic in all 5 positions on the neck so that you can play it anywhere. You'll be very limited if you only know one or two positions.

Let me know if you need clarification on any of that.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:57 AM on September 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

damn dirty ape: Honestly, this is why its never recommended for people to self-teach themselves musical instruments.

I respectfully disagree. I'm not a bad guitar player, and played jazz piano for years in a jazz band, and am entirely self-taught.

I think the trick, punkfloyd, is that the playing isn't in books. It's great that you know the progressions; what you need is to play what guitarists play. It's always helped me to learn the solos of others; some people think it's pedantic, but I believe it's helpful to me to feel their voice and think about what they were doing when they put together the notes the way they did.

You don't even have to go so far, though. The way I did it? Play along with the radio. A lot. Like, an hour a day. Play over the solo of the guitarist, if you feel like it; rudely interrupt the drum solo or the singer by noodling over them or playing something epic. See if you can copy that little thing the bassist keeps doing. I liked playing along to a good radio station because playing along to a song by the Who and then the Bob Marley song that might come next meant that it never got boring, and because I'd have to switch gears; but sometimes it's nice, too, to put on one of my favorite records and see if I can figure out part of that awesome solo from the track I like most.

Yeah, this has drawbacks. When I started playing Jazz, which is a particularly sensitive genre when it comes to gelling with the other players, I had to learn to try to fit in with everybody else and unlearn some my tendency to play over others. But those things came pretty easily, and usually have to be learned anyhow. It's a lot easier to practice when you can set your own schedule; and, since I like to listen to music anyhow, it worked well to just sit there with my guitar while I was doing it and noodle along.
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 AM on September 10, 2008

punkfloyd: Let's say I am playing a simple blues progression (I-IV-V) ...I have taught myself the blues scale... but when do I play what note?

I wanted to point out (but forgot) that damn dirty ape is absolutely right on his main point: you have to try to get outside the box. There's a point where scales will hurt rather than help you. John Coltrane used to talk about this; early on in his career, he became obsessed with different kinds of scales and practiced them constantly. You can still hear in his very early records his tendency to play scales a lot when he was soloing. He always said that he had to work hard to break that habit later.

So listen to a lot of the guitar players you like. Every guitarist has little signature turns and little riffs they do, sometimes without even realizing it; pick those up, learn how to play them. Learn your favorite riffs. Try working them into unrelated solos. Breaking up the monotony is good.
posted by koeselitz at 9:04 AM on September 10, 2008

Best answer: The I-IV-V chords are built on the root note (aka the "I"), the IV note and the V note in the major scale (in guitar-speak, take any note as the root, go up 5 frets to get to the IV, then go up 2 more frets for the V. Happily, those notes are ALSO in the pentatonic (blues) scale. In E, it would be the E, A and B notes; in A, the A, D and E notes, etc.

In a standard blues scale "box" the root shows up 3 times and the IV and V show up twice. I'll use the key of A as an example, with the scale box starting on 5th fret, low E string. The root note (A) is found on the 5th fret, low E string; the 7th fret, D string; and the 5th fret, high E string. The IV note (D) shows up twice: 5th fret, A string; and 7th fret, G string. The V note (E) shows up twice: 7th fret, A string; and 5th fret, B string. This is 100 percent movable, just like a barre chord. It works the same for the root, IV and V of any key.

So what? you might ask. Well, a LOT of blues phrasing is built on following the chord changes. In other words, when you know that the change from the I chord to the IV chord is coming, be ready to land on one of those IV notes in the box. As applied to fancy soloing, if you know where your I IV and V NOTES are within the blues scale, you can give yourself anchors to play around as the chords go around. Once it's second nature, then you can forget it. A ton of signature blues phrases are ways of "landing" on that change, especially coming back to the root, because it sounds good regardless of where you are in the chord progression.

PS For any given key you can move the "blues box" down three frets and make it the "country box" (in A, play the box starting on the 2nd feet; in C, play the box starting on the 5th fret, etc. Notice that the root, IV and V are still in there, but some are in different places within the box pattern because you shifted it down. Try following I IV V changes in this configuration too. Walsh, Page, Wood spend a lot of time bouncing around in both boxes within a given song or solo.

PPS As for moving up and down the neck, you'll notice pretty quickly that all this stuff repeats itself because you can play the exact same notes many different places on a guitar, or you can play phrases from the standard boxes an octave higher if you scoot up and switch to the G, B and E strings. You will figure it out. Hope this helps.
posted by mundy at 9:47 AM on September 10, 2008 [3 favorites]

PS For any given key you can move the "blues box" down three frets and make it the "country box"

I'll point out that what mundy refers to as the "country box" is the major pentatonic, as opposed to the minor pentatonic of the "blues box."
posted by ludwig_van at 9:59 AM on September 10, 2008

Great advice above, especially by imposter.

Also seconding koeselitz on learning to play what other guitarists have played. I think there's such a huge emphasis on originality in much American culture that we miss out on what we can learn from masters. The point is not for you to learn to sound exactly like Clapton and Townshend and Page, but that's actually not what will happen when you listen to and learn from them - instead, you'll (hopefully) gain insight from their approaches, and get ideas that lead you in the direction of your own sound in the process.

But back to imposter's great suggestion of just playing one or two notes in a chorus, to begin with: I first came across that idea in Improvising Jazz by Jerry Coker, in which he suggests starting the first playing session with each musician just playing whole notes. Which leads me to my own suggestion: look for books on improvising. Head over to your library and see what they've got about improvisation. If you find a book or two that's helpful to you, you can pick up a copy to keep on hand.
posted by kristi at 10:16 AM on September 10, 2008

A great guitar solo has many of the same ingredients as a good melody - building up tension and then resolving it; meeting expectations sometimes and defying expectations other times.

The need to build tension is why a lot of solos will rise in pitch and register as they near the end, or get more dense rhythmically. Once the tension has peaked, the rhythm stretches out, and the notes fall in pitch. A crude emotional arc, essentially.

If you take the melody of a song as the basis of a solo, and then just tweak pieces of it - a trill on a held note here, a bend into a note there - you've just met some expectations and defied other expectations. Congratulations, you've just improvised! That's interesting to listen to, because it gives the listener a frame of reference along with some variety.

More original solos will use fewer components of the original melody, and more complicated solos will use more advanced techniques, but you can work your way toward these.

Don't be afraid to study solos that you like! Instead of just memorizing them like you're doing a school assignment on the Gettysburg Address, figure out why you like the solo. Pick it apart, figure out what notes are going over which chords, notice what notes are held out and which aren't, and you'll start to get a sense of why the original guitarist made those choices.
posted by LightStruk at 12:28 PM on September 10, 2008

Best answer: 95% of soloing is rhythm. Jimmy Johnson (a Chicago blues player) plays simple trills over blue turnarounds that are astoundingly simple but astoundingly effective because rhythmically, they worked. My advice would be to play to a metronome (which I effing HATE) which will increase your ability to know how to fit notes together. If you dedicate three evenings (or days) for a half hour each time, you'll notice immediate improvement.

Another great player, Johnny Hiland, uses a method called "Low to high - High to low" when constructing a solo. Basically this means start the solo in the lower registers, work up high and end the solo back in the lower registers. I'm still trying this myself.

The nice thing about blues soloing is that you could conceivable stay in that box pattern, never deviate and still pull off some great shit. Albert, BB and Buddy made careers out of this. If you play country, you'll find the box doesn't work as well or sound quite right. Most great country players will solo using the notes from whatever chord they're soloing over.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 6:23 PM on September 10, 2008

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