Courtesy of Jim Kelly
For guitar gods like us, the crown of our creation is the killer guitar solo. It's our chance to step into the spotlight and show what we've got – not to show off, but to come up with a solo that elevates the song to another level.
Easier said than done? Maybe. But here are a few things to think about if you want to craft a guitar solo – whether onstage or in the studio – that will make ears perk up and take notice.
1. Sing it in your head before you play it
If you think about it, playing a guitar solo is like making the guitar sing. So, think about it – literally! Imagine you're singing the solo. Can you hear it in your head? Good. Now translate that to the guitar strings. Play on the guitar what you hear yourself singing in your head.
Not only will this help you create a more naturally melodic solo, but it's also a good way to avoid some of the same old familiar patterns and boxes and scale runs we all tend to fall back on. Sure, it might take some practice, but what doesn't?
2. Listen to other instrumentalists
Play a sax solo, or an organ solo, or a harmonica solo. But play it on your guitar. In other words, don't just look to other guitarists for your inspiration. Listen to what other instrumentalists are playing.
Roger McGuinn was inspired by sax legend John Coltrane's "India" when he created his distinctive 12-string solos in the Byrds' "Eight Miles High." Lots of other guitarists have turned to vintage R&B horn players' parts or piano licks to inspire their guitar solos. Think outside the Gitbox.
3. Use space and silence
Sometimes the best note you play is the one you don't play. Yeah, that's very zen or Yoda or something, but it's true. In other words, try to use pauses and silence in your soloing for dramatic effect.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. When you're listening to someone deliver a speech, for instance, and they just ramble on and on and on with verbal diarrhea, you're likely to tune them out pretty quickly. Expert orators, on the other hand, know when to pause for effect, to let what they're saying sink in and build anticipation about what they're going to say next. It's all about communication, right?
4. Mix it up
The human ear loves variation. That's why we find vibrato pleasing. So when you're putting together your epic solo, mix things up a bit.
If you tend to rely on single-note melodic lines, throw in some arpeggios or 6th intervals, or fly high way up on the neck, then get nasty down at the nut – slow it down, speed it up, play it soft and sensitive, then crank the intensity to 11.
5. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself
Varying the dynamics is great, but repetition can be cool, too. In fact, psychologists tell us that repeated sounds do something magical to our brains. So you don't always need to come up with a fresh lick every bar. Dwell on it a bit. Maybe even see how far you can take it, bringing the listeners along with you 'til they're just about to lose their minds… then break the spell! Great blues players are masters of this.
6. Don't be afraid to repeat yourself
7. Don't think – feel
Like other kinds of artistic creation, or even playing sports, things can often go sour when you start overthinking it. For the most part, playing music isn't an intellectual exercise; it's about conveying emotion and feeling. You're better off getting your brain out of the way.
That's where practice and rehearsal come in. When you know a song to the point where you don't have to think about the structure or the changes – when you really have it down – then you're free to play with all the feeling and mojo you can muster.
Don't let your fingers call the tune – they should follow what you're feeling in your heart and soul.
8. Above all, be you
Shakespeare said, "To thine own self be true." Oscar Wilde reportedly said, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken" (although Wilde apparently didn't actually say that). Point is, when you're playing your thing, make sure it's your thing.
It may take a while to find your own voice on the guitar, but eventually all your influences and tendencies will get distilled into a sound and style that's all your own. Once you have that, bring it. The game isn't to sound just like somebody else – somebody who's probably better at sounding like them than you are – it's to do what you do best and sound like nobody else.
Jim Kelly has been a freelance music writer for more than 15 years and has served as the senior copywriter at Columbia House Canada. Based in Toronto, he’s been a regular contributor to nationally distributed music magazines, websites, and organizations, and has created promotional and press copy for independent and major-label artists. He’s been a guitarist in Toronto bands and claims to be the world’s third-best tambourine player.