You know when you hear a really great guitar solo? One that is so expressive, fluent & just seems to stay in you mind long after it’s finished? It may (or may not) contain blisteringly fast runs & lots of clever tricks but let’s imagine we’re talking about something accessible to those of us without Malmsteen-esque technique. Let’s face it, even some of those players who can zoom around the frets at warp speed can be a little forgettable. Speedy playing is often a great thing to put into a solo, but it is by no means the making of a solo.
I’m sure we can all name a guitarist who doesn’t seem to play particularly fast or “clever” stuff but who is still a memorable soloist. They seem to have that “melodic” touch and can create a great sounding solo out of licks that would seem mundane in the hands of a lesser player. Players like this all tend to use one amazingly simple technique, which is what sets their lead playing apart from the crowd. The secret is… Note awareness.
The way most of us learn to play the guitar is almost a “painting by numbers” approach – put your fingers here, here & here, and it will make the right sound. That’s the way we began with out first chord shapes & it’s the way many continue to think about the licks & scale patterns used every day. Every now & again when soloing, it’s possible to stumble across a phrase or lick which you know will work, but it seems to really, really work – much better than you anticipated. Imagine being able to do that every time! Imagine being able to get the most out of all the licks you play! That is what having an understanding of the notes, as opposed to simply memorising shapes, can do for you.
The first step is to look at the chord sequence you are going to be soloing over. Of course, you may not be soloing over a set of chords – the backing to your lead part may be a riff of some kind, but we’ll deal with the chord based backing first, as much of what you learn here can be transferred – most riffs are based around chordal ideas anyway. Here is a chord sequence which we’ll use as the basis for this example:
You can hear this sequence being played by clicking here
We need to look at this chord progression in terms of the notes it is made up of, so here it is again, but this time the chord names have been replaced with a list of notes in each of the chords:
In other words, the notes in an Am chord are A C & E; a D chord is made up of D F# & A notes; an Em is E G & B, C is C E & G, and a G chord is a G note with B & D notes.
The secret of playing a memorable guitar solo over this chord sequence is to target the notes which are present within the chords. Any lick played over the Am chord will sound much stronger and more tuneful if it is centred around an A note, a C note or an E note. Likewise, when the D chord arrives, you should gravitate towards D F# & A notes. Here is the chord sequence written out again with a note in each chord highlighted:
The notes shown in blue are the A minor pentatonic scale – a shape that most of us are pretty familiar with.
If you click here, you can listen to what it sounds like when the notes highlighted in the chord sequence are played over their corresponding chords.
And if you click here you can hear what it sounds like when I improvise my way from each of these notes to the next.
I think you’ll agree that this gives quite a melodic sound. Certainly more memorable than just haphazardly landing on random notes from the pentatonic scale, which may sound “right” (as you would expect – they are part of the correct scale, after all), but don’t necessarily sound “strong”.
And there it is… The secret to playing a tuneful and memorable guitar solo is to emphasize the notes found in the underlying chords. That’s all there is to it really. You’ll find this basic principle underpinning great solos by guitarists as diverse as Gary Moore, Mark Knopfler, Tony MacAlpine, Brian May and many more. So, here’s your checklist:
- Make sure you know what notes are in any chord you’re going to be playing over.
- Make sure you know where those notes are on the neck of the guitar
- Make sure you know which chord you are playing over at any given time
If you’re OK with all of those things, then get straight to it and you’ll notice the improvement in your playing almost instantly. If there’s anything on that list which you don’t have a solid grip on, then this is what you need to be building your practice routine around – there are plenty of resources out there to help you. Often it’s not finding the help that’s the hard part, it’s knowing exactly what you need help with. Getting “note aware” is the single most important thing you can do to improve your playing. This technique of targeting notes from the chords in a solo is just one of the many ways it can help you improve. When you think about it, it’s obvious… Any musician is going to be better at playing their instrument if they know where the notes are on that instrument. Enough said.