Five Things You Can Do To Improve Your Soloing

Playing a great solo is something that every lead guitarist aspires to. It’s your chance to shine and put your own stamp on the song. Many players, especially those from the world of rock & metal, focus on technical prowess and speedy runs as a way of impressing. Whilst having a good command of technique can help you realise, on the guitar, the sounds you hear in your “mind’s ear”, it does not, in itself, guarantee that your solo will be memorable. What follows are some tips to help your soloing sound better whatever level of technique you’re comfortable with.

Think about how the notes you use relate to the chords you’re playing over:

Once you’ve got to the point of sussing out which pentatonic scale or collection of licks fit best over the backing you’re playing over, it’s tempting to just jam away without much thought. Everything sounds in tune and you can let rip, right? Well, that’s fine but if you do this, then you’ll notice that every now & then a certain note you land on will just sound somehow “sweeter” than you expected & give you that warm glow which comes with knowing you’re playing a killer solo.

Imagine being able to do that to order… that’s what note awareness can do! In this example I’m soloing over a two chord vamp of Em to A7 in a vaguely “Pink Floyd-esque” way. Now, I happen to know that the notes in an Em chord are E G & B, so whenever I hit a note which is going to be the main focus of the lick over an Em chord, it will sound best if it is one of these three notes.

Likewise, the notes in an A7 chord are A C# E & G, so when it comes to emphasising a note over this chord, those are my strong choices. You’ll notice, too, that most of the time when I land on one of these “target” notes, over either chord, I’m doing so at the beginning of the bar. Obviously, you’ll find this quite hard going if you don’t know where the notes actually are on the fretboard so here’s a little map of the notes around the 12th fret Em pentatonic position:


Click HERE to here me solo using this technique.

Think like a drummer:

When I first got into home recording I began to take more notice of what the drums were doing in songs. This was because I was having to programme my own drum parts on my trusty old Boss DR5 drum machine. The other members of the band I was in at the time also began to comment on my soloing, saying it had somehow got more “effective” (whatever that meant). It dawned on me that the reason for this was because I was now bringing a little of my new-found drumming sensibilities to my guitar playing. Take a listen to the drum track from the backing you heard me solo over earlier & see if you can spot what the drummer (albeit a virtual one) is doing. Click HERE to listen.

Did you notice that the drum pattern is pretty constant & unremarkable until, in every 4th bar, there is a bit of a fill? Try playing like this yourself – solo in a restrained manner for 3 ½ bars, then put a bit more “oomph” into the lick which sits in the last half of the 4th bar. It doesn’t need to be anything fast or flashy, it just needs to be a little more “busy” than the rest of that 4 bar section up to that point. This has the effect of creating a little tension which is then resolved when you put the brakes on at the start of the next 4 bar segment. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Don’t be scared of “wrong” notes:

The temptation to sit inside that comfortable little pentatonic box is very seductive. It’s almost like a medieval map of the world with uncharted areas carrying the dire warning “Here Be Monsters”. However, as you’ve already seen, sometimes it works to (quite literally) “think outside the box” – the C# note in the A7 chord from the example on note targeting springs to mind. The C# isn’t within the framework of the Em pentatonic, but because it fits the A7 chord, it is a strong choice of note to land on when playing over that chord. You can take this a stage further by using chromatic runs which contain notes that would sound horrible if you were to land on them and stay there. The point is that you’re NOT staying on them – you’re just using them to link up other “safe” notes. If you do this as part of the runs you’re using to sync with the drum fills (see previous point), this will add a little colour and further enhance the sense of tension which is then resolved when you land on a “safe” note at the start of the next 4 bar section. Click HERE to listen to me doing this.

Play to your strengths:

In no particular order here are my five favourite guitarists:

  1. Gary Moore
  2. Joe Satriani
  3. Mark Knopfler
  4. Barney Kessel
  5. Jeff Beck

Now, what makes them all sound unique? It’s the fact that they all play differently! It sounds obvious when you say it like that, but it’s true – they each have certain techniques they are renowned for which define their individual styles of playing. Think about it, have you ever heard Gary Moore finger-tapping? What about Jeff Beck rattling off a string of Yngwie-type sweep picked arpeggios? Can you imagine Mark Knopfler slithering around the frets in a Satch-style legato fashion?

You get my point. To be a great guitarist, you don’t have to be able to do everything that every other great guitarist does. No-one is better at being you than you are, so find out which techniques you find the most comfortable and practice the living daylights out of those: develop them and hone them until you can cover any musical situation.

Here’s an example: I found out pretty early on that fast alternate picking was one of my weaknesses. I can do it, and I can even teach the techniques necessary to develop it – it all boils down to certain exercises which you need to practice rigorously to a metronome. However, I will always look for another way of playing something which calls for this particular technique.

In the ’80s I was in a rock band which was doing a cover of Gary Moore & Phil Lynnot’s “Out In The Fields” and there is that infamous run in the middle of the solo, where Gary fast-picks like a man possessed. This was beyond me so I sought an alternative. I knew the scale he was using; I knew where the run started and I knew where it finished, so I used a technique I was comfortable with (legato) to concoct a run of the correct length & speed which began & ended in the right places. Because my legato technique is pretty well developed (it’s one of my “comfort-zone” techniques that I’d developed & honed), I could add the necessary “percussive/aggressive” quality to the run by palm-muting with my right hand even when using hammer-ons, pull-offs & slides. The proof of the pudding was when one punter at a gig said he’d seen two or three bands do that song, but I was the only guitarist who nailed the solo! I didn’t feel it necessary to let on that I’d actually cheated. So there you have it, develop what you’re good at and build your style of playing around it. As I said… play to your strengths & don’t get too hung up on your weaknesses.

Understand what you play:

If there’s one piece of advice I would give which (to my mind) is more valuable than any other it would be this: make sure you know not only what does or doesn’t work but WHY this is the case. Music theory can be a daunting subject & it’s true that there is a heck of a lot of it. But here’s the rub – you don’t have to know it all immediately. As you’ve seen earlier, knowing which notes are in the chords you’re playing over can help you sound melodic & tuneful, so getting a little bit of knowledge about chord construction can help with this. You’ll also, as a by-product, learn a little about harmony which is useful if you want to work out some backing vocals or twin lead guitar parts. If you know about how chords are put together, sooner or later you’ll stumble on key theory, which then leads to learning about modes, which puts more notes under your fingers when you’re soloing etc. etc…

The point is that if you learn one, seemingly isolated, bit of theory to deal with a particular situation, it will usually lead somewhere else: it can be built on, in other words. All you need is an inquisitive mind and a desire to understand. Before you know where you are, you’ll have amassed a wealth of knowledge, one little piece at a time and you’ll truly understand what you’re doing. The sense of freedom you feel on the neck is liberating – no more “forbidden zones” on certain parts of the neck; no more wondering if that cool lick you learned will work in your big solo; no more thinking “I’d love to play that song, but I don’t understand what [insert name of favourite guitarist] is doing.”

Imagine ridding yourself of those kind of shackles! That is what understanding music theory can do & the best bit is, it’s FUN to learn – you’ll see, in a matter of months, progress you’d think would take years to achieve. Find a good book on the subject – I recommend “The Practical Guide to Modern Music Theory for Guitarists” by Joseph Alexander or, better still, find a good local teacher to help you on your journey (if you live on Teesside see the link to my website, below), and watch your playing take off.

Until next time, here’s a backing track to jam over using the techniques discussed (click HERE)

Have Fun!

John Robson Guitar Tuition


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