Six secret ingredients of a great guitar solo


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Guitar solos might be less fashionable than they were a generation ago, but they’re still full of a musical mojo that pulls us in every single time. The best solos just seem to have some kind of primal attraction that guitarists – and music fans in general – simply can’t resist. Today, then, we take a look at the various types of solo, and how you can mix their special ingredients together to create your own ultimate magnum opus!

Everyone who plays guitar has a favorite guitarist, or a group of them: the six-string heroes and heroines whose abilities on the instrument inspire us to better things musically.

We know we’re probably never going to hit their harmonious heights, or rock out on the big stage like them, but just being able to worship their innate coolness is enough. Mastering one of their best moves or songs makes us happy; watching them play live can be a life changing experience.

And, for many of us, it’s the solos that can make the difference between a good lead guitarist and a great one.

Sure, 90% of a song might be all about the chords and the melodies from a guitar perspective, but it’s those 20 to 30 seconds of six-string spotlight that we all rate tunes by. How else do you explain the thousands of Top 10 Guitar Solos Of All Time lists that the internet and magazines are full of?

Here, then, we thought we’d break down some of the different solo types, with some choice examples explaining why they’re just so damn… good.

And afterwards, we’ll give you a few bonus tone tips and techniques for taking your own solos to the next level. So strap in, grab your axe, and let’s go!

  1. A sense of pure epic

We’ve all had that moment when we hear a huge sounding solo for the first time, and it just blows us away. These are the kind of lead breaks that take everything to another, bigger musical level.

The usual suspects come into play here: we’re talking Jimmy Page on Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash on Sweet Child O’ Mine, etc.

 

These solos define the records they’re on, the genres they’re part of, even the eras they came from. Like we said, they’re epic.

In terms of achieving something like this yourself, you’re going to have to pool all your rockstar skills – musical and otherwise – to create something that transcends your song.

It’s a heady place to start, so if you don’t have too much experience crafting your own solos, we recommend you consider building your leads around the best facets of your own guitar repertoire.

If you’re fast around the board, show off a little (but make sure you can pull the solo off on stage!). If you can make a note sustain for days, build a solo around that. Use your own expertise to make it yours.

  1. Mad skills

The fact that Eddie Van Halen’s most mind-bending solo showed up on a Michael Jackson record (Thriller, to be precise – just the biggest selling album of all time) makes it even more incredible:

 

Van Halen’s 20 seconds of dazzling skills on Beat It (he uses tapping, whammy bar dives and screaming pick harmonics, among other techniques, keeping it beautifully melodic the whole time) showcased his playing to the entire pop world.

The man himself, of course, influenced an entire generation of guitarists. His two-handed tapping was a revelation, even though the technique had existed previously, and the sheer six-string debauchery of tracks like Eruption and Hot For Teacher marked him out as one of the best players of all time.

We say if you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it…

  1. For the good of the song

We’ve written much about AC/DC’s amazing guitar tone before (read their big tonal secret here!), but while we can all set our guitar and amp up like Angus Young, not many of us can match the sheer joyful energy he creates when he puts fingers to fretboard.

Now, Young’s rhythm guitar-playing brother Malcolm may have been the driving force that held AC/DC’s huge songs and sound together, but for the casual music fan, it’s the guitar solos that stand out.

And for good reason. Young’s bluesy solos may not be as technically astonishing, or as fast, as Eddie Van Halen’s, but what they do do is fit perfectly to the song itself, taking things up several notches in a different way.

There’s a great many to choose from, but we think the solo in You Shook Me All Night Long showcases Young’s guitar mastery perfectly:

 

Kicking off with a series of bends and squeals down at the lower end of the fretboard, Angus builds the excitement by heading up to the dusty end, finishing off with some incredible bending and sustained notes that just work perfectly in context with the tune. His use of melody and phrasing, as usual, is second to almost none.

  1. Less (notes) is more

You don’t often see Kurt Cobain on those Best Solo Ever lists, do you? That’s because he was an anti-rockstar in that sense, and his unpretentious yet edgy six-string work with grunge gods Nirvana helped kill off fads like hair metal in the early 90s. He has much to be thanked for.

In his own way, though, Kurt’s lead playing demonstrates how much emotion you can express with just a few well-chosen notes:

 

How many different notes does he play in the solo from Smells Like Teen Spirit? Not many, is the answer – and he’s not doing any of them very fast, either – but the feeling and passion in every one is worth a thousand tastelessly fast widdlefests.

A wise man once said that the greatest guitarists are the ones who know when NOT to play. Amen to that.

  1. Pure tone

It’s one of the most emotionally-charged songs of all time, and David Gilmour’s solos on Comfortably Numb have been known to reduce grown men to tears – in a good way.

Really, Gilmour’s playing here ticks all the soloing boxes: melody, skill, tastefulness, epicness, beauty. Hell, you can even sing along to it:

 

But the magic tone that he pulls out of his fingers on all of Pink Floyd’s defining tracks is what separates Gilmour as a master of the solo. There’s simply bucket loads of the stuff on show.

Now, this is the Blog Of Tone, and we write about the magic T word every week, but that’s one thing we can’t teach you: how those hands and that guitar interact to extract such jaw-dropping sounds.

Let’s face it: if we could do that, we wouldn’t be sat here writing this now, would we?

  1. Thinking outside the box

Many guitar solos sound rather similar to one another, so if you can come up with something new, consider yourself lucky.

Happily for us listeners, there are many players around doing their own thing. Off the top of our heads, we’ll name Slayer (coming up with their own scale shapes for solos that sound entirely unlike anyone else’s) and Rage Against The Machine’s Tom Morello – who’s renowned for making his guitar sound not like a guitar at all – as shining examples of this.

But we’re not just suggesting you do a Paul Gilbert and take a power drill to your favorite axe. Think about other, less dangerous ways you could move out of that standard pentatonic box, perhaps by using one of the other tricks outlined above.

How to take your own solos to 11

Well, if you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Here’s a few quick tonal tips for you to take your own solos to the next level:

  • Watch your EQ – especially live, you’ll need more mids to cut through the band mix (and this doesn’t just apply to soloing either!). More info on exactly that here.
  • Make use of your guitar’s controls: the volume and tone knobs and the pickup selector switch are your friends! Techniques like volume swells are a staple for building the emotional power of a solo, as is flicking from the bridge to the neck pickup at an opportune moment.
  • Get a boost! An easy, simple way of taking your volume to 11 for a solo. Get an amp with a built-in boost, use a pedal, or just roll up your guitar’s volume knob, as above.
  • Channel and amp changes. Guys like Joe Bonamassa have multiple amp heads on stage with them, and switch between them for different sounds. If you’ve got the chance – and the money – having a separate head with you for lead stuff only can be a game changer.
  • Reduce the gain. Just like AC/DC, as we explained here. Go on, try it: it’ll force you to improve your playing technique, and your tone will rocket!

 

And that’s about all we’ve got time for. We’ve only scraped the surface of the world of the guitar solo here, but hopefully this blog’s given you a few new ways of thinking about your lead playing, and how you can improve it for the future.

We’d love to know what you think makes a great guitar solo too, so leave us your thoughts in the comments below…

 

First published: May 22 2015. Most recent update: June 22 2016.

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Leave a comment

John on September 15, 2017 Reply

Less is not more, the smells like teen spirit sucks. You want an emotional solo listen to november rain by Guns n Roses or Voice of the soul by death.
“That’s because he was an anti-rockstar in that sense, and his unpretentious yet edgy six-string work with grunge gods Nirvana helped kill off fads like hair metal in the early 90s. He has much to be thanked for.” that is lies, kurt cobain turned the guitar solo from a jaw-dropping skill display into a lame slow finger bumble on two frets. he killed musical talent in the industry. Music would be better without him. You want a good soloist, how about randy thoads, trey azazgoth, chuck schuldiner. Kurt cobain turned metal away from the note shreddersand amzingly yechnical and legendary bands into a show where any fools could bumble around with a guitar and some drums. Kurt Sucks!!!

    Hughes & Kettner Hughes & Kettner on October 19, 2017 Reply

    Well, we respect your opinion John, but you kind of prove the point of the article – there’s many different ways of playing a great guitar solo! For every guy who loves or hates the Nirvana/grunge thing, the same can be said for all the guys you list, and all the others in our article! Of course Randy Rhoads was a technically better guitar player than Kurt Cobain – but emotionally they’re on the same level. Musically, for some people, Kurt is better. For others, Randy’s work is better. It’s all opinion, and if everyone played exactly the same way all the time, music would be a very boring world 😉