The best guitar solos are the ones that take you on a musical journey. Beyond music theory, technique, and melody, structuring and pacing your solos is a vital skill that sometimes gets overlooked.
There are many approaches to how you can tell a story with your solos. In this article, I will guide you through both the techniques and emotional aspects of playing.
The Ingredients of a Guitar Solo
A well-defined melody, playing with the groove and blend of tension and release are the ingredients necessary to grab the listeners’ attention and guide them along the song.
Independent of the genre, the above elements always work not only for guitar solos but for all instruments in general. Every time that I’m put in a studio session, whether it’s hip hop, rock or funk, the same ‘tricks’ work. Let’s get into each of them separately.
Pacing a solo is the same as structuring a story. You need a well-defined intro that hooks the listeners, a middle section that develops the story, and ending that satisfies the ears.
To pace a solo well you should avoid rushing. Even when the bpm of the song is very fast, you should never rush from section to section or in between phrases.
Avoid starting high up the neck right away if it’s not part of the composition. High notes generally signal an ending and high energy point, the fewer of them you make the harder they will hit.
A good way to pace a solo is to sing it before playing it. Your ears are always more reliable than muscle memory when it comes to creating interesting lines. Thinking like a singer is very overused as a phrase but it always works.
Tensions and Release
This technique is as old as music itself, yet could be skipped if you don’t pay attention to using it right.
The worst way to use tensions and release is to get overly focused on licks. Licks usually tend to have a beginning and ending with tension and release. Using them from time to time is ok, yet going one lick after the other creates too many moments of tension and release after the other.
The best way to use tension and release is to think both in the Macro and Micro settings. In the Macro setting means to think, for example, of how you will build tension during the intro and build up to and release at the end.
The Micro setting is thinking about tension and release on your licks and choosing to most often keep it unresolved so that when it hits, it hits hard.
A cool exercise you can do to train your tension and release abilities is to solo and avoid the root for as long as you can. The longer you can go avoiding the root, the more emphasized the release will feel.
The last but not the least way of telling a story is through your guitar tone. Painting a sonic picture is just as effective, if not more than the other elements.
Delay, Reverb, Chorus and other effects, if placed high on the mix become part of the composition creating different emotions. Think about all the songs that have an intro built on delay like “Another Brick On The Wall.” If you remove it, not only you take out the musicality but also the mysterious vibe of the story.
Use fx yet make sure that the notes you are playing sound good even when you’re playing them on an acoustic guitar. Fx won’t hide mistakes or drastically improve a poor note choice.
Knowing the Fretboard Helps
Even though most decisions when building a solo might be subconscious, that doesn’t always work in every situation.
Chord tones, Intervals, and knowing the notes on the fretboard is essential if you want to always make your solos interesting. Either use them as a building block from the beginning or only when you are stuck and wondering where to go next.
Our Free Web App can help with both the basic and advanced Fretboard and music theory concepts.
About The Writer
Altin is a session guitarist and music writer with over 100+ albums recorded. He is a self-taught musician with a modern, practical approach to teaching music concepts.