How to play guitar solos

How To Play Guitar Solos (THAT ROCK!)

What are guitar solos? You can learn every guitar scale, triad, mode, chord or arpeggio in the book and still be no good at writing guitar solos

snow leopard

Guitar solos, like the illusive snow leopard, are not so easy to capture. 

That's because guitar solos are the artistic expression of the guitarist.

...and art can't be bottled!

Great guitar solos completely transform songs too.

Just think what Michael Jackson’s 1980s classic ‘Beat It’ would be like without the blistering, adrenaline fuelled Eddie Van Halen solo in the middle? 

Nowhere even close.

Don’t be put off though - every great guitar solo started somewhere. This article is going to give you a massive head start. 

Let's get started....

SOLO GUITAR TECHNIQUES

So where do you start?

The good news is once you’ve learned a few solos, you’ll notice there are common techniques that appear in every solo. So first thing you need to do is learn these essential guitar techniques.

Take a look at the chart to the right. Ignore the musical notes at the top for now, and focus on the 'Sl.', 'H' and the 'P'. These stand for 'Slide', 'Hammer On' and 'Pull Off' which are key attributes of any solo.

Let's look at them...

Slides

As the name suggests, a slide involves sliding a finger on the fretboard from a lower note up to a higher one on the same string. 

How do I play a slide? 

Pluck the string and fret the note as you normally would,  but start to slide your finger up the fretboard. The action needs to be smooth. There is a certain knack to doing it - if you press down too hard your finger won't move, not enough pressure and you won't get the desired sliding sound. 

Hammer-ons

Another regular feature in guitar solos in the 'hammer-on', often used to speed up a guitar solo as you don't need to pluck every note. 

How do I play a Hammer-on? 

Notice the 'H' symbols in the guitar solo chart here. These symbolise a hammer-on should be played. 

Hammer-ons are only played with your fretting hand (your strumming hand doesn't have to do anything).

Using the power in your fingers, you fret the note a full or half step above it (with force).

Pull-offs

Pull-offs are also used to increase a solo's speed (because you don't need to pluck each note separately) and are the opposite of hammer-ons.

How do I play a Pull-off? 

First of all, you need to position your first finger below your index or ring finger. 

Then pick the note and pull off to sound the 2nd note with that first finger.

Often hammer-ons and pull-offs are used in the same musical phrase.

Bends

Hugely popular in many if not most guitar solos are 'Bends'. A bend is when you push a a string up or down on the fretboard against the neck, changing the 'pitch' of the note. 

How do I play a bend? 

Play a bend by fretting a string with your ring finger. Your index and middle fingers should sit just behind it. Apply pressure with all three fingers, pushing the string up or down to change the pitch. You can change the pitch by a full step or half step.

Vibrato

Vibrato is a musical effect consisting of a regular, pulsating change of pitch and is used to add extra tension to a solo.

It's symbolised in guitar solo tabs by a squiggle (see below)...

How do I play Vibrato? 

To play with vibrato, fret a string with your index finger and pluck the note. Allow the note to sound out while you wiggle your finger backwards and forwards on the fretboard. Check out the video below which shows you the difference between a vibrato and a bend...

Double stops

A double stop is when you play two notes at the same time - these are fantastic soloing devices and well worth taking the time to learn. They are also excellent for mastering the fretboard as they make you jump up and down the neck.

How do I play Double-Stops? 

Take the C Major Scale for example. The idea is you play two notes at a time (basically two notes from the C chord) in all the positions up the neck. 

So instead of fretting and plucking one string, play both strings just as you would when playing a chord sequence. See a great example of this in Wish You Were Here (see Easy Guitar Solos section below)

SOLO GUITAR TOP TIPS

Now we've learnt some soloing techniques, lets quickly look at some other solo guitar tips...

Tip 1: Learn Scales

Learning guitar scales is the best thing you can do to improve your soloing skills. Without knowing how to play them, it's hard to write a great solo.

Once you have scales under control, you can easily work out which notes go with which chord. I often find a solo naturally emerges when I’m playing scales over a chord sequence.

But remember, playing solos is more than just playing scalesA common mistake that beginners often make is playing scales when they are trying to solo. It’s easily done.

Sure, a good guitar practice will often consist of playing scales. But the danger comes when you fall into playing scales by default when it's time to play a solo.

You can improvise using only 4 notes from a scale and it will sound great.

Tip 2: Learn The Chords

Most solos are the product of hard work, not some moment of divine inspiration! Hard work means learning which scales go over which chords and working out a solo from there. For a solo to be effective, it has to ‘gel’ with the chords underneath it.

You’ll find most solos are made up of the notes from each of those chords beneath it, pieced together to form a solo.

The guys over at playguitarsolos.com agree:

if you think about the notes you are playing, you will start to notice how the lead guitar notes are just basically taken from the underlying chords. So you can then write or improvise your own solo very easily, just by using the common licks, and focusing on the notes you find in the scale that makes up the key of the song. Again, the "key" in general is just the notes you will find in the backing chords.

Playguitarsolos.com                     

Tip 3: Use Your Ear To Guide You

In contrast to learning scales and chords for the song you want to play over, you have to let you ear guide you.

Remember the guitar solo is an artistic expression of the guitarist, and all the amount of training in the world will not create a great solo.

It was a famous guitarist, who shall remain anonymous (as he told me in confidence) who said:

It was simply listening closely - playing by ear - and applying common sense using basic music theory that allowed me to understand lead guitar and to recognise all of the common lead guitar licks.

Anonymous                     

Tip 4: Listen To The Greats

Make a habit of listening to the great guitarists of our time. Listen to their solos and soak them up. 

Want to learn a particular solo? Before you even pick up your guitar, listen to it over and over again. Internalise the solo so you can hum it, then pick up your guitar. It will come much easier to you.

Here's what the guys at instantguitarist.com say:

Listen like at least 15 times before you start learning it and then many more times that when you start to recreate it. You’re listening for the energy of the solo, and the message it’s trying to convey

Instantguitarist.com                

Ok let’s start learning some easy guitar solos.

EASY GUITAR SOLOS

Ok so we've learn't some of the basics of creating great guitar solos. Before we get to building our own guitar solos, it's a good idea to build up a repository of great guitar solos. I've chosen some easy ones to get you started. 

While you can play guitar solos on either acoustic or electric guitars, there are some solos which naturally lend themselves to the acoustic or electric. For that reason I’ve split them out accordingly (but remember they are all playable on either type of instrument).

Acoustic Guitar Solos

Pink Floyd 'Wish You Were Here'

Let's start with a great little introduction to guitar soloing on the acoustic guitar. Not a full fledged guitar solo by any stretch of the imagination, but a lovely one to get under your belt (asides from being a great song with a nice chord structure). Take special notice of the use of double-steps in this song. 

Over to the guys at guitarlessons365.com to show us how it's done:

Eddie Vedder 'Society'

I hadn't heard this song or the guitar solo in it until recently, but I fell in love with it the moment I did. It's super easy to play too. Take a listen to the original then see the video below (fast forward to 2:15 for the solo)

The Beatles 'And I Love Her'

The Beatles have many songs with stunning acoustic solos in them, but one of my favourite easy ones to play is the solo from "And I Love Her". Take a listen to the original then see the video below (fast forward to 14:21 for the solo)

Metallica 'Nothing Else Matters'

Metallica's modern day anthem has a wonderful introduction that is relatively easy to play. Check it out below:

Electric Guitar Solos

Nirvana 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'

The sound of a generation, this Nirvana solo in 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' is so simple to learn and is instantly recognisable. Check it out below:

Norah Jones 'Come Away With Me'

This wonderfully understated electric guitar solo from Norah Jones' classic 'Come Away With Me' is worth checking out. Here with the actual guitarist Adam Levy talking through how he made the solo, it's a treasure. Check it out below:

Guns & Roses 'Knockin' On Heaven's Door'

Guns & Roses cover of the Bob Dylan classic has a signature Slash solo in it that is really easy to learn and has some nice melodic ideas and phrasing,. Check it out below:

Santana 'Samba Pa Ti'

Carlos Santana's classic song is basically one long guitar solo! Thankfully it's rather easy to follow along to, and definitely worth adding to our repertoire. Check it out below from the guys are guitarjamz.com:

INSPIRATION - BEST GUITAR SOLOS

Here are 6 of the best guitar solos ever recorded. The list is not in order of merit, they each stand alone as moments of artistic revelry.

1. Prince - While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Playing at George Harrison's posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, this Prince guitar solo is an absolute monster (fast forward to 3:27 to check it out).

2. Slash - Sweet Child O' Mine

Guns & Rose's guitarist Slash was a master at writing blisteringly good rock solos, and he doesn't disappoint here. Of all the Slash guitar solos out there, this epic solo has to be one of his best:

3. Eddie Van Halen - Beat It

Like the sound of starting up a chainsaw, this is one of the most memorable guitar solos ever! Here is just the guitar track so you can appreciate its sheer brilliance:

I love this alternative acoustic version of Beat It: 

4. Django Reinhardt - Minor Swing

Django Reinhardt, often cited as the best guitarist who ever lived, was way ahead of his time, concocted guitar solo's in 1930's France before the notion of a guitar solo really existed. Minor Swing was his signature tune where he demonstrated his virtuosity to it's fullest. Check it out:

5. Jimi Hendrix - All Along The Watchtower

There's not much that hasn't already been said about the great Jimi Hendrix. Any number of his songs are worth listening to and studying to learn how to make explosive guitar solos (Voodoo Chile, Little Wing) but I chose All Along The Watchtower because it's such a memorable rock solo.  Check it out:

6. Mark Knopfler - Sultans of Swing

Front man of 80's supergroup Dire Straits, Mark Knopfler is a superb guitarist. Probably his most famous number, Sultans of Swing, has to be 'up there' for best guitar solo:

WRITING YOUR OWN GUITAR SOLO STEPS

Ok now it's time to turn to your writing your own guitar solo, or 'solo guitare' as they say in French! 

Step 1. Choose a song

Write your own song. If you have one, great!, but don't sweat it. You can build a great guitar solo over someone else's song. The key is to choose a song that you know well, you like, and make sure it isn't too complicated. 

Step 2. Work out 'the changes'

Working out the chord changes helps when you need to play over a song. Take the chord sheet and work out which scales you can play over which section. You'll often find that a number of chords tonally 'go together' so you can just play over them all with the same scale. 

Step 3. Find the backing track

If you've written your own song, that's fantastic. Play that back using a loop pedal or application such as Garage Band. If you're going to play over someone else's song, have a search online for a backing track. Check out guitarbackingtrack.com who have many tracks you can play for free.

Step 4. Write it down

Try writing down a solo, section by section. Imagine asking someone else to play your solo, having it written down would be super helpful. 

Step 5. Never stop improving

Keep adding new bits to your solo as you learn new phrases and techniques. As you come across elements of other guitarists solo you like, apply them to your own solos.

Your guitar solos will mature as you grow as a player. 

SUMMARY

So there we have it. Are you feeling inspired? I hope so.

Learning to play guitar solos is a great way to improve your overall guitar playing ability as well as a lot of fun. 

Let me know your comments below. Which other solos would you add to the list of best guitar solos?​

Ged
 

Ged is our editor in chief at Zingstruments and a self-confessed music fanatic. He has a particular thing for Guitars, but also dabbles with Harmonica, Ukulele, various percussion instruments (notably the Surdu!) and fancies himself as a bit of a singer :-)

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