How To Craft An Epic Guitar Solo
One aspect of lead guitar that I believe is grossly overlooked is the art of structuring a guitar solo.
We have many, many lessons on sweep picking, tapping, and creating various rhythmic and intervallic patterns to shape our licks with. BUT almost no attention is put into the chord progression that nearly every solo is using as material for the solo. In this article, I’m going to give you an overview of the crucial aspects of creating an epic guitar solo that’s not only exciting and flashy, but will catch your listener’s ears and fit seamlessly into a song.
To start off, you must understand a very important aspect of making music......
And that’s that you are probably the only one that’s concerned with how impressive your guitar technique is. As important as having proper fingerings for your licks and grasping various techniques are, the most important thing is the notes you choose.
That is what’s going to win every time.
However the mechanics of playing guitar is often the make or break factor to creating the actual solo. And to prove this, let’s take a look at some famous chord progressions that underlie some of the greatest solo’s ever.
I’m sure many of you are fans of Eddie Van Halen so here’s the progression to “Light Up The Sky:”
C5 | | E5 |rpt 4x|G5 E5 G5|G5 E5 |
Before Eddie played his flurries of whammy bar dives, scalar licks, and unison bends that make up this solo, he had to sit down and create the riff that outlines this harmony.
Now take a look at the chord progression to Slash’s solo during the ending of “Paradise City:”
G5 | | C5 | | F5 | C5 | G5 | G5 ||
At this point, the song has sped up to Doubletime, which is the perfect chance to show off nearly every one of Slash’s signature licks and moves.
Repeating pentatonic phrases, ascending single note lines, and a mixture of lower pitched and higher pitched phrases make up this solo.
And now look at two progressions that Marty Friedman solos over in Megadeth’s “Hangar 18:”
C#7 || D5 Eb5 D5 |rpt|| Dm | Bb | Bdim | Bb ||
Before he uses an exotic scale or sweeps a few arpeggios Marty is looking at this progression, and trying to decide what notes he can use to better accent this progression and take it to another level.
So how did each of these guys come up with these progressions? Well this all happens at the songwriting phase, and explaining the harmony of each may be a little out of the scope of this article.
There are however a few things you can start doing ahead of time to make suitable chord progressions to solo over:
Repeat riffs from earlier to provide some continuity in the song
Move to a new key and choose a few chords spaced out over several bars to play over. If you have too many chords to solo over, the solo may become to demanding to create as you must pay attention to each one. Look at the Paradise City progression and you’ll see that G5 and C5 each have two bars a piece.
Reuse earlier motifs from the song like vocal melodies, basslines, drum rhythms, and even the actual guitar riffs. Your audience is looking for patterns to follow so give them to them, while providing some new melodies to take the whole song to a new place.
Study musical harmony and analyze your favorite songs to see how their chord progressions work during the song.
Many lead guitarists don’t realize this, but if you create licks and solos for the song you’re a crucial member of the songwriting team. Your fills and licks can either make or break the song. Each of the guitarists I mentioned earlier understood this and were masters at it. Plus, your guitar solo is often a bridge to the next chorus or verse, and it’s thus a crucial part of the song’s experience.
Don’t take any of this lightly as the main reason people aren’t really into guitar solos anymore is because of how over-indulgent some players can be. Many solos seem random and out of place, but implementing a few of these guidelines can help avoid that.
Crafting Motifs And Licks
Now this is an area of making music and playing guitar that’s very easy to get lost in because it’s so vast and subjective. When you have all these empty bars within a song to stick something in, it can be quiet intimidating if you haven’t done it much.
This is why we learn licks though. Learning licks helps us build a vocabulary of sounds and phrases that we can later use when we’re making something ourselves. And don’t make this about being “original” or sacrificing your creativity when you use other people’s licks.
When you see music the same way you do language, you’ll realize that your uniqueness will come from using the rhythms and words that come naturally to you after tons of immersion in the language.
However there is a stockpile of musical devices you can use when this time comes like:
Sweep picking arpeggios
Tapping chord or scale tones into musical phrases
Using triplets, 16th note, 8th notes, etc. as material for various licks
All the various bending techniques for replicating vocal sounds and accenting chords
And my personal favorite.....skipping intervals. Particularly the 4th, 6th, and 3rd intervals of all sorts.
Now I don’t wanta tease you with the mention of skipping intervals so here’s how I see it.
Instead of playing a scale like minor pentatonic straight through from E to the next E (when playing E Minor Pentatonic), just skip a note or two in the scale. Try going from E to A, E to B, B down to G, etc. Intervallic skips catch the ear, and are a crucial part of most melodies.
Now the other part of crafting motifs and licks for solos is simple. REPEAT EVERYTHING FROM EARLIER IN THE SONG!
If you put all this pressure on yourself to create a totally new piece of music within a song, you will not only drive yourself crazy and make this a lot harder, but it will feel out of place in the song.
So take the time to learn how to play the vocal melody on your guitar, or even play some chord melodies if you know how to do that with it. Take the basslines apart and use those. Just make sure they aren’t exactly similar to what the bass player is playing while you’re soloing. And when you do come up with licks and melodies for your solo, re-use parts of them for later in the solo. All three solos I mentioned earlier in this article do that, and they are praised for their greatness and creativity!
The Last Part
Finally all you’ve got to do is create the licks using your own imagination and good sense, then put it together to form your solo. The key to becoming competent as a lead guitarist is removing the mystique that comes with making music.
It is magical in its own way, but at the end of the day you’re a craftsman. Reuse material over and over whether it’s vocal melodies, basslines, guitar riffs, or drum rhythms. Make the solo interconnected and make it fit into the entire song. Melodies, riffs, chord progressions, and licks are the by-products of working on your craft. And it’s all about putting together harmonies and rhythms together.
I want to thank you for reading my article, and I hope it’s giving you tons of insights into how to craft your next face-melting solo.
If you ever have any questions, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit my website at PlayItLoud.com
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When you consider how much time and effort you put into getting your rig to sound just the way you want, it makes sense to ensure your guitar cables are also up to the job - after all they're an important part of the tone chain. Also remember that occasionally things will go wrong, so always carry at least one spare cable to gigs and rehearsals.