One of the most difficult aspects of playing an instrument, but the most rewarding when you’ve figured out how, is the art of playing solos. The ability to manipulate four octaves or so of notes into a coherent melody, on the fly, following (sometimes bending) the musical rules and pulling it off, is one of the best feelings going.
I spent many, many guitar playing years to figure it out, but it paid off. I turned it into a profession, and now I earn a good portion of my living doing just that. I do it on album tracks, jingles, soundtracks, and it’s often my role in a band line up. I specialize in slide guitar, but it’s all the same thing.
Here are some tips:
- Know the key you’re in completely, totally, absolutely. In the end, they all become the same thing, but the rules of music and the layout of the fret board conspire to make it seem otherwise. Know the mother scale, and the *chord scale* that goes with each key. I’ve written many articles about keys, but here goes again in a nutshell: The major scale consists of seven notes. These seven notes give rise to seven chords of three notes each, using a simple formula. This family of seven notes and chords is called The Key. (There are twelve keys, one for each note of the chromatic scale which acts as a starting note.)
- Know the *chord of the moment* inside and out. It’s setting the rules for those moments that the chord is being played. When I say *know it*, I mean:A) know where it is on the fretboard in all positions at once. It took me years to realize that chords are smeared out the whole length of the fretboard, they’re not little diagrams with dots where your fingers should go. A simple chord consists of three notes — the old (1) (3) (5) — and they can be played any old way you can figure out, and since the fretboard is essentially a maze of repeat notes, it follows that the whole fretboard becomes a chord… if you’ve tuned your brain that way, that is.B) Know it’s context. Know which chord in the key’s chord-scale it is. Let’s say we’re in the key of G, and one of the chords in your solo is a D, then know that you’re on the *Five Chord*, for that is what D is to G, the fifth chord in the sequence. Why should you be aware? Because a D chord in the key of G does not come from the D scale, it comes from the G scale. It comes from starting the G scale from D and ending at the next D. This yields a scale almost the same as the major, but the 7th note is one fret lower. This new scale is called a mode, but the easiest way to remember is simply to know that the *Five Chord* is a flat seven chord. If you can see where the seven fits into the fretscape, you can use it. If it’s NOT one of the seven chords of the scale (anything is allowed), then really know it.
- Always think melody, never think scales. Scales are for getting your fingers familiar with the fretboard, the feel of the strings, the stretch of the intervals, but they should never be used AS solos. To be in any way effective, a solo has to tell some kind of sonic story, to do that you must first set the scene, develop the plot, introduce tension and suspense, and finally resolve the whole thing with a satisfying ending. Every song is different and there are no set rules.
- Don’t ruin it with technique. There nothing worse than being jolted from the magic by a poorly executed piece of show-offery. Speed has NOTHING to do with solos. Naturally, if the tune itself is uptempo, then your solo can be too (but not necessarily), but your technique must be flawless if you’re going to play fast. Again, music has the ability to suspend time if properly rendered. That’s one of its best features and that’s why we love to listen to it. Playing beyond your ability just ruins the music and brings the listener crashing back into reality.
- Solos are not a bunch of riffs strung together. You may fool your audience with that, but you’ll never fool yourself. Always seek to make your next solo totally different from the last, and always seek to follow the tune you hear in your head.
- If you like metaphors, here’s one: solos are a collection of musical phrases. Musical phrases can be seen as excursions away from and back to *home*. Home is the (1) (3) (5) of the chord of the moment. There is only one chord of the moment at any one given moment.
When it all boils down, there are only 12 notes. Inventing melodies spontaneously from the three and a half octaves or so at a guitarist’s disposal is more a matter of elimination: which notes CAN’T I play? It takes a while, but eventually you will know the hierarchy of the moment. In other words, which notes are boss, which are subsidiary, which are connecting notes. Your melodic ventures will then have a framework to explore.
The TRICK to keeping track of it, of course, is described in my book PlaneTalk. You can find out all about it here: www.thatllteachyou.com. Over 5000 guitarists all over the World have now been let in on the secret to *seeing* the music on the fretboard.
All the best.
Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com