Guitar solos are some of the most fun and expressive things that can be done on guitar! A great solo is likely the reason that many of us first started playing guitar.
They’re fun to listen to, fun to play, and they’re one of the most individual forms of expression that can be done on the instrument. A great solo elevates a song – but where to start?
Learning to solo is a challenge – but one that’s fully worth taking. It’s not as hard to get started as you might think either – but you’ll likely do well to have some tips under your belt to get started with.
These aren’t shortcuts – they don’t exist – but tools that will help you get to where you want to be!
It is of course possible to solo without any knowledge of theory. After all, all you have to do is play the right notes, and not the wrong ones – right? Well, how do you know which notes are right and which aren’t?
Of course, there’s the (completely fair) argument that, when it comes to self-expression, there’s no true sense of “right” or “wrong” – but at the same time, if you’re starting out and have nothing to guide you to the sound you like, then here’s some ideas for you!
You’re going to want to learn some very basic theory, at the very least. The next few sections will help steer you in the direction of the “right” notes – once you’ve learned the basics, it’s a lot easier to step outside the box. After all, how can you break rules if you don’t even know what the rules are?
What is a scale? Simply put, it’s a series of musical notes, from lowest to highest! The scale that everybody should learn first is the major scale.
Just like any other scale, the major scale can start on any letter name. For ease of playing, we’re going to start on the low E string.
Play these frets in order – 0, then 2, then 4. Repeat this pattern on the A string – 0, then 2, then 4. Finally, on the D string, play 1, then 2. Now go back down these notes in reverse order, starting from the D string and ending on the low E.
This is the E major scale. It’s probably a very familiar sound to you! You can play this scale anywhere on the fretboard that you can find an E note – there are a few of them, so this is a great excuse to start learning the notes on the fretboard! And you can play the same pattern of notes starting from any note. For instance, starting this pattern on a G note will give you the G major scale!
You can think of this scale as a set of numbers – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Every other scale can be thought of as a modification of this scale. For example, the harmonic minor scale has the pattern 1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, 7.
This simply means that the 3rd and 6th notes are flattened – that is, the flattened notes are one fret lower! So for example, the first 3 notes of E harmonic minor starting on the low E string would be played 0, then 2nd fret, then 3rd – just a small change from the major scale, but a whole different sound!
What is a chord, then? Well, basic chords are made from stacking thirds. We play the first note of the scale, the third note, and the fifth! The third is the strongest note here, as it’s the one that really gives the chord its character.
What’s the relevance? Well, knowing that you’re playing over something written in E major gives you a great starting point – you know for a fact that the E major scale is going to work! Furthermore, you know that the first, third, and fifth notes of the scale will very likely be in the music – and therefore, you’ll be on safe ground hitting any of those notes!
Arpeggios are like chords – we take a small number of notes from a scale to make an arpeggio. In fact, we take the exact same notes as when we make a chord – the only difference being that we don’t play them all at once, but rather in sequence, one after the other.
So, for example, an E major arpeggio takes the first, third, and fifth notes of the E major scale. After you’ve played the fifth – go up an octave and do it again! Arpeggios can keep going up – or down – forever like this, in a predictable yet pleasant series of sounds.
This is one of the basics of more expressive soloing than merely playing all the notes in a scale – because just as important as the notes you do play, is the notes you don’t play!
Soloing Over Music
Now that we have a basic starting point, where to go from here? Well, let’s assume that the piece of music we want to solo over is in E major, to keep things simple.
We know for a fact that the notes in the E major scale will sound “right” over E major, so we’re on safe ground there. And we also know that we can play an E major chord over it – but even better for a guitar solo would be using those so-called “chord tones”, and playing them individually – an arpeggio.
Now, this doesn’t get us to a solo – but it gives us the basic building blocks that can help us learn how to make one!
These aren’t shortcuts, or licks you can memorize – but they are stepping stones to get you to learn how to express yourself. The most important thing is to experiment with these starting tools – and do it often!
You’ll make mistakes, and bad sounds – but that’s exactly how every player who wanted to learn how to solo did it! Don’t be afraid -learn and use these tools, and you’ll have made a great start in learning how to make your own solos!