We’ve all dreamed about ripping that perfect guitar solo in front of a sold-out arena, but how does one write that “perfect solo”?

Crafting a solo can be complex and intricate, we practice scales and modes for hours on end, only to be faced with the challenge of breaking out of these routines and turning these notes we’ve heard thousands of times into something unique.

(If you are looking for some extra tips to tighten up your chops and technique, be sure to check out our Shred Lessons.)

1. Finger Tone

If you can’t make 1 note sound good, don’t play 100!

We’ve all heard that guitarist who has tons of chops, but can’t play Smoke on the Water to save his life. It’s not because he doesn’t have the skill to play the notes, the problem is he doesn’t know how to make those notes sound great!

The guitar is a physical instrument, and the sound it makes is a direct response to how you play it. Where you fret the note, how hard you press, how hard you pick the string, how quickly you pick, what angle you pick at, all of these factors (and more!) are what make or break the sound of each note.

Take the time to study the sounds that come out of your guitar, and how they are produced. Look at your technique and experiment with these different factors. The time spent on this skill is the difference between making a note heard, and making a note sing.

2. Brick By 4-Bar Brick

Music is played in chunks. We’re used to 2-bar drum beats, 4-bar progressions, 12-bar blues, but these chunks should not dictate the format of our soloing. We have a tendency to fall into these patterns when writing a guitar solo, resulting in a what we call the dreaded “compartmentalized solo”.

So what does this dreaded creature sound like? It sounds like 4 bars of a tapping lick… Then 8 bars of a sweep picking lick… Then 4 bars of a pentatonic lick… you get the picture. Solos like this end up sounding safe and predicatable, because you’ve removed any sense of flow, you lack transitions, and you sound like a paint-by-numbers book!

There is some good news, however.

While this is one of the most painful and obvious ways for a solo to sound lackluster, it’s also the easiest to fix! Simply extended phrases over odd-numbers of bars, starting licks on something other than the downbeat, and inserting transitions between your licks will create a solo that sounds cohesive and effortless.

3. Vibrato Is Rhythmic

If you haven’t tried adding vibrato to your notes already, you should! It creates depth and interest to a note by allowing it to have some motion to it, rather than just a static pitch with no feel. However, while many of us have tried it, we’ve committed one unforgivable offense… your vibrato isn’t in time.

Alright, so it’s not unforgivable, but it is notable.

Think of it this way: you’ve composed a beautiful song, with drums playing 8th notes at 120 bpm, guitars playing 8th notes at 120 bpm, and you come swooping in with vibrato that’s playing triplets at 137.5 bpm… Does that seem like a smart move?

Unless you’re playing in an experimental ambient shoegaze band, your music has rhythm to it. Vibrato manipulates the pitch of a note, but it does so in rhythm. Making a conscious effort to set that rhythm to the tempo of the song can really make those notes gel with a piece. The next time you’re playing a solo, focus on the speed of your vibrato and experiment with quarter note speed, 8th note speed, and more!

4. Use Dynamics To Tell A Story

Writing a solo is like writing a movie, or a book: it needs to have a clear beginning, a clear middle, and a clear end. The best movies and books are ones that don’t keep the same dynamic from front to back, they change, evolve, and build to a fantastic ending.

If you keep the same dynamic throughout an entire solo it simply becomes boring. The listener knows what to expect, because they aren’t stimulated with anything new! Start small, draw the listener in, then expand and enbellish, and then go out with a bang. It might sound formulaic, but this is a sure-fire way of keeping your listener engaged and hanging on your every note.

So how do we change dynamics? Any number of factors, including speed, pitch, rhythm, technique choice, and much more. Maybe you start playing slow and simple, and end playing fast and complex. Perhaps you start lower down the neck and end with a screaming high note! Whatever tool you can find to create contrast and interest is going to take your solo to a whole new level.

No one is asking you to pick up your guitar and recount the War of 1812 in great detail, but a dynamic solo tells a heck of a good story.

5. Serve The Song, Not Your Ego

Let’s get one very important thing out of the way…

… your solo is not about you.

While the name might be very misleading, your solo is in fact not about you. This is not your time to show off that sweep picking exercise you’ve been practicing for months, nor is it time to take every impressive lick in your toolbox and cram them into a 30 second shred-fest. Your solo is about the song.

A solo has to serve the song. If you’re playing a smooth R&B track, busting out your favorite Satriani shred lick probably isn’t going to add anything to the music. In fact, it’s probably going to sound really out of place. Your job as a soloist is to enhance the mood and feeling of the music you’re playing over.

If the song is sad and mournful, your playing needs to match that. If the song says “I’m mad”, your solo needs to say “I’m pissed.” Tailor your solo to what the song is trying to say and you’ll be able to connect with the music and bring the entire song to new heights.

6. Expand Your Vocabulary

Sometimes we can feel pretty out of our element when writing a solo, and some days we just can’t think of anything we haven’t played before. We’ve all felt this writer’s block, but the easy remedy is to take a few notes from the masters!

No pun intended..

There’s nothing wrong with taking a few licks from a guitarist you admire in order to help spark your own creativity. Copying them note for note won’t do you a lot of good, but learning them may give you insight into new ways of seeing and hearing the same notes you’ve always played.

If you’re sitting down to write and all you can think is “Man, Steve Vai would sound great on this track” then sit down and learn some of Steve’s licks! Learning how the masters get “their sound” has two major benefits – learning to identify specific sounds with actual notes and scales, and learning how to incorporate these tactics into YOUR sound.

7. Don’t Be Afraid To Repeat Yourself

If there’s one thing that makes a hit song, it’s the chorus. The chorus is catchy and memorable, and it’s repeated throughout the song to really ingrain it into our ears. When writing a solo, we tend to view repetition as lazy or boring, but taking a simple theme and repeating it once or twice can transform a series of licks into a cohesive, memorable whole.

Finding a nice melody can be the difference between tired and tedious to unreal and unforgettable!

8. Chord Tones Are Never Wrong!

If you find yourself stumbling to find the “right notes” for your solo, there’s an easy starting point for any song: chord tones. Chord tones are any notes that are in the chord you are currently playing over. If your solo starts with one bar of a G chord, the notes of that chord are G-B-D. If you play a chord tone, you can’t ever be wrong!

Not only does this ensure you’ll never hit a wrong note, but it’s a way of sounding like you’re breaking away from scale shapes. If you can avoid straight “scalar” sounds, then you’re already one step closer to sounding like one of the masters! The last benefit is that when you’re faced with an unfamiliar or unusual chord progression, this is a quick and easy method to getting your balance.

Targeting chord tones is a long-standing essential technique in jazz music, and has become an integral tool of many modern musicians like Guthrie Govan, Periphery, Rick Graham, and more. While only playing chord tones makes for a rather bland composition, it is a great starting point any time you can’t quite figure out where to begin.

Learn more about chords, scales, and note usage by reading our music theory guides, Wired Theory.

9. Sometimes The Notes Don’t Matter

While this may seem contrary to the above points, this is one of the most important points. Sometimes the specific notes aren’t nearly as important as conveying the right energy or mood. In order to facilitate creativity, it can be beneficial to think of things in general concepts instead of notes.

Rather than asking yourself “what notes should I play”, think about what licks or solos you’ve heard in the past that conveyed the same energy you’re aiming for. Chances are you’ll come up with several quite different examples that all fulfilled the same musical role, allowing you to think outside the box and see how many unique ways you can convey the same energy.

10. Put Down The Guitar

This is, by far, the best piece of advice we can give you – put down your guitar.

Writing with a guitar in your hand isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, you’ve written lots of music on it before, as have many of the greatest artists you admire. So, if that’s the case, why would you ever put it down?

We all have playing habits, and these habits are often driven by muscle memory. Our hands have played certain licks hundreds of times, and will always be inclined to play what they already know, rather than move in new ways. Putting your guitar down eliminates these muscle-memory-driven habits that suck you into the same old licks and allows you to imagine melodies and licks that you wouldn’t have come up with while holding the instrument.

Your body is never going to be as creative as your mind, and letting your imagination take the lead allows you to innovate and inspire fresh ideas without being held back by your old habits. Freedom of creativity means freedom to create the perfect solo.

We hope you enjoyed this article! If you did, make sure to check out more, because we upload new reviews, technical articles, lessons, and more daily!

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This article was written by Connor Gilkinson, our editor located in Canada.

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