I. Playing a Solo Is Like Writing or Speaking

Think of a musical phrase as the equivalent to a written or spoken sentence. A phrase must express a logical, complete thought. This can be accomplished by starting the phrase with a chord tone (the subject of the sentence) and resolving the phrase with a consonant chord tone (punctuating the sentence). Don’t play the musical equivalent of sentence fragments! The equivalent of run-on sentences should also be avoided. Don’t play long, rambling phrases that don’t seem to go anywhere! Instead, vary the length of phrases to keep your solo interesting.

Playing an effective solo can also be compared to telling a story. This is true of both improvised and composed solo sections. An effective solo must have a logical beginning, middle, and end. Think of the beginning of a solo as an introduction. You’re essentially trying to grab the listener’s attention without overwhelming the listener. You also want to give the listener a general idea of what is to come. This can be accomplished by playing simple ‘attention-getter’ phrases.

Take a look at some classic solos for inspiration. For example, how does Jimmy Page begin his “Stairway To Heaven” solo? Or, how does Kirk Hammett begin the solo to “Enter Sandman”? Why are these opening lines so effective? After the beginning of the solo, there are several things you can do to build tension and work towards a climax. Repeating ideas, playing faster rhythmic subdivisions, and playing in a higher register are all ways to build tension. Finally, to create a solid ending to your solo, resolve your final phrase in a way that serves as an effective transition into the rest of the song.

II. Rhythm Is More Than Important Than Note Choice

Rhythm is the single most important aspect of almost every musical performance. Playing a solo is no exception. Many beginners make the mistake of focusing primarily on playing notes that are consonant with each chord. As a result, rhythmic stability goes out the window. Before you ever begin to play melodic phrases over a chord progression or riff, start by playing all of the various rhythmic subdivisions with a metronome. For example, if you’re playing over a progression in C major, begin by practicing the C major scale straight up in down with a variety of rhythms.

Begin by playing the scale in quarter notes over the progression. Then, work your way into the faster subdivisions: eighth notes, triplets, sixteenths, etc. Repeat the process with the appropriate arpeggio for each chord. Once you have mastered these basic skills, try playing some improvised melodic phrases. When you begin to improvise, make sure your rhythm remains steady! You must have an awareness of what rhythmic subdivisions you are improvising at all times. Additionally, you must play these subdivisions cleanly and in time. Always remember this simple rule: if you can’t play something in time, you can’t play it!

III. Arpeggios Are More Important Than Scales

A huge problem that soloists have, is that they fail to realize the importance of arpeggios. Let’s compare arpeggios and scales logically. Since an arpeggio is solely comprised of the notes within a chord, every note in the arpeggio will work effectively over the chord. This is almost never the case with scales. Most scales will contain at least one if not two or three ‘avoid tones’. For example, the note a perfect 4th up from the root note of a chord built from a major triad is always considered an “avoid tone.”

Rather than viewing a scale as a series of notes, most of which work over a chord, think of every scale you know as an arpeggio with passing tones added. Compare a Cmaj7 chord/arpeggio (C, E, G, B) and the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B). The notes C, E, G, and B should be emphasized by placing them on the strong beats. The other notes from the scale, D, F, and A, should be used primarily on weaker beats as passing tones between chord tones.

IV. Diatonic Vs. Non-diatonic or Chromatic Progressions

Music students frequently ask “how do I know which scales I can use over a certain progression?” The first step to answering this question is to identify if a chord progression is diatonic or not. The word ‘diatonic’ means that all of the notes in a musical excerpt come directly from a certain scale without any chromatic alterations. The major scale, the melodic minor scale, the harmonic minor scale, and the corresponding modes are all examples of diatonic scales. So, if all the notes that form the chords in a progression all come from one of these scales, then just one single scale can be used over the entire progression.

On the other hand, many chord progressions contain chromatic chords or notes that are outside of the diatonic framework of a scale or mode. Consider the following chord progression: C - E - Am - G. For the most part, all of the notes in this progression fall within the framework of the C major scale. However, the G# note contained within the E chord is an exception. Thus, G# is considered to be a chromatic note. Due to this chromatic note, the C major scale is not the most effective choice over the E chord. Instead, switching to a scale that contains a G# note such as E Mixolydian, E Phrygian Dominant, or E Major Pentatonic may work much better over the E chord.

V. Learn Vocabulary From Your Favorite Musicians

It’s next to impossible to create in a vacuum. Without any musical ideas to inspire you, you can’t expect to pull great melodic phrases out of thin air. Every great soloist that has ever lived has stolen ideas from his/her favorite musicians. It’s pretty interesting to look at the solos of a great guitarist such as Jimi Hendrix and trace the origins of his ideas back to B.B. King, Albert King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, etc.

Going back to our comparison with speaking/writing, you can’t expect to speak effectively if you only know a handful of words. You’re going to run out of things to say rather quickly. The same is true of improvising a solo. If you learn just one new lick a day, you’ll have an extensive vocabulary in no time. Also, learning these ideas from your favorite players will give you some idea of what is musically effective. These general ideas can be applied to creating your own ideas, which will shape your own unique voice on the instrument.