If you want to play better solos on guitar or any instrument, you must make sure that your solos are musical. Now what does “musical” mean? Webster defines it in one way as, “having the pleasing harmonious qualities of music; melodious”. And melodious means having a pleasing melody.
You may notice that musical does not mean technically advanced or anything about playing “the right notes” that follow a particular set of rules.
Especially as a guitar player, I think we can often get so caught up in learning all the scales and modes and which ones to play over what chords that we stop actually listening to what we’re playing. If you want to play better solos, you have to make sure you are approaching it musically as well as technically.
Scales and modes are great, don’t get me wrong, but they are tools to create music, not music itself.
When you learned the ABC song as a little kid, did you know what scale you were singing? Probably not. At least not until you started learning about music. You remembered the ABC song because it has a strong melody. And that’s all you need.
Again, I’m not trying to say that learning scales and modes isn’t important, it is. But I’m also trying to show that playing endlessly up and down a scale over a chord progression is not really playing a musical solo.
To create music, you must be intentional about what you’re playing. You have to make a statement with your instrument, even if that means you risk playing a bad note. I always say, “a bad note at a good time is always better than a good note at a bad time.” If you are too scared to take any risks, you’re going to struggle to play better solos. And don’t worry, there’s no music police to show up and take your instrument away if you make a few mistakes. Takes some risks. Have some fun. Live a little!
We aren’t talking about the key of C or anything like that. These are the keys to play better solos that are meaningful, captivating and beautiful. That may sound like a tall order, but it’s a lot simpler that you may think.
You may have heard the expression “melody is king”. If you haven’t, well, now you have. Even legally, the lyrics and melody of a song are all that can be copyrighted. Now this is likely due to many factors, but it still goes to show that when it comes to music, melody stands out among the rest.
If we change the chords of a song, sure it will have a different feeling, but unless we change the melody, we still hear “that song”. When a song gets stuck in your head, it’s the melody and lyrics that you sing to yourself. Not to mention, we can only sing one note at a time. It’s only natural that the melody is the thing we cling to. If you want to play better solos, you have to make sure they are melodic.
Without getting into an entire article about writing melodies, we can touch on a few simple approaches to building your melodic instincts and play better solos right away.
You may have heard the quote saying something like “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” What the heck does that mean, though? Didn’t our parents teach us stealing is wrong? Well, yes, but it’s different with art. And we obviously have to think of it a little more broadly.
I’ve thought about this quote for years and my interpretation at this point is something like this:
Copying means trying to emulate or “be like” whatever artist you look up to. This is how children learn in early childhood, and it’s obviously effective, up to a point. As children get older and more mature, they take ideas from the world around them and begin to develop their own personal interpretations and expressions.
In the same way, as artists mature, they take something they like from another artist (or group or artists) and reimagine it through their own creative interpretation and transform it into something new and uniquely their own. This means you will do a whole lot more than play better solos. You’ll become a better musician.
“Steal” a vocal melody from a song you love and learn to play it on your instrument. Once you’ve got it down, really pay attention to what you like about it. Are there any repeating patterns? Pay special attention to these. A great way to play better solos is to study and learn from things we already love.
You may have already started taking steps to improve the expression of the notes you’re playing. Using expression to play better solos means paying attention to how we play the notes, not just what notes we play. On guitar this could take shape in many ways. Use your ear to listen carefully to that same vocal melody and this time really pay attention to how the notes are being delivered. Here are a few clues on what to listen for:
Dynamics generally refers to how loud or soft something is played. In classical music, loud dynamics are called “forte” and quiet dynamics are called “piano”. Using dynamics is a huge way to add excitement and expression to play better solos and write better music in general.
Listen to your melody and trying changing the volume of the notes you play. Play some soft, play some hard. Also, practice slowly increasing and decreasing the volume of the whole part. This will help you gain more control and really internalize the sound of the melody.
Fun fact: The piano instrument we think of today was originally called the piano-forte, since it was able to play notes at different volumes. This was a major improvement on the harpsichord, which was only able to play notes at the same volume.
Once you feel like you’re playing your melody with good dynamics, the next step to play better solos with expression is to start changing how we get to the notes we’re playing. How you go about doing this will depend on what instrument you’re playing, but the concept applies to everything.
Instead of playing a note straight, by itself, try sliding up to it or quickly playing just below your target note the moment before you play your intended note. On the guitar, we have the option to bend the notes by stretching the strings. This allows us to play one note lower and bend the pitch up to the note we want (generally a whole step or 2 frets higher).
Another common use of altering the pitch is by using vibrato. Vibrato is a technique that lets us bend a note back and forth quickly by a smaller amount while we hold, or sustain a note. This adds a nice flavor and dimension to the note, making it sound more expressive.
Pay Attention: As you listen to the melody you chose, take notice of any notes where the pitch slides up or down and try to replicate it on your instrument. Try mixing up your techniques as well. Slide one note, bend another and add vibrato to any longer notes. This is your chance to really find your own voice and style for playing music.
Now that you have some ideas to try out, start playing around with the melody. Start small and just change one note at a time, but keep the same rhythm. Once you’re feeling comfortable, just have fun! There’s no right or wrong way to do it as long as you feel like you’re expanding and playing better solos.
Once you’ve mastered this step to play better solos, it’s time to make your own melody! You can pick anything you like, just make sure it’s something you can remember!
Hopefully these tips will help you play better solos today! Leave some comments if you have any questions or want to show off what you did!
If you’re interested in personal instruction just reach out! I’d love to help you in any way I can.