Assuming you understand the basic theory of playing in keys and the fundamentals of soloing, and you know the Pentatonic scale patterns, the following 8 tips for playing better guitar solos will send you on your way to becoming the next guitar Zeus.
First of all, as an aspiring musician, you should listen to other players to develop a sense of what you like, and don’t like, about phrasing, tone, technique, rhythms, etc. It’s a good idea to start with the Pentatonic scale because it is more forgiving and easier to make sound good than the seven note Diatonic scale.
1) Record yourself- this is something every musician should do more of because it is typically difficult for aspiring players to listen to themselves objectively while playing. Although this is usually a discouraging process to go through at first (“I thought I was tearing it up just like Jimi!”), it is a great way to hear yourself from a listener’s perspective and to find out what you didn’t realize you were doing, or not doing, and how to adjust accordingly.
2) Play harder – This is something I tell my students all the time because it’s so simple but it makes a huge difference. Hit record and then play a lengthy lick you know well how you would naturally play it. Listen back to the recording and chances are every note is at the same quiet and dull monotone level (which is how most novices play constantly). Now, play the same lick again while really digging in and spanking the strings. You get a much brighter bite to the attack and a quick mellowing on the sustain giving you a lot more dynamic tone. If you’re still unconvinced, watch a live performance of Jimi Hendrix or Stevie Ray Vaughn strangling their guitars. Enough said.
3) Add vibrato – Again, something very simple that can add a lot of mileage to your playing. For many guitarists, developing a fluid blues vibrato technique can be challenging at first but the payoff is well worth it. You should always introduce vibrato any time you stop on a note to give a more musical feel to your phrasing. Listen to singers and any blues players like BB King, who was known for his vibrato.
4) Play in phrases – Think of a phrase as a short musical sentence. If you are reading a book, it can become exhausting to read a lot of “run on” sentences. The same concept applies to musical phrasing. The idea is to sound less like you are practicing scales, and more like you are making music. Singers and horn players naturally form phrases because they have to take a breath every once in a while.
5) Play fewer notes and repeat notes – This is a great way to form more musical phrasing. If you listen to vocal melodies in songs, you will notice they tend to be very repetitive with few notes. They also tend to be very catchy and stick in your head. A great exercise is to figure out vocal melodies by ear to gain more clarity on what makes a great phrase.
6) Vary your rhythm – If you start playing more repetitively with fewer notes you will notice that it can sound pretty boring right off the bat. The best way to make your phrasing more interesting is by varying the rhythm of what you are playing. Take three notes and visualize those notes as drums and then go to town banging away at whatever rhythms come to you.
7) Add at least 2 techniques in each phrase – These can include: hammer ons, pull offs, slides, bends, drop bends, and double stops (two notes played simultaneously). Again, vibratos should always be used any time you stop on a note.
8) Learn some licks and guitar solos – I’m putting this last on the list because you should spend more time and effort developing your own style than learning someone else’s. We all hit the proverbial brick wall at times so to improve your technique and get a better sense of phrasing it’s always good to learn what you know works, whether its a David Gilmour solo, or Dimebag Darrell shred fest.
Follow these tips for playing better guitar solos and you will see a huge improvement in your lead work!