A GOOD GUITAR SOLO by Geoff Young

A good guitar solo (or any instrumental solo) in popular music effectively serves three purposes:
  1. It gives the vocalist a break from singing, a chance to catch his or her breath before launching into the second half of the song.
  2. It gives the listener a break from the vocal line and, in some cases, the verse/chorus structure that leads up to the solo.
  3. It gives the instrumentalist a chance to shine, to occupy the spotlight ordinarily reserved for the vocalist, to show his or her chops.
There is an art to good soloing. Some amount of technique is needed. Attitude is a must. Respect for the song, for one’s fellow musicians, and for the listener helps. When a player steps into a solo, he is constantly straddling the fine line between self-expression and self-indulgence. The intended impact on the audience (including the other performers who have to listen to the solo) is one of, "Hey, that was a fun little jaunt; let’s get back on the highway and finish our journey." A bad solo, on the other hand, elicits more of a "Geez, what the heck are we doing here? Let’s go already."
The latter is undesirable for many reasons. First and foremost, it irritates the crowd, which is the cardinal sin of performing live. Second, it disrespects the fellow musicians. If you’re going to take the spotlight, make a meaningful statement. Don’t just noodle around without aim (unless that is your specific intent; there is a difference between conscious aimlessness, if you will, and wanking for the sake of wanking). Finally, it diminishes the impact of the song as a whole. In writing and performing songs, anything that doesn’t add value needs to be removed. As Johnny Cochrane might say, "If it doesn’t fit, you must omit."
Structurally, there are several different ways a solo can work within the boundaries of a song:
  • It can mirror the vocal melody, providing the listener with a familiar motif but a different voice.
  • It can use the vocal melody as a starting point and build countermelodies based on the original motif.
  • It can create its own motif that has little or nothing to do with the rest of the song.
The first two, if done skillfully, make for fun and relatively easy listening. Think of early rock ‘n’ roll: Bill Hailey and the Comets, Elvis, early Beatles ("And I Love Her" contains a beautiful short solo based on the vocal melody). The third is a bit more thought provoking and demands more of the listener (and the players, for that matter). The interlude in Queensryche’s "Silent Lucidity" is a song into itself. Those chord changes and melody appear nowhere else in the song. The first time a listener hears it, it’s a little shocking because there is no way to predict its presence in the piece based on what has come before it. But that shock is also the source of delight, and it’s why the solo still sounds fresh after repeated listenings.

Another guitar solo that serves as a "song within a song" comes in Guns ‘N’ Roses’ "Sweet Child O’ Mine." This is a particularly relevant example to me, as our singer does a terrific Axl Rose and I would like nothing more than to be able to play this song live.
The structure of the song is pretty simple. Three chords in the verse, three more in the chorus (two of which also are contained in the verse). So far we’ve got four chords. No problem, right? Well, there’s the matter of the hypnotic riffs that weave their way throughout the song, but those aren’t too complicated. They require a certain amount of dexterity and stamina to play, but they’re not difficult.

Then along comes the solo, wherein we are introduced to a slew of different chords and a melody that has nothing to do with the rest of the song. That’s from the listener’s perspective. The player, meanwhile, is confronted with a piece that moves effortlessly among various positions on the neck of the guitar and sings. The lines are ridiculously fluid, there are some funky rhythms to negotiate (involving that chucka-chucka sound of attacking the strings with the pick hand while muting them with the fret hand), and there is one particularly fast run at the apex of the solo (where everyone hammers on the same chord for several measures and the drums build to a crescendo, before the song moves into yet another chord progression).
It’s this part of the solo that is a pain in the rear and, not coincidentally, what makes the solo what it is. I plug into my digital 4-track, set the tempo to about 105 beats/minute, and play part of a phrase from that run over and over again. We’re talking nine notes here. If I can play it five times without messing up (this could be flubbing a note or even ending up with my hand in the wrong position; if I have the wrong finger on that final note, I can’t get to the next part of the phrase), then I bump it up to 108 beats/minute and repeat the process.

I’ve always been a "wing-it" kind of player when it comes to solos. Find the key and go for it. Eventually you’ll stumble onto something that works and you’ll add or subtract to that as needed for each individual performance. I liked to think that I was being spontaneous by playing that way. And I probably was. And I’ll continue to play that way a lot of the time. But there are songs for which you absolutely have to play the recorded solo (AC/DC’s "Shook Me All Night Long"). Although playing someone else lines might seem less creative or spontaneous, the individual guitarist will always bringing something of himself to the work. The challenge is to have the discipline to (a) learn the part and (b) make a personal statement while remaining true to the original message.

I think I’ve made it all sound a great deal harder than it actually is. Or maybe not. But the point is, it’s worth the effort. One of the more satisfying moments a performer can have is to completely nail a solo. In my experience, that almost never happens (there’s always something you could have done better), but when it does, it’s a real good feeling.


Mon, Feb 9, 2004
By Geoff Young

PD: It is weird, I bought my electric guitar near the stadium of San Diego Padres...
does it mean something? XD (Santiago)
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