An Exposition Of Solo Techniques

A discussion of technique versus emotion, and a formulaic approach to differentiation between the two.

Ultimate Guitar

Hello, everyone! Today, I wanted to have a little talk regarding solos and the techniques they consist of. In metal, every guitar kid in all of history (myself included) has nerded out over those absurdly fast alternate picked scales, sweep-picked arpeggios, eight-finger tapping, and other such coveted techniques. While this gives the genre an unparalleled skill ceiling, it has a very unpleasant downside: The emphasis of physical speed over emotion.

Now, so that I don't end up sounding like one of those people on YouTube who posts on every technical shred video ever, saying, "There's no soul, this is just wankery," let me clarify. I think that technique is far more useful as a beginning priority than theory. You can know all the theory in the world, but if you can't make your hands do what your brain knows, what good is it to you? That said, the other extreme is the kind that we see far too often in metal. Let me offer an example.

So, you decide one day that you'd really like to pick up sweep picking. You start that generic Am shape on the top three strings, the one everyone recommends to learn the muscle memory. You repeat it over and over again until you can do it without thought. You start adding in one string at a time until you can handle all six. You practice to the click of a metronome, slowly boosting your speed until you can play twenty notes in the span of a second, up and down the length of this Am arpeggio.

You head on down to Guitar Center, plug into that shiny tube amp and shred away at your Am arpeggio, turning heads all throughout the store. You feel so powerful as the kids in Megadeth t-shirts stop and stare at your absurd speed. Maybe by now you've learned to chain G and F arpeggios below to add some variety. You're beginning to feel really good at what you're doing.

So, you start writing songs. Maybe you have a band, maybe you don't. Either way, you're working on songs. The time comes to take a solo, and you eagerly leap into your arpeggios. You sweep your way over the chords and through the changes. You feel amazing. And suddenly, you realize that your solo sounded boring.

HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? It's so cool! How could this technique possibly be boring?! Well, now, halfway through the article, I can actually get to the point of this lesson. Techniques are what they are because they serve very specific roles. In the case of sweep picking, as well as string skipping, tapping, and any other way to play arpeggios, they are meant to be used as a stall.

When I say stall, I mean a technique used to "buy time" for the chords to change without having to play fewer notes. Say you play an Am arpeggio over an Am chord. The notes are still just as fast and flashy as scale runs, but the only notes you're playing are those that are ALREADY in the chord, so there's no change of emotion. All the emotion comes from the changing tones of a scale, playing notes that land in between the typical triad notes of a chord.

Essentially, these arpeggios work in a similar way to the repeating-note bends that is so popular among blues guitarists, where they bend a note, then play that same note on the next string. It's a way to alter the rhythm of what is being played, without needing to play through more scale tones than we would like, allowing us to save the "money notes" for just the right emotional moment.

If you listen to players who are extremely skilled at phrasing, such as Guthrie Govan, Alexi Laiho, Joe Satriani or Chris Broderick, you'll hear that they use arpeggios in a way such as this, where they want the primary emotional elements of their solos to be provided by the backing chords, and choose to simply play those same notes in a very cool, speedy way, rather than play additional notes that would muddy up the arrangement. Or, additionally, they choose to land on a scale note as an arpeggio, giving a different rhythm, stretching out that particular note in the scale.

However, if your chords don't have a whole lot going on melodically, or if their rhythm is sparse, you need to turn to techniques such as alternate picking, legato, or economy picking. Techniques which allow you to play through a scale. This is where you begin to need to learn about choosing scales, emphasizing notes, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, accenting... This is where emotion is found, not sweeping or eight-finger tapping at blindingly fast speeds just playing redundant notes already covered by backing chords.

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Well, this was actually pretty good. sweep your way over the chords and through the changes. You feel amazing. And suddenly, you realize that your solo sounded boring. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? It's so cool!
    You got me there, that was the exact thing that happened with me when I used the superfast Buckethead lick in every song
    Danjo's Guitar
    I skipped halfway down, but thats really where the article started anyway. I feel like a lot of people don't understand that technical stuff can still be boring. And is that spammer on every article?
    Unfortunately, yes. Good thing that those stupid comments get deleted fairly quickly. And thank you for the constructive comment. I'll try to keep it more concise in the future.
    I liked the article, a lot of good points but I don't a agree with the word choice of "stall" and a description for techniques. The technique should be stylized to make a musician unique, and should be like stepping stones to enhance the feeling of chord changes.
    Well, going back to the analogy of the blues repeating-note bends, those can certainly be used in a stepping stone fashion, as can arpeggio-based techniques. The point I'm trying to make is that arpeggios stretch the rhythm of a note, e.g. playing a single "A" as part of a scale run, or elongating that single A into an Am arpeggio. Certainly one can use them to imply a key, for instance, as is often heard in certain styles of jazz where the backing chords tend to omit the third, but in rock and metal, there is often already some evidence of the major/minor tonality in the chord progression, taking away that aspect of arpeggios.