11 Tips to Help You Conquer That Difficult Solo

Here are a few tips that will help you to be successful with the next difficult solo that you want to conquer.

Ultimate Guitar
11 Tips to Help You Conquer That Difficult Solo
Learning a challenging guitar solo is a lot like climbing a mountain; it's a challenge that many people would like to achieve, but that most fail to ever accomplish. It's arduous, frustrating, time consuming, and will force you to test the limits of your playing abilities. Here are a few tips that will help you to be successful with the next difficult solo that you want to conquer:

1. Realistic Time Requirements

Guitar solos are typically much more challenging to learn and play than the rest of the song. Because of this, it will normally take as much time to learn just the solo if not more. You should treat learning the solo like learning an additional song within the song itself. It is important that you approach it with zero expectations of how long it's going to take or even how difficult it's going to be, because at the beginning you really won't know for sure. If you underestimate the difficulty of a solo or the effort that will be required, than you may find yourself overwhelmed very quickly. Allow as much time as is needed in order to get the solo down properly.

2. Break It Up

If you treat a solo like a song of its own, then you will find that your approach to learning it will become more effective. Just like when learning a song, a solo should be broken up into a series of different pieces which are more manageable to learn separately then as a whole. My preference is to break the solo down into musical phrases, but feel free to cut it up in any way that works for you. The size of each piece does not need to be the same as more challenging parts will need to be broken down into smaller chunks.

3. Play at a Comfortable Level

This is one of the most important and neglected aspects of learning a solo. Don't rush trying to play at the full speed, especially if you are still learning how to play it. If you can't play the part properly at a fast tempo, then play it slower. You are only setting yourself up to fail by forcing the faster speed at this point. Use a metronome or find a good program to slowdown the music if you have trouble hearing what the solo sounds like at a slower tempo. My personal favorite is the Amazing Slow Downer which you can get for PC, Mac, and even as an app for your smart phone. Gradually increase the tempo over time until you are able to comfortably play the solo at the full speed. As you go faster, you may find it a little awkward at first, but with time it will become comfortable once again.

4. Isolate Challenging Passages

I already mentioned that more difficult passages should be made smaller to make them easier to learn, but you also need to weight your practice time according to the difficulty of each part. You should be spending more time working on difficult passages instead of playing the easier parts over and over again. You will have ample opportunity to play the easier parts once you have assembled the entire solo. This is not only important when working with a solo, but when practicing in general. Your time is better spent improving the area which you find difficult instead of repeating the things that you can already play well.

5. Practice the Required Techniques

Separately It seems that every time you learn a new solo there is at least one part that will challenge your technical abilities on the guitar. Once you have located these areas in the solo, try using them to create a series of different exercises which you can use to improve your play technique. You don't have to keep the lick in its original form as long as you retain the part that is causing you difficulty. For example, if you find the picking pattern to be especially tough, keep the picking pattern and change the other aspects of the phrase. You could change the notes, the strings, the rhythm, the dynamics, and more. This will allow you to keep what you find challenging and use it in a variety of different situations that will force you to become comfortable with it.

6. Learn to Sing the Solo

Can you sing, hum, or whistle the solo you are trying to play, note for note at the right tempo? This is one of my secret weapons when it comes to learning solos. By learning to sing the solo, you are actually internalizing it; you are creating an aural memory of the solo. This will give you a crystal clear expectation of what the solo sounds like. You'll be able to hear the solo playing in your mind as you play on your guitar. If what you play on the guitar sounds different from what you hear it your head, you will be able to pick it out immediately and correct it so that it sounds right. Learning to do this will take time in the beginning, but trust me it is worth the effort in the long run.

7. Put the Solo in Context

Once you are able to play the entire solo, you will need to practice it in the context of the song. At first, playing the solo with the recording will be sufficient. You'll be able to hear the original version of the solo while you play along and it will help you to keep your place. After you become comfortable playing with the solo, you should try to find a version where the solo has been removed. This will challenge you to keep your place in the music without the support of the original solo. You may be able to find a version of your chosen song online that does not include the solo, although I find that doing so is very time consuming and often unsuccessful. My preference is to use a notation program like Guitar Pro which will allow you to remove the solo with the click of a button.

8. Work on the Transitions

If you expect to play the solo with the rest of the music, you will need to work on transitioning from the rhythm to the solo and finally back to the rhythm. The most important part of this is being able to think ahead. You need to prepare yourself mentally before you start playing the solo in order to avoid any mistakes or hesitations. You can practice this simply by starting the song a few bars before the solo and practicing your transition. Remember that at this point you are working specifically on the transition; don't play the entire solo as it will take emphasis off of the transition. You will need to take the same approach when working on the end of the solo to make sure that you can smoothly transition back into the rest of the song.

9. Strive for Accuracy and Consistency

If you are like most guitarists, speed will be one of your biggest challenges and priorities while learning a solo. I want to be really clear about this next point. Speed should never, ever be the primary objective when working on a solo or really anything that you play. This may sound completely backwards to what you have learned from a number of other teachers or guitarists, but hear me out.

Believe it or not, but you have the ability to play as fast as you want right now. The problem is that you likely have very little control over how to use that it. Imagine trying to drive an F1 race car with no driving experience; the speed and power is there, but you don't really know how to use it effectively. Focusing solely on speed would be like try to drive by just jamming your foot on the gas. You'll drive really fast in one direction, but you'll end up making a huge mess when you reach the first turn.

The solution is to focus on your control which comes down to how accurately and consistently you are able to play a given part. Can you play all of the notes of a passage cleanly and clearly every time you play it for a given tempo? If not, then trying to go faster will end up sounding like a mess. Any mistakes that are present at the slower tempo will only become worse as you go faster. You might even find that you need to reduce the tempo for the moment in order to play the part correctly.

This method of learning a solo will take more time than what you may be used to, but the differences in the end results are significant. Once you are done, not only will the solo sound spectacular, but you will be able to effortlessly play it any time you want. You will also find that your overall abilities on the guitar will have improved.

10. What Does "Done" Really Mean?

If you have aspirations to play the solo with a band in a live setting, there are a few more things that you will need to consider. Work through the following list of questions to take your soloing abilities to the next level:

  • Can you play it from memory? Do you know it so well that you could write it out from memory without your guitar?
  • Can you start playing from any point in the solo or do you have to start at the beginning to play it right?
  • Can you play the solo at a speed that is faster than the original tempo?
  • Do you feel completely comfortable and relaxed when you are playing the solo at the full speed? How nervous, tense, or anxious are you when it comes time to play?
  • Do you notice any negative physical tension in your body as you play? This could be in your fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, legs, back, neck and even in your face.
  • Can you play the solo with a consistency of 90%? Play it correctly 9 times out of 10.
  • Can you play the solo in a live setting with a real band?
  • Can you play the solo correctly with one attempt, in front of an audience?
  • Can you play the solo while sitting, standing, walking, or even running around? What about while head banging?
  • Can you play the solo without being able to hear your guitar?
  • Can you play the solo without being able to see your hands or your fretboard?
  • Can you record the solo in one take, with no mistakes or unwanted noise?

    11. Be Patient

    The entire process of learning a solo to completion can be frustrating, time consuming, boring, and exhausting. Having an unending supply of patience will help you to keep cool through the process and ultimately reach the end. Don't be too hard on yourself if you are not able to finish learning the solo in the time that you original expected. Plans always change when then are applied to the real world and you will need to learn to adapt to be successful. As long as you don't quit and keep working on it, you will eventually get the solo down.

    BONUS - Transcribe the Solo Yourself

    If you have the time and patience, learn to play the solo by listening to the music and working it out without the assistance of any form of sheet music or reference. You will find that you will always build a stronger connection to the music that you learn by transcribing compared to those that you learn from sheet music.

36 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Take a break, practice something else, then come back to it. You will be less tense and it will come more natural for you.
    Very true. Taking a break also gives your mind time to absorb what you've been learning. Often, when I return to working on a solo after a good night's rest, my ability to play it has actually improved.
    This is a really good tip, this has helped me learn a lot of solos including Far Beyond the Sun.
    I find taking a break will make sure you actually remember it. When I'm learning solos, I practice it for hours, then take a break from the guitar all together and take a walk or something. If I remember it when I come back I'm all set.
    6. Learn to Sing the Solo angel of death, anyone?
    Yeah, there are definitely some guitar solos which would be hard to sing note-for-note at full speed. However, you can always sing the general motion of a fast passage instead of each note separately.
    Thank you for that great lesson! I would like to mention something that also works for me: Try to play the solo in your head. Usually, you will play it as fast in your head as you would when you actually play. I tried playing it in my head when I didn't have a guitar within my reach and somehow, my progress got way bigger when I combined these two techniques together. I don't even know why but it works.
    Definitely. Visualization is an incredibly powerful way to develop your playing. Everything that we do on the guitar starts in our minds. If you can make sure that the mental side is solid, the physical aspects become easier to accomplish. And as you said, it can be practice anywhere even if you don't have a guitar handy.
    12: realise that it is not always that useful to learn a solo 100%, note for note. I think it is much more useful to understand the basics of musical theory and improvise your own solo on an existing song. After all, nobody cares if you can play Stairway to heaven note for not, incl. solo. Writing your own great songs and solo's is what counts
    Absolutely. You could also write or improvise a new solo of your own. There are many approaches that you can take. But, for those who do want to learn a solo note-for-note, these tips will help to make the process easier. Thanks for the comment.
    True but if you can't play something note for note, you can't play it just the way you want to play it. I mean, if you hear something, you want to be able to play it just like you hear it and not almost like you hear it. That's why being able to learn something note for note may help. There's nothing wrong with adding your own things but it's always good to be able to play the solo/riff/song note for note. I mean, both ways are good. It's also good if you can add something of your own to the solo. But if you never learn anything note for note, your playing won't be perfect. As I said, if you hear a melody in your head, you want to be able to play it just like you hear it. Note for note playing also forces you to play stuff that you wouldn't have thought of playing. If you always improvise something like the original solo, you'll always play it the your way and not learn new licks and stuff. Some rhythmic things are really cool and they need to be played note for note.
    There are definitely pros and cons to each approach. I believe it is important to spend time working on a variety of approaches to soloing if you want to fully develop your abilities.
    Yeah, all of the above does make sense. Only thing I don't get is why I stop having fun the second I even consider learning something note for note, but always enjoy experimenting with chord spellings and scales just based off my basic knowledge of theory. What should I do?
    I completely agree. I practically never learn a solo 100%. If it has some memorable licks (for example, slower leads in Sweet Child of Mine), I'll learn them since they're an important part of the song. Licks that aren't really memorable, I just improvise over that section of the song.
    You know, in response to my comment: I took a break for pretty much most of 2014, and I've started back up again back in February/March of this year. I'm actually going back to the Sweet Child solo and learning the main solo note-for-note. It's a bit hard because I know I was able to do it, but it takes time and patience. It'll surely help me out in the long run.
    Great article. An unfortunate truth about playing guitar is that there really is no other way but work and practice.There is no app you can download,and nothing you can buy that will make you a great guitar player.It,s all about practice and effort and most of the time the only way to really own a song or solo is to practice,practice,practice until you're sick of hearing it and then about ten thousand times more.
    I think that this whole article can apply to learning anything on the guitar in general. Not just a guitar solo. You sir, have given me some very useful tips.. Especially step 10. Thanks!
    Thanks for the kind words. I tend to find myself working more and more on #10 as I continue to learn more solos.
    Good advice but I still believe that you should always try and learn by ear and it takes patience and a lot of time to accurately learn solos and songs. as matter of fact I have not learnt any solos fully due to lack of knowledge and technique.
    It amazed me at first how long it took me to learn anything! But, the more I practiced, things did become a little easier to play and I guess in time, my brain and fingers will adapt to picking things up quicker. I'm learning fingerpicking pieces, but it's all about remembering patterns based on chords, and I am getting there slowly and I know I have to be patient. Thanks for all the tips!
    good read, I use Guitar Pro and slow down and loop segments of the solo and practice them over and over increasing the tempo when I feel I'm ready. It's helped a bunch. Another thing I find myself doing is, if I get stumped on a part and kinda loose my drive to struggle through it, I'll move onto another song (most of the time a more difficult one). I'll practice that one until I'm in a rut, then I'll go back to first song and realize "wow I can play this a lot faster/cleaner now!" and it kinda re-kindles that fire.. kinda a dumb approach but it really works for me haha
    This is a great lesson, Thank you. This helps me a lot.. Im currently learning the Black Sabbath Paranoid solo for my first effort
    I will try this. Trying to learn a lead intro with a lot of picking and it has been a pain in the ***.
    i think this is an excellent article. to the point, flows well amungst the steps. i wish i would have known this when i was working on some SRV leads. nice work. thanks.
    Nice job. That article has a lot of awesome tips I'm trying to learn a solo that is primarily 8th and 16th notes, so I'll try your method.
    One thing I found that is helpful goes along the lines of the learning to sing/hum it tip. Just listen to the damn song on repeat, nonstop. Not only does it help you memorize the solo itself, but you subconciously retain the background rhythm and timing. So during the worst live monitoring conditions, you can still play it.
    I think #5 is incredibly important and that not as many people realize it's significance. Anyone can learn to solo, but you can improve your own playing vastly by learning the techniques your heroes used/learned/appreciate.
    Great article, whilst keeping the level comfortable I think it's key to constantly up the comfortable level - almost minute by minute of practice. Also, always learn them playing standing up! The shift between sat down and stood up playing is was massive leap for me. Learning sat down is almost counter-productive in my experience.
    Im learning Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd for my upcoming exam in guitar. This comes in very handy thank you!