1. Realistic Time RequirementsGuitar 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 UpIf 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 LevelThis 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 PassagesI 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 TechniquesSeparately 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 SoloCan 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 ContextOnce 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 TransitionsIf 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 ConsistencyIf 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 PatientThe 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 YourselfIf 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.