Breaking Down a Solo

This is not the best way to practice a solo. It's the only way.

Ultimate Guitar
This is not the best way to practice a solo. It's the only way.

The Solo

So I've been learning this Steve Vai solo he did on "Ladies Night in Buffalo" with David Lee Roth. The solo is pretty advanced and I realized very early on that in learning any decent solo you have to be very well versed in many areas of the guitar before taking a stab at it with any chance of success. Once you know what has to be done though, once you're clear on what is required, all you have to do is get to work. Much easier said than done, but knowing what is required ahead of time is a huge step ahead. 

Forget about anything intermediate or advanced for now and concentrate on starting easy if you're just starting out. No one ever played an incredible solo without having played for a good amount of time so with that being said, take your time. The following advice here holds true for any solo and when you come across a difficult one that you want to be able to play, you will have the tools necessary to master it. This solo is chock full of techniques so I'll try and cover all of them with some advice on how to tackle a solo.

First Things First: Bends, Vibrato and Tremolo

In order to play this kind of solo you should be able to bend notes well. You also have to have a good ear for your bends as there are different types of bends form 1/4 bends up to 1 1/2 step bends. You should have some speed down as well as agility and dexterity in your fingers. Scales are a great way to get started with this. You have to be able to do legato cleanly and you definitely need some good vibrato. You need to be conscious of what kind of vibrato you are playing as well as the rhythm of the vibrato. Is it wide or narrow vibrato? Does it require that you play vibrato with triplets, 8ths or 16ths? You should be able to tremolo at a pretty high speed as well. There's a really cool tremolo section in this solo that you wouldn't want to leave out. 

The main idea here is to practice each of these techniques in isolation. Its gonna take you some time but you have to walk the path if you wanna get anywhere. Isolation of each technique is going to be one of the key factors in being able to tackle solos as well as other solos in the future so its best to get started now and not wait until that time comes. Example: You hear an incredible solo, your jaw drops... and then you realize that it will take much more work than you ever thought. 

Your ability to be disciplined and do it a thousand times, yes a thousand has to be there too. So get a cup of coffee, set your metronome and have fun with it (each section/technique in isolation). Sometimes you don't need a metronome but if you can use one use it. Having fun with it will make it easier on you too. Have a good attitude and positive mindset. Come in thinking like you can do this and you will.

String Skipping, Sweep Picking and High Speed Arpeggios

For this particular solo you have to be able to string skip too, so you really need to gain control of the strings and not let the other strings that are not being played ring out. This goes for any electric guitar solo not just the one I'm attempting. You need to be able to sweep pick, not shredding sweep picking but sweeping nonetheless. Somewhere down the line you will probably see or be interested in a solo that has some sweep technique in it so it's best to start now. I remember when I started sweep picking it was the most difficult thing I'd ever done on a guitar. It was all worth the effort as I now feel I can tackle this technique when I have to. High speed arpeggios starting with 2 strings and smoothly going from one to the next are another part of this solo. The ones in this solo are 2 string arpeggios so it's good to start there and work your way up as you progress on the guitar. 

All these things in just one solo. Wow. This is the reality of it. It's the reality of playing a great solo, not a so-so solo but a great solo. In a way thats the good news. The fact that it's a highly advanced and technical solo means that you are attempting something thats not easy to do so kudos to you if you're already doing stuff like this and if you come up short it's okay, because #1 - you're all the better for it and #2 - it just means that you have to keep at it. 

Not to mention there are a few licks in there at a very high speed and they're not easy. In fact it's the trickiest run of them all... but also the most fun. It is what it is, like it or not. And this is where breaking it down comes in. It's the reason I wanted to write this article at 1:39 am on a Saturday night. I was practicing it earlier and I'm about to practice it some more. But I'm not going for the whole solo. I'm going for a chunk at a time, to master each section on its own before I put it all together in bigger sections until I can do all sections at once. This is how they do it at the famous Meadowmount School of Music. It's a strings school (violins) and one of the techniques they use is to master a section at a time. They randomly pick sections from a hat of a particular piece that have been cut out from a copy of the actual score. This way they practice sections at a time without overlapping into other sections. This is a highly effective way to be familiar with each and every section of a piece (and in this case... it works perfectly for guitar solos). 

If you take one thing from this article, take the sections part. Think in sections. Break everything down as small as you need to even if it's half of a measure and master it before you move on.

About the Author:
By Mike Socarras. If you're interested in guitar lessons and you are in the Miami area click this link.

6 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Only a sith deals in absolutes
    it makes me slightly uncomfortable that that was the first thing I thought while reading the lesson, then scrolled down to see it posted in the comments.
    I always wondered what's the best learning method: taking the time to transcribe complicated solo's with accuracy(Hardest), transcribe them with your own feeling into it which is easier but you don't learn as much or just quickly use a tab and use your remaining time for learning more songs
    I used to cover as many songs as I could, without paying much attention to the details of what I was playing, even if it meant I had to play "simplified" versions of some challenging parts. However, I eventually found out that if you adapt pieces of music to your playing, even though you'll get to develop your personal style, you won't progress much in terms of technicality. I nowadays find it much more gratifying to focus on the songs I work on until they sound perfect (and they don't necessarily have to sound like the original version), especially if I really love the music I'm playing.