Improvisation Basics IV: Architecture of the Solo

Fourth part of our series focuses on structure of solos in general and the role of the improviser in them.

Ultimate Guitar
Welcome to the fourth part of our series on improvisation.

My name is Division Bell and today I would like us to take a look at what can be called the "Architecture of the Solo."

Please, don't consider this "the ultimate guide to structuring your improvisation."

Boasting like this would not only be stupid of me, but would also make it unclear that:
  • there are literally countless possibilities in music and its structure
  • what I show here is definitely neither "the right way" nor "the only way"
  • my own view on this is highly limited and distorted by what I've heard and played and thus can vary person to person
  • structuring always depends on your musical situation and style.
With this out of the way, let's take a look at general pattern any solo can follow, stop at each of the parts and think about: GOALS (i.e. "why"), USEFUL TECHNIQUES ("how"), EXAMPLES representative of each of the concepts discussed and my attempt on EXERCISES that can lead to improvement in said part.


A: The Beginning

  • grabbing the attention
  • creating a theme, main motif
  • unisono bend (see previous lesson)
  • double stops
  • pinch harmonics
First few bars of your solo are crucial. They need to drag your listener into the music and introduce you as a musician. You usually try to make a statement here (see "Stairway to Heaven," the first line is a statement par excellence even though it's "only" basically playing around Am pentatonics). It's important not to show all your cards in the beginning however - uncover your ideas slowly and be aware that climax of the solo should come later on to intrigue the listener. 

But just how to create a good theme? Well, it's not like anyone can tell you some kind of algorithm for this. Studying known melodies ("hooks") can however yield something of interest. Here are some points I would like to make:
  • pentatonics are catchy
  • try to have your highest note in the middle of the phrase
  • try to sing or hum your theme; you can hum the melody song title makes when you pronounce it to help you create it
  • simple might be better here, complex will come next (Beethoven's Fifth lends itself here, the main theme is VERY simple)
Now for the concepts themselves: we have many different approaches available including:

1. Classical, jazzy approach

As Keith Jarrett said - "There is no improvisation without theme" - your main theme is like a character in a novel. It is the same person all along but he or she changes and develops as the book progresses. Applied to music - you have your main theme you create at the beginning and you work with it while soloing.

And first few bars are the place for your theme to start its own life. This is the ideal way for soloing in jazz but don't let this tie you down or let it slide without studying a bit - you don't have to but you CAN use this even when you don't play jazz.


Miles Davis - "If I Were a Bell"

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Edvard Grieg - Piano Concerto in A minor, 1st mvt

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2. Flashy approach

This one is usually found in rock and related styles. Player strikes the listener right away with a confident statement. Problem with this is that it is easy to fall into technicality because these kinds of licks are very hard to play plus you still have to manage to intrigue the listener even when you did so in the beginning so that he doesn't lose interest. It is thus vital to really focus on contrasting and climaxing your solo - try to calm down and give your solo more space after opening and return to the beginning theme as you reach the end.


Stevie Ray Vaughan - "Scuttle Buttin'" (1m 34s)

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3. Different approach

Well and you of course can open completely differently. One of the most useful devices in music is surprise and I personally like it very much when used thoughtfully. There are not many feelings as good as when you begin your solo with a small but interesting and rhythmical phrase that you repeat over and over until you make your listener yearn for "explanation" which you then unexpectedly deliver. This is really strong and I strongly encourage experimenting with it.


Foals - "Late Night" (4m 5s)

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Another approach can be to do what soloist did in example no. 5, those big intervallic leaps also create interest and surprise. Or you don't have to play at all in the first bar and start later on or on an unorthodox beat. It's your choice.


Gregory Porter - "Work Song" (2m 30s)

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Best thing to try when you want to improve is to compose phrases for solo opening. Let's say I have compositions of following qualities and want you to open them for me. Feel free to send me your results. It doesn't need to be long or anything, 3 bars max.
  • flashy arena blues rock
  • sentimental acoustic
  • emotional hard rock
  • indie tragic love song
Composing is a great way to release your improvisation potential. After all - improvising is quick composing.

B: Next Steps

  • developing the ideas from the beginning
  • avoiding loss of listener's interest (technical exercises, showing off etc.)
  • paving the way for climax; building tension, yearning for resolution and catharsis
  • playing "against" the rhythm (nice Al Di Meola lessons on this here and here)
  • altering the beats phrases start at (downbeat, upbeat, upbeat, downbeat,...)
  • "question and answer" method
  • palm muting
  • accentuation
Okay, we have established ourselves, now it's time to work with what we have. Here is where most of the experimentation happens - explore the rhythm by countering it as hard as you can, introduce dissonance, chromaticism, noises... Now you're taking your building material and putting in on the site where foundations have been built. Here are some concepts you can use:

1. Question-and-Answer method

Play one phrase as a question and another as the answer. The key is to have the "question" phrase end open (i.e. not on tonic). It's good to end it dissonantly even - like on the blue note. (see lesson 1). Then the answer should end on tonic to close the "conversation." I've put it really simply, there can be many variations of course but I think this is the basic layout you can use.


Pink Floyd - "Echoes" (acoustic version), my most favourite conversation ever (3m 34s)

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2. Repetiton

In lesson 2 I've mentioned that repetition is painless. That means that you can always play this + you don't need to focus on choice of note, your concern is rhythm now. Try to do this, try to incorporate repeated phrases into your improvisations and make them sound interesting with bends or/and proper accentuation. Key here is to play with confidence and sense of rhythm.


A very obscure solo I've heard played by an old woman while traveling through Siberia. Contains nice use of repetition though. (6m 15s)

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How to develop these?


This one focuses on general phrase construction. Sit down with a friend who plays the guitar and start conversation just as David and Rick did in example no. 6. Using a simple backing track or a third friend who can provide you the chords is a plus.

If you are a loner, you can always talk with yourself, no problem, but this way it's somehow better.


This exercise deals with something we can maybe call psychology. Problem is, many guitarists play dull because they lack confidence. How to solve this? Act that you are ALWAYS 100% comfortable with the note you played. (1) You will send out the impression and you will be perceived better and (2) you will start to feel better too. This is really simple, I'm sure it will work for you too.

C: Climax

  • delivering the most emotionally important part of your solo
  • ending tension
  • ultimately giving meaning to anything you've played until this moment
  • bends, wide vibrato
  • chromaticism to build up
  • wide interval playing
  • scale "patterns" that move horizontally AND vertically
  • pitch balance (you may want to reach the highest points here)
We are finally here on our Olympus. The job is clear - we need to let the listener know we have reached the best part of the solo, that now we are throwing what we have prepared for him and that he will remember this for the rest of his... ok, maybe evening.

Achieving this effect mainly flows from your feeling. It's good when climax is connected with the main theme or the beginning of your solo. Perhaps you can play it just the same, only in higher registers? Perhaps you can play it quicker? There are, as always, myriads of options.

Another good thing is when you reach the top around the second third and you leave the rest of your solo to create contrasting passage.

Marillion guitarist wonderfully used bending as a highly useful tool to achieve catharsis in solo. Ella Fitzgerald on the other hand can teach us a lot about rhythm.


Marillion - "The Web" (do you hear how he combines those quick passages we all like to play with those melodic ones? just great) (4m 7s)

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Genesis - "The Musical Box" (3m 53s)

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Ella Fitzgerald - "Blue Skies" (0m 52s)

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D: Ending

  • passing the torch to other soloist/ending the song
  • framing the solo
  • bending out of the solo
  • descending(/ascending) run
Ending then allows you leave the final impression in the ears of the audience. Don't underestimate this part as you can pretty much ruin lots of what you've managed to do. I usually like to have a bigger space here as I enjoy those last seconds where you can "clarifiy" what you've done.

This is the only place of the solo where it might be appropriate to TASTEFULLY rely on scale playing as you are only colouring here. But if you manage to pull this part without it, then it's awesome!

Good thing is to make your last note a bend, into the tonic probably, try it out, you will hear how great it sounds. Another idea would be that ending is a wonderful place to quote some other artist as we can hear in final example no. 11.


Robert Balzar Trio - "My One and Only Love" (5m 08s)

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Thank you for holding with me this far. Each of these concepts could be studied for hours but I've tried to limit this lesson only to the most important stuff.

Another thing you might've noticed - there isn't much of a music theory. I think this would only cloud the aim of this lesson. There are so many great websites and lessons on these subjects out there that I not only feel it's redundant to repeat it, I also feel it wouldn't be fair from me to teach theory those other guys studied much more than I did. I'd rather fill the holes others might've left and not pursue any utopia of definitive guide to music. That cannot be done. Certainly not only by writing on the Internet.

To wrap it up, the most important thing you should take from this lesson is that solo structure can indeed be rationalized and made so it serves our goals. No matter what the structure is you can always refer to this summary and think about the role of particular parts and how you fit in as improviser.

The last lesson will focus on getting into the improvisational flow, the most valuable lessons I have found over the years and more. Stay tuned to the ringing of this bell.

Thank you for reading, for all the kind comments I've received on previous lessons and take care.


Some interesting things you should listen to and why:

Evans and Getz - "Grandfather's Waltz" - Beautifully structured and played, real masterpiece, notice the theme development

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Jeff Buckley - "Strange Fruit" - Whole song is brilliant, notice his style of improvising and sound

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Astor Piazzolla - "Invierno Porteno" - Great work with themes, wonderful contrasting section at the end

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Robert Balzar Trio - "Ben-In-Jam" - Well-executed piece with very nice improvisations and melodies

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John Mayer - "Ain't No Sunshine" - Great blues improv, notice his work with spaces (pauses)

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5 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Excellent! Great series. btw did you leave the link out for this.... EXAMPLE NO. 7 A very obscure solo I've heard played by an old woman while traveling through Siberia. Contains nice use of repetition though. (6m 15s)
    Thank you! No, that was just a silly joke so I don't have to introduce something as well-known as Stairway to Heaven .)