Ten Ways to Improve Your Guitar Soloing

Using the scales and arpeggios that you already know, you can improve your solos.

Ten Ways to Improve Your Guitar Soloing
35
Hey guitar players! I wrote this article to hopefully help the intermediate players out there who are trying to improve their soloing abilities. To get the most out of the information here, you should have some knowledge of the following:
  • Major scales
  • Minor pentatonic scales
  • Major pentatonic scales
  • Basic arpeggio knowledge for the arpeggio section
  • Be comfortable with bending and vibrato techniques

Rhythmic Variation

Many players will play the same few rhythmic figures they know in all their solos. If you pay attention to it, you will realize that there is a whole other rhythmic universe out there waiting for you to explore.

One simple technique to use is rhythmic displacement. This simply means that you can take a phrase and shift it to any other part of the bar - keeping the same notes and feel. If you start your phrase (musical idea) on the 1st beat beat, play it again, but start it on the upbeat after the 1st beat ("the and of 1"). You should also try playing that same phrase from any other part of the measure. The feeling of the riff will change as you shift it around the bar.

This one simple idea can give you a lot of variety in your soloing. Next time you play with your band, or put on a jam track - give it a try!

Use Arpeggios to Outline the Chords

Another thing that many players do is rely exclusively on scale patterns for their soloing ideas. There's nothing wrong with that, except that you miss the unique sound that arpeggios have to offer in your playing. Also, if you do anything all the time - boooring! Arpeggios are simply the notes of a chord played one at a time - in any order. For major chords, you would use the 1st, 3rd and 5th notes of a major scale. For minor chords, you would also use the 1st and 5th notes of a major scale, but you would lower the 3rd by a 1/2 step (b3). I don't have enough space to explain the finer points of every arpeggio in this article, so if you're unfamiliar, you should research this further on your own. Get on the Google or Youtube!

Critical Arpeggio Exercise

If you are brand new to arpeggios, you'll want to spend some time with this next exercise in all positions. The knowledge you'll gain is fundamental to your development as an improviser! In one position at a time, play up the scale, and down the arpeggio. For example, you could play up a G major arpeggio starting on the 3rd fret of the 6th string, and then descend by playing the G major scale. You should learn this in every position. Ultimately, you should learn this in all keys, using all chords/scales in every position.

Dynamics

Dynamics are simply using a combination of loud and soft parts in your music - in both your soloing and songwriting. For example, you can start a solo out at a medium intensity, and gradually build to louder and faster notes towards the end of your solo. End on a high note - now that's exciting!

Accents

Accents are closely related to dynamics, but aren't exactly the same thing. Accents are when you play certain notes in your phrase louder than others. Using accents helps bring your solos to life. Try this as a simple experiment... Play a phrase and accent the first note. Now, play it a second time, but accent another note instead of the first one. Does the phrase feel different to you? Try accenting another note in the phrase, and see if you like it better. Try adding more than one accent to a phrase, and move it around.

Speed Contrast

This idea is related to the rhythmic variation section, but it is a specific application of a rhythmic variation. In order to build momentum in your solo, try starting out with simple low to medium intensity ideas/licks. When I speak of intensity, use this is a guideline:

Low intensity = Lower on the guitar neck/slower notes

High intensity = Higher on the neck/faster notes

As you progress in your solo, start upping the intensity by gradually playing faster rhythmic units - triplets, sixteenth notes, etc. Slower, lower range notes are generally considered to be lower in intensity, while higher and faster are considered higher in intensity. Use these guidelines to help shape your solo.

Range Contrast

This technique is a simple one to explain. When you solo, try to alternate licks between the high, middle and low areas of the guitar. This can create the illusion that 2 players are playing, one answering the other.

Double Stops - Sixths, Thirds and Fourths

If you've been reading so far, you've no doubt seen that these ideas are designed to bring contrast (and life!) into your music. This next one is no different. If you've been been playing all single notes in your solo for awhile, playing 2 notes at a time is a great way to wake up your listeners (and yourself). To do this well, you have to have a strong ability to visualize your scales on 2 strings at a time. You can only get this ability by playing the scales a lot, and working it out!

The most common intervals to use are thirds and sixths. They are a very consonant (pleasant sounding) sound, and go very well in just about any kind of music. If you want a little more bite, you may want to use 4ths as your interval of choice. You can use any interval, depending on the style, but these are the most common to use.

Legato Playing

For those of you that may not be familiar, the term "legato" refers to the idea of playing all your notes with either a pull off, hammer on or a slide. This results in a very smooth playing style. This kind of playing is very easy to practice. All you do is take the scales that you already know, and just use your left hand to make the notes. This is really important - you must play them in rhythm! It's very easy to play hammer ons or pull offs sloppily - trust me on this.

For an extreme example of legato guitar playing, check out Allan Holdsworth. What's nice about this kind of playing is that once you get used to it, you can play some very fast and flashy licks without too much effort!

Octaves

You can use octaves in a couple of ways. You can use them exclusively in a section of your solo for contrast (as usual!).

Or, you can use them to accent certain notes in the midst of a section where you're playing mainly single note riffs/lines. This can be very effective, without over doing the octave sound.

In the jazz world, Wes Montgomery and later, George Benson were the kings of octave playing - check them out. In the rock world, Jimi Hendrix commonly used octaves. Check out "All Along the Watchtower," at the 2:00 mark.

Play What You Hear in Your Head

This is in a different category from the other ideas in this article. Playing what you hear in your head is a big, long term goal for anyone who is serious about music and the guitar. The more you develop the ability to do this, the better you'll sound, and the more you'll enjoy music.

There are a couple of schools of thought as to how you go about developing this skill. The more informal route is to figure out as many songs/licks/riffs out by ear (no tabs!) as you can.

Without knowing too much theory, your ear and brain will begin to associate certain geometric patterns with certain sounds. Ultimately, when you hear an idea in your head, you'll be able to execute it based on what you've learned by figuring songs out by ear.

This can certainly work, but for me it leaves too much to chance. If you combine this work with music theory knowledge, you can consciously cover more musical ground, and I think that would be more effective for you. Will it be more work? Yep. But I don't believe in shortcuts when it comes to something I'm passionate about, and neither should you, I humbly submit. That being said, here are a couple of exercises you can try...

Sing Everything You Play

You don't have to be a singer - just hit the note! If you can sing a note accurately it means you've had to hear the note in your head first. If you don't try any of the other exercises below, do yourself a favor and at least get this one into your practice routine.

Finger a scale or riff, but don't pick or sound the notes. While you're doing that, can you hear those notes in your head as you play them? If not, keep trying and it will happen. Go back and forth between actually playing the notes, and silently playing while you attempt to sing them. Keep trying this with every riff you play, and eventually you'll get better at it and it will definitely carry over into your playing.

Play Name That Note

Another idea is to record about 10 minutes of yourself playing random notes (on your phone, for example) with plenty of time in between the notes. When you play it back, try playing the note on your guitar before the next one plays.

Go Slowly at First

This is a great exercise! To start out easy, maybe you could decide to play only 2, 3 or 4 specific notes, instead of the entire guitar, which would understandably be overwhelming. A variation would be to record random notes out of a specific scale that you're working on, and then try to play them by ear.

In this variation, you won't need to record anything as you'll be doing it strictly out of your head. Sing or hum a note and see how fast you can find it on the guitar. You can also make a game out of it. How fast can you sing and find 20 notes on the guitar? Track yourself, and try to beat your time. There are many other ideas, but these will get you going.

These are all invaluable exercises!

Interact With the Band

No, I don't mean to tell each other about how bad your childhood was :). What I mean is that you should listen and respond musically to your band mates. Listen for rhythmic figures that the other members in the band may be playing. If something catches your ear, use that rhythm with your own notes. That in turn will give them something to work with and give back to you.

Playing in a band is a lot like having a conversation with a friend. Sometimes your friend will start the conversation (playing a cool rhythm or idea), and maybe sometimes you should start the conversation. One way to do that is to play a very clearly defined, relatively short rhythmic idea.

This will give the band something to work with and latch on to. This tip isn't just to make you sound better, it's to make your whole band sound better.

Conclusion

If you seriously explore these ideas you will definitely improve your skills. You won't master these skills in a week, that's for sure. These are things that should shape your style for as long as you play guitar. Now it's up to you, so go get it and let me know how it works out for you!

About the Author:
Dave Lockwood is an award winning guitar teacher that teaches guitar lessons in Duluth, Johns Creek, Lawrenceville, and Suwanee. Go to this link to find musical examples for each section in this article.

13 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    Abacus11
    Well written article! I was pretty skeptical based on the title but these are all excellent ideas. I've been playing for a long time and get stuck in my ways pretty easily... but reading this actually makes me want to pick up my guitar and try these out. Some of these are so simple that it's easy to take them for granted or forget but it's so important to constantly challenge yourself.
    jzgy12
    Thanks! Your right, it's easy to forget these simple things. Here's another idea - make a list of things to try (things in this article and others), and put them on index cards. Shuffle the deck, play 5-10 minutes on each one while you play on a jam track. After 4-5 cards, just play - don't think, and see where you're at. Repeat. This has helped me.... Sorry it took me so long to reply - I didn't even know my article was published!
    Octane Twisted
    A great thing is trying to create a simple theme and then twisting it as the song progresses. You can use almost everything in this article to do that : you can change the rythmic pattern of your theme, change the accents, speed it up, slow it down and even change its tonality (awesome when done right! ).That's a good way to do something memorable while having fun and trying new things.
    jhensman73
    Great article just what I needed to read today. Well written and easy to understand because most articles are all theory and that confuses me. I'm going to use this info in my practicing from now on. Thanx
    jzgy12
    Thanks!Let me know how it works out for you, and if you discover anything else. Dave
    uD999
    No mention of remaining members of Led Zeppelin reuniting at Live Aid 1985..Have lost faith in humanity!!!
    Soundwash22
    Great article man, it's always good to have a visual reference when your trying to do something different. We tend to forget even the basic things we learned early on. I am going to work these into my playing one by one.
    Paranoid486
    Correct me if I'm wrong but for the double stops sections. Did you mean to say that the most common intervals to use are thirds and fifths?
    jzgy12
    No, I meant to say that. I wasn't factoring in power chords, since that's more of a rhythm guitar thing. Of course, it also depends on the style of music you're playing. For more melodic kinds of guitar playing, 3rds and 6ths are definitely the way to go. For a more hard hitting, or dissonant sound, try other combinations. See what feels right for you, and keep listening to other players...
    jzgy12
    Hey guys -Thanks for the comments - I'm glad you liked it! A couple of things you might be interested in... Over the next day or 2, I'm going to submit an article on creating a practice routine that I hope will give you some good ideas. Be on the look out for that. Also, I just started a project that I think you'll like. I made a list of guitar players across multiple genres - blues, rock, jazz and country (open to others, of course). I'm going to post 2 short video lessons for each player on my youtube page. I just finished 2 videos on the great blues guitarist T Bone Walker. Check out the augmented triad lick he plays - crazy! www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQ40_NvwnTA For some reason, I can't get this to link, so just copy/paste into your browser. Anyway, these and other lessons will be over on my youtube page for you to check out - https://www.youtube.com/user/jzgy12