How To Write A Hair Metal Guitar Solo

A guide to writing a solo in the style of 1980's hard rock/hair metal guitarists such as Eddie Van Halen, C.C. Deville, Warren DeMartini etc. Includes an analysis of Reb Beach's solo in "Seventeen" by Winger, and advice on writing as well as playing techniques such as string bending and tapping.

Ultimate Guitar
A guitar solo adds to a song in a way in which nothing else can. Guitar solos can come in many different varieties, it's not all about "shred shred shred". A guitar solo can be happy, it can be sad, it can be screaming with excitement or it can be weeping a tear of sorrow. Put simply, a guitar solo adds that spark of emotion and soul into a song. Without it, a song is nothing more than a collection of words and noises. A guitar solo is what threads it all together, puts everything in context, and brings people to their knees and rolling on their backs air guitaring. It's sad today to see that the guitar solo is often overlooked. Alternative rock/post-grunge, indie-rock, pop-punk... none of these genres feature prominent guitar solos. Let's be honest. Anyone who plays Blink-182 covers only does so because they weren't good enough to play lead guitar in a rock n' roll band. On-the-knees solos, big hair and brightly coloured superstrats beats checkered shirts and feeble fringes any day. It what everyone aspires to do when they pick up a guitar for the first time. The problem is, guitar solos today tend to be a case of "mindless shredding". Sweep picking arpeggios are technically very advanced, yet they sound crap to anyone other than die-hard "metal" heads. This further alienates the guitar solo from mainstream rock n' roll, which is one reason why today bubblegum-pop and dance music is dominating the charts. Indie-rock is boring and soulless; "metal" is too brutal and technical and confusing. There is nothing in the middle. So how DO you write a brilliant guitar solo? First of all, it is important to note that a good solo is made up of more than just speed and technical brilliance (although these are of course extremely cool and worthy of praise and glory). A good solo has a story to tell, and it does this through a series of sentences, or "phrases". If you compare a guitar solo to a story, then it really does help in understanding what makes a good solo, great. A story can be about many different things, and so can a guitar solo. All good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The best stories often have an unexpected twist in the plot, or a final showdown, and this can all be translated and included into a guitar solo. I shall illustrate my point with an example. Winger - Seventeen. Start watching from 1:55 onwards. 1) The Beginning (2:00 - 2:10) This is what gets a solo going. A beginning can be slow and calculated, or it can be fast and wild and jump straight into the action. In Reb Beach's solo in Seventeen, we start with a few lines that tell us that it's time for a solo. Think of this as "there was once upon a time...". At 2:06 we are given a nice bluesy lick that indicates that the solo is ready to really begin. In a story, this is the point where the main character finds out he has to go on a quest, and he is ready to set off into the main adventure. At 2:10, we finish on a bended note that builds up tension and excitement. This is the point when the character in the story sets off into the unknown. 2) The Middle (2:10 - 2:20) A burst of speed and technical brilliance is Reb Beach's way of saying "look out, world! I'm awesome, look at me!" and this is something that all glam metal lead guitarists can relate to. In terms of the story, this is when the main character is on his big adventure, running away from dragons and falling in love with mermaids and the like. Reb Beach is running up and down scales and using his advanced tapping technique to create a frenzied atmosphere that suits this part of the song. It's certainly clear by now that this story is a tale of adventure and excitement. At 2:18, another bluesy lick followed by a crazy dive bomb bring this chapter to an end, but with the promise of one more big finale to come. At this point, the main character has found the bad guy's hide-out and is ready to do bloody battle. 3) The Big Finale (2:20 - 2:26) This is the big show down between good and evil in the story. Notice how the backing guitar all but stops, and we are left to hear the one-on-one between the main character and the bad guy. Reb Beach uses fast tremolo picking and descends a scale before leaving us with a brilliantly timed bended note at 2:25. The energy and drama created by this lick is what makes this good solo, a great one. This is the moment of triumph where the good guy runs the bad guy throught with his sword. All that's left to do is for the good guy to clean his boots, wipe the blood off his sword and travel home. 4) The Ending (2:26-2:31) In this solo, Reb Beach's character has no intention of riding home on a pony. He wants to soar through the air on the back of a pterodactyl, and arrive home in all the glory and honour he deserves. The solo ends with yet another burst of fast playing, followed by a massive bended note which seems to develop into a triumphant scream. The rest of the band kicks in, as if to welcome Reb Beach back from his own little fantasy world, and bam! We're back in the real world, and there's a song to carry on playing. Obviously, not all solos fit into this exact frame; not even all "adventure solos" do. But my point is that it is possible to write a solo in much the same way you would write a story or tell an anecdote. Perhaps think of examples of other types of solo, e.g., "a romantic solo" or "a mournful solo". There are some features that are common to many stories, and again, an analogy can be made with a guitar solo: Standard phrases e.g., "Once upon a time", "However, all was not well in the kingdom", "The wicked witch offered the little girl some sweets" etc. There are some standard phrases, often heavily linked to the minor blues scale, that feature frequently in all guitar solos. They make use of the natural groove that comes from playing the scale, and also of well timed bends that take you from one note to the next one in the scale. There are just a few examples given here; there are millions out there, and it is possible to adapt each to your own unique style.
e--------7-----------------         e--------7------12--------------- 
B-10b(12)-10-7--10b(12)----         B-------7-7-10b(12)-10b(12)r-7---    
G--------------------------         G-9b(11)----------------------9~-   
D--------------------------         D--------------------------------
Useful Scales Obviously the minor blues and the minor pentatonic scales are very useful in most rock guitar contexts. These scales provide the notes from which you can construct slower melody lines or crazy, adrenaline fuelled runs up and down the neck.
A minor pentatonic                    A minor
e----------------------------       e----------------------------------- 
B-----------------------8-10-       B-------------------------------8-10    
G-------------------7-9-----        G------------------------7-9-10----   
D---------5-7--7-10----------       D-------------5-7-7-9-10------------
A-----5-7--------------------       A-------5-7-8-----------------------
E-5-8------------------------       E-5-7-8-----------------------------
  *         *             *           *             *                  *
The *'s show which note is the root note, i.e., in this case, A. There are many ways of playing the same note in a different place on a fretboard. The only way to get comfortable knowing which note can be played where is to practice and work it out through a process of trial and improvement. If you find a way of playing a scale that suits you best, then go for it. Here is a good practice idea to run through, slowly at first, then building up speed as you become more confident about which notes to fret. Practice playing around with it, and try finding as many "different" routes up to that bend on the 20th fret as you can.
A minor
  *             *               *                    *
Making the guitar scream and yell What really makes a solo stand out, apart from a good story-like structure, is some really genuine emotion put into it. Crazy bends and tapping, pinch harmonics and insane vibrato turn what otherwise might as well be a "keyboard with strings" into the unrivalled greatest instrument of all time. Only the human voice can rival the electric guitar as far as emotion is concerned, and usually the electric guitar wins in terms of its pitch range and versatility. Palm Muting This works best on the lower pitched strings (E,A,D). It makes the guitar sound more chunky and percussive. It is possible to subtly alter the extent to which the string is muted, by applying more or less pressure with the far left hand side of the palm of your right hand.(If you play left handed, swap these lefts and rights around). Played at speed, it can give an impatient feel to a solo. Running up and down a scale on the lower strings is often an effective way of practicing this, and it also improves alternate picking skills as well.
E--5-8-------------------------- ...etc.
PM ----------------------------
Pinch Harmonics By striking the string aggressively and in such a way that your thumb on your picking hand makes momentary contact with the string, it is possible to produce a hysterical "squeal" from the string. Important things to remember include the need for a touch of vibrato to get the full "squeal"; as well as the position where you strike the string. Ideally, 12 frets up from the fretted note is the best (and usually most convenient) place to strike the string. If you don't have enough frets on your guitar, it is a case of estimating where this fret would be. Pinch harmonics are frequently used by Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi to create a wild, hysterical sound. There is, however, a fine line between good use of pinch harmonics and over-use of them. Be careful to avoid overusing pinch harmonics, as it just turns an otherwise good solo into a trebly, scratchy one. String Bending There's more than one way to bend a string. String bending is one of those things that makes the electric guitar so much more versatile an instrument than any other. There are hundreds of subtle things you can do to make playing a solo as unique as singing in a human voice. People often think of Eddie Van Halen as a pioneer of tapping, and often overlook the fact that he was damned good at string bending as well. The wild sound that characterises Van Halen's solos is as a result of brilliantly executed string bending. The obvious part of bending a string is fretting a note, striking the string with the pick, and then pushing the string up towards you, raising the pitch. It's what happens afterwards that many people don't pay enough attention to, despite being of vital importance. Obviously, the more you push a string up, the more you will raise the pitch. Many guitarists have a robotic feel to their string bending, because they don't allow themselves the freedom to put in the feeling when they bend a string. There is a world of difference between bending a string up slowly, compared to making the journey up short and sharp. A longer, drawn out bend builds up tension, while a short, sharp bend releases excitement and energy. Depending on where you are in your solo's story, one of these bends will fit better than the other. Another characteristic of bending a string is the amount of times it is plucked. Striking a note and beginning to bend up quickly, but then bringing it back down and striking it again, before completing the bend the second time round can be an effective way of adding a sense of urgency to a lick. Tremolo picking a note as you slowly bend it up a full step can be a good way of moving into another phrase in a solo. Even when the bend is made, there are still ways of giving it that extra touch of emotion. The key feature here is the use of vibrato, which also applies to notes that aren't bent. Vibrato is definitely more than just a case of "vibrato or no vibrato". When wiggling that string up and down, there are three key areas to consider: 1) The amount of pitch change Are you going to go wild and allow the pitch to fluctuate excessively, or are you looking for a more mellow, thoughtful subtle vibrato? Vibrato can range from almost non-existent to what is effectively repeating the entire string bending lark all over again. It is possible to alter the amount of pitch change mid-vibrato, leading to all sorts of subtle differences. 2) The speed of the vibrato A slow, thoughtful vibrato is better suited to a slow, thoughtful solo, whereas a fast, exciting vibrato is better suited to a fast, exciting solo. Of course, the speed of the vibrato doesn't have to remain the same, what may start off as a slower vibrato may develop into a faster vibrato; the opposite is also possible. 3) The length of vibrato Kind of obvious really. How long do you keep wiggling this string for? The amount of time you hold the vibrato for, and the way in which you bring it to an end has a big impact on the overall feel of the note. A lengthy vibrato you allow to fade out is completely different to one that you choke early on with your picking hand. A lengthier vibrato is a useful way of either ending a section of a solo, or indeed, the entire thing. In summary
Mellow, slow,                              Faster, exciting, wild
thoughtful solo                            solo
(e.g. November Rain, 1st and 2nd solo)        (e.g. Panama solo)
Gentle vibrato, subtle pitch change            Increasingly wilder vibrato
Slower vibrato                                 Fast vibrato, or vibrato that
                                               gets faster
Longer vibrato                                 Shorter vibrato

24 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice lesson, but you should place a much greater emphasis on VIBRATO and BENDING as crucial elements to a good solo - only these two make you a good-sounding and recognizable guitar player. Vibrato requires constant work to sound natural, and you should apply it to nearly ALL notes that last longer than an eighth. It defines you as a player. BENDING - you NEED TO BEND IN TUNE! It also requires a lot of hard work. Under- and overbends make you sound out-of-place, and even people with untrained ears will wonder, why it doesn't sound right. It's so critical to guitar playing, that when I started practicing on a regular basis (not too long ago, I have to add), I decided to spend first sixth months NOT TOUCHING any guitar techniques except these two. I believe this focus will give me a better sound. To use a stupid metaphor - when you can't cook good meat, you shouldn't bother with the sauce, because it will still taste as shit Anyways, great article, found it helpful, hope it will help others!
    Yes! Now I'll be pumping out Steel Panther-esque melodies in no time!
    I was around during "hair metal" (god rest it's soul) and am learning now what I wished I could play then. Better late than never! Well, perhaps. It's more of a hobby than a career move at this point, but in light of all that preamble... I for one still appreciate and seek out any tips and lessons that someone nowadays will take the time (and effort) to show me. Thank you. Good article.
    Brilliant article - been a die-hard fan of hair metal since i first got serious about playing guitar, i just don't see how some people can't like it...
    Thanks for the feedback guys. If anyone's interested, I've had another article on lead guitar playing accepted, it ties into this one somewhat.
    I stopped reading because I play a few blink 182 covers and I can already solo. I actually thought this was gonna be a funny article, but you were serious. I'll go now, haha..
    Hair metal is ridiculousness and cheesy, Solos are overated often don't sound like they belong. A solo I'd actually like to learn is something of the Smashing Pumpkins ilk. I read this article to see if I was missing something in the realm of Hair Metal, and now that I'm done, I understand that I was right the first time.
    Don't really like it when you say that guitar is the most versatile instrument. My @$$. Tell me what you can't do on, for example, saxophone that you can do on guitar. Every instrument is different and must be respected. No instrument can sound like other instrument. And dorian scale is used more often than natural minor, especially in hair metal.
    I respect the opinion that every instrument has its place and is unique in what it adds to the song, but seriously, the guitar IS the most versatile instrument. What you can't do on a sax that you can do on a guitar??? Oh lets see, make it scream with a harmonic, bend the notes crazy with a whammy, the tapping effect, the slide, the speed. And if you use the right effects or accompaniments, you can make the guitar sound almost like any other instrument. Definitely not as unique as the other instruments, but definitely a close sound.
    I'm not a saxophonist but I have heard very fast playing on sax. You can play legato with it (tapping is just wide legato). Those harmonics can be "mimiced" with a "scream", same as whammy bar dive bombs. I wouldn't really call it mimicing though, it's just same kind of sound. And add a crazy vibrato to the scream and there you go. And I don't think any instrument should try to sound like any other instrument, that's why there's the real thing. And if you want to sound like whatever, buy a synth. Also violin can do all the same stuff as guitar. Let's see: Harmonics - yes, violin can't bend but you can do the same with sliding, same as whammy effects and legato. And violinists can play pretty damn fast. They also have the bow that guitars don't have. There's some advantages with guitar though, it can play melody and chords. That's why guitar is pretty flexible. But saying that it's the most versatile instrument makes it look like it's better than other instruments.
    I get your point, and i'm nowhere near saying its better than other instruments. But the versatility i meant is what you admitted in your own statement, that its the most flexible. Thats why entire genres of music are based solely on guitar driven music rather than other instruments. Again, not saying its not possible (Apocalyptica are an example of a band that doesnt have a guitar at all)
    Yeah, that pretty much applies to rock music. Electric guitar has the right sound for rock. But if you look at genres outside of rock, metal, blues and pop, you'll see that guitar is pretty rare instrument. It fits rock perfectly though. And pop music is what people most of the time listen to. But if you look at jazz and classical, guitar is pretty rare.
    Very nice lesson! I couldn't agree more. Songs and the solos within them really need to tell a story, and have different variations. I use my share of fast sweeps, scale runs, etc, but only when it lends itself to the solo.
    Karel Juwet
    I love the article and how you explain how to play a solo but I do think you overrate the solo. eg when you say people only play blink 182 because it's easy and when you say the electric guitar is closest to the human voice in terms of expression... 1. In some genres (and I'm not just talking about shitty poop-punk) solo's just aren't that important and the emphasis is on the lyrics and general feel of the song. 2. you have never heard any other instrument than the guitar, have you?
    Name any other instrument that has the range of expression you can get on a guitar. Again, no disrespect meant to the other instruments or their role in the song, but the guitar IS the most versatile instrument ever created/modified.
    This was very helpful! Mabye now I can write tabs for me music and it'll be easy
    Nice ! You just forgot to mention the dorian mode among the common scales. Hair metal guitarists often used it, since it is a happier and more sensual tha the regular minor scale.
    ditto bro!
    mystical_1 wrote: I was around during "hair metal" (god rest it's soul) and am learning now what I wished I could play then. Better late than never! Well, perhaps. It's more of a hobby than a career move at this point, but in light of all that preamble... I for one still appreciate and seek out any tips and lessons that someone nowadays will take the time (and effort) to show me. Thank you. Good article.
    I started playing guitar aspiring to nu-metal covers, just because they were fun songs to jam to. I now can play solos to much more classic/demanding songs and have written my own as well. Do not presume to know the only way a guitar player can advance their learning.