This piece includes three important tips for playing improvised guitar solos, all of which are things that I find myself telling my students quite often. That’s because all three of them are simple concepts that can be tricky to actual a habit of implementing, but are pretty easy to do when you find yourself thinking about them. If these tips are new to you or something that you otherwise feel like you could stand to work on, I recommend trying to focus on each of the three tips on at a time and doing so until you feel pretty comfortable in your ability to do each one on its own. Then try putting them all together.
Tip 1: Listen To Yourself!
Something I encounter quite often when teaching is a student who comes up with a lick or a line that’s pretty great as they improvise, but then follows with a phrase that’s entirely unconnected to what came before it. That’s because they aren’t listening to themselves as they play. Instead they are simply going from one lick that they perfected during their practice time to another, without too much thought as to how the individual pieces fit together as a whole.
We all do this sometimes. We lean back on our couch with an unplugged guitar in our lap, idly picking through some of our go-to licks while our attention is focused on the new episode of What We Do In The Shadows playing on the TV. There’s nothing wrong with doing this in our passive playing time, but however, it can often lead to an unfortunate practice that I like to call Autopilot Soloing.
Autopilot Soloing is when you solo without really thinking about what you’re playing, just shifting from over-used lick to the next without really offering anything new from that particular solo. What I described above as happening with some of my students is an example of Autopilot Soloing. Every guitar player who has ever soloed more than once is almost certainly guilty of Autopilot Soloing at some point in their lives.
When I was a teenager, I probably committed more egregious acts of Autopilot Soloing than half the other guitarists in my New York City borough combined, so I certainly get how it happens. But the trouble with Autopilot Soloing is that your solos will come out more or less interchangeable with each other, and without any particular spark to make them special or even particularly musical. But as guitar players, we really owe better both to ourselves and to whomever may be happening to hear us play. Luckily, there is an easy solution if you find yourself falling victim to the cruel grasp of Autopilot Soloing: listen to yourself as you play!
If you actively listen to your solo as you play it the way you would actively listen to your favorite song when it by chance comes on the radio, you can usually stop Autopilot Soloing dead in its tracks. Actively listening to yourself play forces you to be present in the musical moment and expels the spacey indifference that is generally responsible for Autopilot Soloing in the first place. It’ll force you to think about what you’re playing and how it all connects.
This is important because a good solo is more than just a collection of licks; it’s a complete and clever musical statement in its own right. The simple and bitter truth is that you’ll never quite get to that complete and clever musical statement if you live the rest of your guitar soloing life on autopilot.
Tip 2: Breathe!
Guitar players have a reputation for playing too much. We have that reputation because we’re very often guilty of it. But can you blame us? It’s so easy for us guitar players to shred our way and up and down our favorite scales until our blurry fingers catch fire from the sheer amount of friction we’ve generated on our fretboards that it’s no wonder that we a musical demographic have developed this habit. But here’s the kicker: nobody except for other guitar players is particularly interested in hearing you play your scales up and down at finger-burning speeds.
At the end of the day, your guitar isn’t the art form itself but rather a tool you use to create the art of music. Nobody looks at a sculptor and says “Watch how fast that dude can chisel!”, except perhaps for other sculptors. This is another way of saying that your guitar playing should be in the service of creating music, and not the other way around. So just because you can play a long stream of fast, flashy notes, doesn’t mean you necessarily should unless the music calls for it. Yet that’s exactly what many guitarists do.
The reason we do this is because it’s easy for us to do so. A guitar pick can pluck pretty quickly, your fingers often don’t have to move very far, and, most of all, you don’t have to breathe in order to play guitar the way a horn player or singer does. The limitation of human lung capacity forces singers and horn players to pause every so often to take a breath, a fact which helps guide their phrasing into something more lyrical than it otherwise might be. If you’re having trouble arranging your improvising into concrete phrases and note just a stream of notes, then my advice to you is this: breathe!
Breathing will help you relax, be a part of the music, and, most importantly, will give you a natural sense of phrasing. When you fee yourself have to take another breath, try finding an organic way to end your phrase. This will cause your phrasing to naturally mimic that of a singer, which help your soloing to become lyrical, catchy, and memorable.
Tip 3: Try Something New!
We all have our favorite licks that we like to throw whenever we get a chance, but it’s easy to start using your favorite licks as a crutch. Before you know it, you could find yourself drawing from the same collection (and often sparse collection) of trusty licks in each and every solo you take, and drawing from nothing else. This isn’t a great habit to find yourself in, because, much like when Autopilot Soloing, your solos will become unspecial and essentially interchangeable with each other. Not only that, but if you only play what you already know then you become in a very real danger of never growing or improving as an improviser.
However, there is a solution if you find yourself going back to the same licks and phrases over and over again: Try Something New! This final tip is perhaps the simplest concept of the three, but is often the hardest to actually go about following through on. But despite both those things, it’s the most important of the three.
Every time you ever improvise a solo ever, try to add at least one thing that you’ve never played before and, that as far as you know, no one else has ever played before. There’s a good chance that someone else has, but unless the new lick you came up with on the spot in the main riff to “Purple Haze” or the solo from “Stairway To Heaven”, chances are that no one is going to notice.
Playing something you’ve never played before forces you to stay come up with something fresh, experiment with new ideas, stay engaged and creative with your improvising, listen to yourself play, and gives each solo you’ll ever take something unique about it that’s entirely it’s own.
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