Whether you play guitar, keyboard, saxophone or any other lead instrument, there’s more to being a good soloist than just having chops and knowing riffs. Playing fast is great, but speed by itself doesn’t make you a good lead player. No matter the musical genre, if you analyze good solos, even if they’re fast and frenetic, you’ll most often find that there’s a method to the madness.
Think about some of the great soloists over the years: Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Stéphane Grappelli, Keith Jarrett, Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Eddie Van Halen, Buddy Emmons, Jerry Douglas, and Derek Trucks, to name a few. The common thread between them is a combination of great chops and great musicality, aka great taste.
Sure, there are lots of people who can play a million miles an hour, but if that’s all they do, the novelty will wear off quickly on the audience, and their playing will just become tedious (not to denigrate technical ability as it's a crucial part of the package if you’re going to be a great soloist). Personally, if I were given the choice of having great chops and mediocre taste or great taste and mediocre chops, I’d go with the latter every time.
Tips and Tricks
With all that in mind, here are some tips for improving the structure and content of your solos.
- Pace Yourself: If you analyze a great solo, you’ll see that usually there’s an arc to it. Whether it’s a long solo or only 8, 12 or 16 bars, it will usually increase in energy and, often, in complexity as it goes along. If you think of your solo as a story with a beginning a middle and an end, it gives you a structure to build on. You certainly don’t have to always go from slow to fast, or from simple to complex, but in most cases, you do want to elevate the energy of the solo at its climax — you want to go out with a bang, and leave them wanting more!
- Cure Yourself of “Riffititis”: What is Riffititis? It’s not a medical condition, but rather a state of mind where you think of a solo as just an opportunity to show off your best licks, and string them together randomly. It’s much better if you think of the various parts of your solo as being connected to each other, either thematically or rhythmically, or in some way that provides continuity.
- The Old Repeated Lick Trick: One way to make a solo more interesting and more connected to itself is to base it around a single phrase that gets repeated, altered, and built upon in various ways throughout the solo. You wouldn’t want to do this all the time, but it’s a great one to pull out of your bag of soloing tricks every once and a while.
- Stating the Obvious: In this case, the obvious being the melody of the song. Basing a solo around a song’s melody, but with your own twist on it is an age-old improvisational technique. It legitimizes your solo instantly because it’s now connected to the song, and gives you a melodic structure to work off of and make your own.
- Take a Breath: You don’t have to play a wind instrument to benefit from taking a breath every once and a while during your solo. If you’re just playing wall-to-wall notes, it’s often less interesting than if you pause strategically for a beat or even a quarter note every now and again, as if you really did need a breath. It breaks up your playing in a good way, adding variety and surprise, both of which make for a more interesting solo.
- Don’t Be a One-Trick Pony: If you’re going to take solos in a bunch of songs over the course of a performance, you want to be cognizant of what you played in the previous songs, and try not to be too repetitive from song to song. It’s not always easy, because we all tend to fall back on certain riffs in certain types of songs and against certain types of chord changes, but by keeping in the back of your mind that you want to avoid repeating yourself too often, it will spur you to try different things throughout the performance.
- The Sincerest Form of Flattery: One of the best ways to improve your ability as a soloist is to learn and analyze solos from great musicians. There’s plenty of excellent software available for slowing down audio without changing key, so there’s no reason you can’t figure out what your favorite players are doing, and learn some of their solos, even if it’s at a reduced speed. I still remember a moment when I was in my mid-teens, and had been playing guitar for about five years; a teacher asked me to learn a particular Eric Clapton passage where he was playing sliding double-stops. Learning how to play that opened my eyes, and showed me that there was more to soling than single-string riffs. I’m not advocating trying to clone someone else’s style, but learning and analyzing what great players do is a very good way to improve your soloing repertoire.
Overall, think of your soloing as taking the audience on a journey. You want to make it interesting, exciting and fulfilling for them, and make them want to come back and hear you again.