This is one of the most common questions I get as a guitar teacher:
“Why do my solos sound like I’m just playing scales?”
It’s usually because when people practice guitar, they usually just focus on scales. They memorize scale patterns, train their fingers to play scales up and down the fretboard backwards and forwards, and they get to the point where they can play scales pretty fast…
So when it’s time to play an actual guitar solo… they end up just playing scales. And sure, sometimes a quick run up or down a scale can sound amazing in a solo, but if that’s all you’re doing, it’s going to get boring pretty quick. It’s going to be boring for you to play, and it’s going to be boring for the people you play for.
Don’t get me wrong, scales are important. Practicing scales is essential if you want to play guitar solos like the pros, but it’s only part of the equation.
You also need to create a catchy melody. You also need to think about how you “phrase” each lick during the solo. And you definitely need to find the best way to connect your licks together, so everything sounds as awesome as possible.
After this lesson, you’ll be ready to start building your own guitar solos from the ground up. We’ll start with one of the most common things guitarists overlook: melody.
1. Create a Melody With What You Already Know
As I mentioned already, practicing scales is very important. And I want to add that if you want your solos to be the best they can be, you’re going to have to learn some scales and scale patterns.
But here’s something else you should realize: you don’t absolutely have to know any scales to play a killer solo. Scales definitely help, but you can also create melody from chord shapes you already know.
Whether you know scales or not, you have to find target notes to play. These notes are what you build the solo around, because they give you a place to start as well as a place to go back to.
In the video, I’m soloing over the chords Am and F. Now, if you know your music theory, you know that Am is made up of the notes A, C, and E, and that F is made up of F, A, and C.
Right away, you can see that the notes A and C are in both of those chords, so if you know a little chord theory, finding target notes is a snap, even if you don’t know your scales.
But what if you don’t know chord theory? Well, guess what? You can still find target notes by playing around with chord shapes. And you can use different chord voicings: for example, if you want to solo over an Am chord, you can use the basic “open” Am chord shape, you can use an Em barre chord shape on the 5th fret, or you can use any other Am voicing you can find on the fretboard. (The CAGED system comes in handy here.)
Start by finding a few target notes. Then start finding interesting ways to connect those notes as the chords change.
You can also use hammer-ons and pull-offs around chord shapes. Something to always remember is that every note you play doesn’t have to be in the chord you’re playing over. Non-chord tones can give your solo a lot of color when they’re played at just the right spot.
So where is “just the right spot”? It’s wherever the note sounds best to you. Don’t think that you have to follow a hard set of rules all the time, especially when you’re creating new melodies. Just find your target notes, play around chord shapes, and create something that sounds awesome to you.
2. Make Your Solo “Sing” With Phrasing
“Phrasing” is something that everybody does when they talk, whether they’re a musician or not.
Think about when you first meet somebody. You might say hi, tell them your name, and say “nice to meet you” or something like that. But you don’t just say everything monotone, like a robot, and you don’t put the same emphasis on all the words. When you speak naturally, there are natural pauses, and some words get more emphasis than others.
For example, there’s a big difference between
“HI MY NAME IS STEVE NICE TO MEET YOU”
“Hi! My name is Steve. Nice to meet you!”
The exact same thing is being said, but the first way sounds… robotic.
That’s what you need to keep in mind when you think about phrasing on your guitar: you don’t want your solos to sound robotic.
When you find a melody to play, or even if you just find a scale pattern to play, start looking for ways to break what you’re playing into smaller pieces. Don’t always start and stop in the same place, and add things like string bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs to mix things up.
Before you know it, you’ll be creating licks. And when you start doing that, you can start looking for different ways to play those licks across the fretboard. You may even find a spot on the fretboard where your new lick is easier to play.
Being able to move around is extremely important. It gives you the ability to create dynamics when you play, and it keeps you from getting “stuck” in a boring box pattern when you solo.
Which brings us to step 3:
3. Connect Licks And Patterns Across The Fretboard
Here’s where everything starts to come together. The goal is to make your solo flow smoothly from beginning to end, and with just a little bit of planning, you can do just that.
When you’re connecting two licks (or patterns), you have to think about
- Where the first lick ends, and
- Where the second lick begins.
If the first lick ends on the same string as where the second lick begins, you can just slide up or down to connect the licks. For example.
The point is that you need to be able to reach the second lick from where the first lick ends. And if your first lick ends in an inconvenient spot, back up to step 2 and find another spot to play it.
It’s all about finding what works best for you. And with a little trial and error, you can start building guitar solos that are fun to play and sound awesome.
Let me know in the comments section below!