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The #1 reason why you struggle to take your guitar solos from ‘average’ to GREAT is because you (like most guitarists) only have 2 options for doing so:
Option 1: To ‘add more notes’ to the existing solo (and to licks within it)
Option 2: To ‘play different notes’ (replace some or all of the licks within your solo with different ones).
Although the 2 options above can be effective, they will not help you to vastly improve the sound of your guitar solos UNTIL you apply…
Option 3: This involves breaking down an existing guitar solo lick by lick and refining ‘how’ each note is played. Fact is, even if you don’t change any notes in the solo and only change the phrasing (‘how’ the notes are played), in virtually all cases you will end up with a MUCH better guitar solo. The reverse is also true: if you never practice getting better at how you play the notes, then playing ‘more’ notes only will give you ‘more of the same’ (an average/plain/boring solo).
Check out this guitar soloing video demonstration showing how I helped one of my students to apply this idea to improve his soloing. We took one of his original guitar solos and made a few small tweaks to ‘how’ the notes were played to make the solo much better.
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Now it’s time for you to learn to do this yourself. Choose a guitar solo you want improve and apply the techniques below to the individual licks within that solo. You have 3 choices for doing this:
Choice 1: Using one of your own original guitar solos (if possible).
Choice 2: Using any guitar solo that you have learned from your favorite guitarists.
Choice 3: If you don’t know how to play any guitar solos, come up with 3-4 guitar licks in the same key that can be played one after the other. (This of course wouldn’t be a ‘real’ guitar solo, but it will still allow you to do this exercise).
Here are a few short licks for you in the key of C major/A minor:
In past articles, I discussed lots of ways you can improve any guitar lick by using techniques such as slides, vibrato and double stops (among other techniques. Now I’ll show you how to do this with every lick of your solo using string bends. Yes, string bends are simple and you probably already know ‘how to bend strings’. However, there is a huge difference between ‘knowing how to play’ string bends, and specifically practicing to creatively use them in your guitar licks and solos. Simply knowing the technique will do nothing for your creativity until you practice applying it.
Go through the steps below to practice improving your guitar solos using string bends:
Guitar Solo Improvement Technique #1: Using Bends To Shape Your Guitar Licks
Step 1: Choose a single guitar lick in your guitar solo.
Step 2: Look for opportunities to connect some of the notes in that lick with a bend. The first and last note of a lick are usually the easiest to ornament using string bends. Make sure that the bend keeps the note in tune.
Step 3 (optional): Once you’ve bent up to the target note, add intensity and aggression to it by applying heavy vibrato. Here is an example of what steps two and three sound like together (created as variations of Lick 2 above):
Example – A short guitar lick using bends and vibrato on the third note and the final note. You will hear 2 variations: one with vibrato on the 3rd note and one without vibrato: Hear It
(You can see a more detailed demonstration of this in the context of a guitar solo in the video above.)
Step 4: Play through this (slightly altered) guitar lick several times.
Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4 using the same approach, except this time you will bend up to a different note in the lick. Compare the difference in sound between the two variations you created. Then continue this same process for every other note in the phrase.
Step 6: After applying the technique above to each note in the guitar lick, decide which version of your lick sounded best and use it in the place of your original lick.
Step 7: Move on to the next lick in your solo and either repeat this process or apply the ideas in technique #2 (and #3) below.
Guitar Solo Improvement Technique #2: Using Bends At Different Speeds
In most cases, people use bends in their guitar licks by first striking the note, then ‘immediately’ bending up to the target pitch. Here is an example of what this sounds like: Hear It (listen for the bend on the 3rd note)
Your guitar solos will sound much better when you use variety in the speed at which you apply bends. Do the following:
Step 1: Select a single lick within your guitar solo and choose two notes within that lick (that are within 1-2 frets of each other on the fretboard).
Step 2: Begin ‘slowly’ bending up from the lower note to the higher note. This will only move the note up in pitch a little bit (momentarily taking it out of tune).
Step 3: As you approach the target note of your bend (after beginning the bend slowly), speed up the bend to quickly reach the target pitch. At this point you can either return the string back to the original pitch or do the next step:
Step 4 (optional): Apply heavy vibrato to the pitch you are on and finish the rest of the lick.
Example – Bend with slow beginning and fast ending: Hear It (notice how different the bend sounds on the 3rd note compared to the example above)
Watch the video above to see me demonstrate this in the context of a guitar solo.
Step 5: Move onto the next lick in your solo and either repeat this process or apply the process in technique #3 below.
Guitar Solo Improvement Technique #3: Using Pre-Bends
Pre-bends involve bending the string (without picking it), then striking the string and sounding only the ‘release’ of the bend. Here is an example: Hear It
Select any note within your guitar lick and instead of simply ‘playing it’, ornament it with a pre-bend. Start by bending the string (WITHOUT picking it) by half or whole step, striking the string and then releasing the bend. Experiment with which note of the lick the pre-bend sounds best on.
Example: Hear It Listen for the slow pre-bend on the first note of the lick (this is a variation of Lick 1 shown at the start of the article)
Continue this process of going through the rest of your solo to come up with dozens of creative variations for each phrase. Now, decide which variations you like the best and record a new version of the solo using them. Then compare the original you started with and the new version…and prepare to be blown away by how much better the new version sounds!
Of course, string bends are only one of many guitar phrasing techniques you can use to improve your solos and licks. The point of this exercise is to show you just how many great ideas you can extract from only a ‘single’ technique. You should also go through this process using other techniques such as: slides, vibrato, double stops, different articulation styles, and of course these (and other) string bending variations.
By using the techniques above you will easily be able to make any guitar solo sound killer! However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are MANY additional things you need to know about how to write creative and unique guitar solos. Read this to learn how to finally master lead guitar playing.