How To Create Great Guitar Solos And Improve Your Lead Guitar Playing
by Tom Hess
Do you struggle to come up with great guitar solos that “fit the song” instead of sounding like a collection of guitar licks? Do you spend a lot of time on the internet looking for hundreds of new licks and dozens of new scale fingerings only to find that these skills are NOT helping you to improve your lead guitar playing?
Most guitarists who try to improve their lead guitar soloing by using the approaches above, not only end up frustrated with their lack of progress but also begin to lose faith in their potential to become really great musicians. Very often they also start to believe in the myth that their ability to create great guitar solos is limited by their amount of natural talent.
Fortunately, it IS possible for anyone to greatly improve their lead guitar soloing skills with the right approach. If you haven't reached this goal yet, I want to show you the most common reasons why guitar players struggle with creating truly GREAT guitar solos and give you the steps you can take now to massively improve your lead guitar playing.
The truth is that most guitar players focus on entirely the wrong things when trying to improve their lead guitar soloing and improvising skills. Many guitarists assume that the solution to their guitar soloing challenges is in learning more "new" skills (innovative soloing concepts, new guitar licks/scales/arpeggios etc…). In reality, simply acquiring new musical skills will not (in and of itself) make your lead guitar playing better, just like having a lot of ingredients in the kitchen will NOT make you a "better" cook. While having a lot of musical skills will give you more options to choose from, these skills will NOT "increase your ability" to create great guitar solos until and unless you learn how to "integrate" them to make the best musical choices possible in any musical situation. For the vast majority of musicians, it is this lack of ability to fluently APPLY and INTEGRATE their existing skills that prevents them from mastering the art of lead guitar soloing.
If you are not clear on what the concepts of musical application and integration mean and how they play a critical role in helping you improve your lead guitar soloing skills, watch this free guitar practice video before reading the rest of this article.
Now that you understand more about why the traditional ways of improving your guitar solos are ineffective, here are some specific steps you need to take to begin to integrate your existing lead guitar playing skills on a deeper level and greatly improve your guitar solos in the process.
Learn The Guitar Fretboard Inside And Out - True mastery of the guitar neck goes much deeper than simply being able to identify a specific note/fret on the guitar. In order to really know your way around the guitar, you need to be able to play all the scales and chords used in your style of music everywhere on the neck, and be able to combine these shapes fluently. Guitar players - from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Yngwie Malmsteen and Steve Vai - all have/had this exceptional awareness of scales and chord shapes on the fretboard. This skill enabled them to improvise great guitar solos effortlessly in any key without “getting lost”. In contrast, guitarists who struggle with making their lead guitar solos sound like music, often do not have this skill well developed and become stuck with soloing in the same 1-2 positions every time they play lead guitar. Regardless of how many scales you actually know, if you cannot fluently play them all over the guitar neck, you will have a VERY hard time with using them creatively in your lead guitar soloing.
Master Aural Skills (Train Your Ear To The Fullest) – Most guitar players (even the RARE few who actually practice ear training exercises on a regular basis) do not have a clear understanding of what it really means to "have a good ear for music". It is commonly believed that ear training is all about "being able to identify any interval, chord, or scale" after hearing it. Although this skill IS "a part of" having a good ear, in reality, ear training plays a much deeper role for your lead guitar playing. At the highest level, aural skills are "the link" between all of your musical skills (guitar technique, music theory knowledge, phrasing, mastery of scales and chords and more) that enable them to work TOGETHER to create the most expressive guitar solos possible. Master musicians use their ears to imagine the music they want to hear and direct their hands to produce that sound on the instrument as quickly and naturally as you speak your thoughts when holding a conversation. Without good aural skills, your musical skills can only work in isolation and your ability to create great guitar solos will forever remain limited (more on this below).
Create Music With Your Mind Instead Of Your Hands - Most guitarists approach the process of lead guitar soloing in a mechanical way by "playing scales over chords". After learning the key of the chord progression, most musicians simply begin to solo by running through familiar scale shapes and licks. Essentially their mind goes on autopilot and all of the "creating" is done with the hands.
Here is a basic diagram of the most common process that most guitar players use to create guitar solos:
Step 1: Find out the key of chord progression (or song).
Step 2: Run through familiar scale shapes and licks, trying to avoid playing out of key.
Step 3: Continue Step 2 until the song ends.
In contrast, great lead guitar players rely on their ears and their mind to imagine what they want to hear before playing a single note, and use their hands (guitar technique) as well as their music theory knowledge, mastery of the fretboard, and other musical skills to express what the mind wants to hear. Although they also end up "playing scales over chords", the overall level of creativity and expression achieved is much greater because all of their musical tools/skills are integrated together as one "creative whole".
Here is a breakdown of the process used to create great guitar solos:
Step 1: Your ears hear the music you want to express in your head
Step 2: Your ears and mind "translate" the sound you heard in your head into notes/frets that you will play on guitar.
Step 3: Your hands play the notes as instructed by your mind and ears.
Step 4: Your ears and mind "evaluate" the sound your hands played and begin to imagine the next phrase that you want to hear (back to Step 1).
Although the steps above happen very fast (and almost always occur on a subconscious level), this kind of thought process is key to creating truly great guitar solos.
The most important thing I want you to notice is that most of what actually "creates" a great guitar solo needs to be done with your mind and your ears. This is totally different from the thinking process of inexperienced guitarists, whose guitar solos are merely an attempt to “fill up space/silence with notes”.
Continuously Work On Your Guitar Phrasing - Many lead guitar players continuously search for "notes to play" but neglect looking for better ways of HOW to play (phrase) those notes. Good guitar phrasing involves much more than applying an occasional bend or vibrato to a note. When I train my students how to master guitar phrasing, I show them how this skill consists of "macro" and "micro" level components. "Macro" level phrasing refers to how each phrase fits into the big picture of the lead guitar solo and the song itself (much like phrases flow in a conversation). "Micro" level phrasing deals with ornamentation applied to individual pitches of the phrase. It is important to understand the difference between the two components and to have effective strategies for training both of these areas of phrasing. If you want to find out more about what goes into great guitar phrasing and get some ideas on how to practice this skill on a "micro" level, download this free guitar phrasing lesson.
Get Regular Feedback On Your Lead Guitar Soloing From More Experienced Guitarists Or From A Guitar Teacher - Unlike improving your guitar speed, where you can measure your own progress in a tangible way, improving your lead guitar playing is a very "intangible" skill. This means two things:
1. It is very hard to become aware of specific flaws in your lead guitar soloing when you don't know what things you should be listening for.
2. It is also challenging to determine whether or not your guitar solos are actually improving and what areas of your lead guitar playing still need work.
You will make the fastest progress when you have your guitar solos analyzed by a guitar teacher who can not only point out specific flaws in your guitar playing but also can create an effective lesson strategy to help you overcome the specific challenges that are holding you back from creating truly great guitar solos.
Now that you understand more about what it takes to improve your lead guitar playing, you should become excited as you realize that all of your musical goals are entirely within your control to achieve. When you begin to implement the steps I have outlined above, your lead guitar soloing skills will begin to improve rapidly.
If you haven't already done so, watch this free guitar practice video and download this free guitar phrasing lesson to get more specific advice on how to improve your guitar soloing.