What makes a great guitar solo?

Aug 21, 2019

Now us guitarists do love a guitar solo. We love to listen to them and boy do we love to play them. Since the Birth of Rock N Roll in the 50’s the guitar solo has been a staple of modern popular music. From Bill Hailey’s Rock Around The Clock through to modern day you tube shredders the guitar solo has moved generations of listeners. But what makes a solo memorable? Before this you would have to seek out the likes of Charlie Christian or Django Reinhard.



A great solo should be melodic. This will make it more memorable. A good hook as we call it in the business is essential. A good example of a simple melody in a solo would be Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. The solo is in effect an instrumental version of the vocal melody from the verse but it is so much more than that. The guitar spits out through the speakers like a tortured soul as it moans and screams that melody like a trapped demon.



Solos need space. A million notes a bar may be impressive on a technical front but is it adding anything to the song’s flow? Punctuation is as important to music as it is to speech and writing. Without it the meaning will get lost!


Structure And Movement

In the late 60s and 70’s it was quite acceptable for guitar solos to be very long. Think Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Eagles, Pat Travers. All these guys and more were the purveyors of guitar solos often more than 6 mins. If you’re going to play a solo this long you will need the solo to melodically develop and move in a direction. Otherwise it may only appeal to other guitarists! It should start somewhere, go somewhere and reach a conclusion. Two examples of this are All Along The Watchtower by Jimi Hendrix and Hotel California by The Eagles. The second of these is very long but is so melodic and well structured. It's possibly the best example of a great melodic solo with flow, direction and movement.



This is where the fun begins. Through the years guitarists have had their own tricks and licks. These have helped make their solos memorable. The most obvious candidate would be Eddie Van Halen! His fingertapping, breakneck speed, pinched harmonics and flair are legendary. Have a listen to Eruption and tell me you’re not blown away. Chuck Berry had his signature licks. Steve Vai with his alien phrasings and a whole heap of pyrotechnic whammy bar tricks. I love Vai’s playing on Eat Em And Smile by Dave Lee Roth. These solos are incredibly well crafted. They have all the right ingredients to make them standout. Jake E Lee had a neat trick of playing harmonics and then pulling the string sharp behind the nut. Eric Johnson at times will make his guitar sound like a Chinese Koto or Guzheng. Now these tricks can help to make a great solo but will not do it alone.



It would seem that long guitar solos on records are becoming a thing of the past. The heady days of the 15 minute riff off are on the wane. Most solos in modern pop music will be no longer than 4-8 bars these days if there is even a solo at all. Lynyrd Skynyrd's last solo on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1975 lasted so long the program ended while the solo was still going on. The solo section allegedly went on for a total of around 20 minutes! With the rest of the song before the solo this would have totalled 30 minutes for one song. It would seem the music industry now prefers succinct to the point solos, even in rock music. Today, there are technical guitarists like Guthrie Govan, Pete Thorn, Orianthi, Andy Timmons and others. So you can still enjoy the best extended solos and social media platforms like youtube provide a great access point. 

Go check em out!



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