It seems that guitar players are always searching for the holy grail of six-string knowledge: the secret to playing an awesome guitar solo. But for the most part, it seems that many players already actually have the skills to play the perfect solo — they just need to change the way they think about playing scales on guitar.
See, when guitarists first learn to seriously play lead guitar, the first thing they typically learn is the Am pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scale patterns as a whole are powerful, movable and versatile tools that when played correctly, sound solid in virtually any guitar solo. However, far too many guitar players get stuck in Am pentatonic and never learn to manipulate it for broader use.
While aspiring lead guitarists really should take the time to learn all five patterns of the pentatonic scale, even if you only know the first position of the Am pentatonic, you can make your guitar solos much better by keeping a few tips in mind.
Something to keep in mind while learning how to take a guitar solo is why they're even still important in the first place. After all, even though guitar playing has its place in today's popular music, it's not like how it was 30 years ago, when almost every song had a guitar solo in it.
But while you may not be all that interested in shredding like a metal head or running through scales with your teeth, learning how to handle a guitar solo effectively is really useful for making songs sound multi-dimensional and interesting.
Consider the common situation where being able to handle a guitar solo is most useful — when you're jamming with another musician who plays an instrument that can also be used to play rhythm and chords, such as a guitar, piano or ukulele.
Now, you could just play chords when it's time to take an instrumental break or you could skip instrumental breaks altogether, but either way, you're not only going to miss on out on something that can make the song sound better, you'll also miss out on being able to improve your guitar skills. See, taking a guitar solo, and actually, playing lead guitar in general, can reall help take your playing to the next-level because it causes you to listen, react, collaborate and be on your toes at all times.
So, why do guitar solos still matter? Because they make the song and your playing better.
It happens in guitar lessons everywhere: a student wants to learn to play a guitar solo, so the teacher shows them the first position of the Am pentatonic scale and starts playing the 12 bar blues chord progression in the key of A major.
Over the major key, the Am minor pentatonic scale gives off a heavy, bluesy sound, which is a staple characteristic found not only in the blues, but also in a lot of rock 'n' roll, funk, metal and country songs.
The problem, though, is that playing the minor pentatonic over a major key is too bluesy, and it doesn't fit well in all styles of music. In fact, you should actually always default to the major pentatonic scale when you're playing in a major key. Only play minor pentatonic scales when you're playing in minor keys or in the blues.
To find the major pentatonic scale, take your minor pentatonic pattern and move it three frets back. For A major pentatonic, take the Am pentatonic scale pattern that you know, which starts with your index finger on the low E string and the fifth fret, and move it three frets back, so that your index finger on the low E string is on the second fret. Then play the pattern from there.
No matter what style you're playing, it's best to choose the major pentatonic scale as a rule for guitar solos. For instance, if a country song is in D major, you don't play the Dm pentatonic scale. You play the D major pentatonic scale. A pop or rock song in C major? Play the C major pentatonic scale. A Spanish-flavored song in Gm? Well, that's when you play the Gm pentatonic.
Mostly, you should forget about playing the minor over the major, but blues is an exception. Now, even though you can play the minor pentatonic over the whole blues chord progression, it doesn't mean you should. Specifically in the blues, start with the major pentatonic and mix in the minor sparingly. A good starting approach for blues soloing is to play the major pentatonic scale over the I chord, while playing the minor over the IV and V chords. This will even out the bluesy sound with some more conventional notes that won't let you overdo it. In the key of A, this means that you'll play the A major pentatonic scale over the A chord and the Am pentatonic scale over the D and E chord.
And then, of course, when you gain some confidence using the first position of the major pentatonic, you're going to want to expand your knowledge so that you can get up the neck. So the next order of business is to learn positions 2-5 of the pentatonic scale. Noodle through these until you know them like the back of your hand.
The full five-position pentatonic scale is so valuable to the guitar player because if you use it right, it's all you'll ever need to play even the most complex ideas on the guitar. After you get comfortable with all the positions, you'll want to start being to identify the notes by scale degree. From there, it's a short leap to being able to add the notes that complete the entire major scale and not too much further to begin understanding how modes really work.
At the end of the day, five pentatonic scale patterns can get you everywhere if you're open to a little music theory.
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A critical misktake that most beginner lead guitar players make is that as soon as they go from playing rhythm guitar on a song to taking a guitar solo, they change their entire rhythmic approach.The thing is, there is actually a direct line between how you strum and how you play individual notes, and if you've taken the time to get good at strumming, all you really have to do is adjust your mindset toward strumming your notes.
To begin practicing this technique, start by strumming all six strings on a 16th note strum count, and then pare it down to one string. From there, move up and down the string and make up phrases. Switch strings when ready, and then work through a scale pattern.
While you do have to be more accurate when you switch to new notes, especially if they are on different strings, strumming your phrases rhythmically will immediately improve your soloing by giving a backbone to your licks.
In a real-world situation with a real song, use the way you would strum the song as the rhythmic foundation for the guitar licks in your solo.
The great thing about connecting your rhythm and your lead playing is that it's the gateway toward being able to play by yourself and go back and forth between playing guitar solos and strumming chords — the mark of an advanced guitar player.
Ideally, guitar licks work like a story: they have a starting point, a middle section and an end.
The starting point can really be any note in the scale you want, and the middle section could be any collection of notes you want. But the best place to end is on the root note of the scale you're working in.
Now, you don't have to finish every single line on the root, but it's the one place that will give you a 100%, full sense of completion, so it's good to use it when you want to communicate that something has come to an end.
As you string together licks — also known colloquially as lines — another thing you'll want to consider is that due to the guitar's wide range in sound, it's best to use the notes on particular strings for specific purposes.
For the most part, you'll want to center your licks around the notes on the D and G strings. These are your bread and butter notes.
When you really want something to stand out, use the notes on the B and E strings. These notes are best played mostly as double stops, which give your licks a little more weight.
The notes on the low strings, E and A, are best used to transition to and from a chord. They'll sound too muddy to stay there for too long.
Using double stops will also give more structure to your licks. A double stop is any two notes played together as a chord shape. While they are not technically a chord, they kind of imply one, and will add more weight to your attack. Especially useful is a double stop played like a barre chord with your index finger. You can anchor it, then attack other notes in the scale while constantly returning to original position without ever lifting your finger.
When playing actual songs, the melody offers a good reference point for structure, especially if they're memorable. Memorable melodies are found everywhere, from commercial jingles to kid's songs, from pop song choruses to rap hooks.
As a rule of thumb, if you're playing a guitar solo in the middle of a song, try to play the melody of the song. You don't have to play it note for note, but it should mostly follow the rhythmic ebbs and flows of the song you're playing. If it pauses at the end of a line, your line should pause, too. If it holds out a note, you should hold out a note. It doesn't matter if the note is the same one. If you're in the right key, it will sound relevant enough.
If you're jamming over chord progressions with no melody, make up your own melody and keep circling back to it, or if your jam partner makes one up, try to focus your solo around that.
For the most part, the best way to practice guitar solos is to find a jam buddy and solo over chord progressions or songs. Hands down, that's way to get the most experience soloing in the actual situation that requires it.
The next best way to practice soloing is to go on youtube.com and find backing tracks in whatever key you want to solo in. This approach is really useful when you are practicing by yourself.
Another good way to practice is to simply noodle through your scales without any instrumental backing at all. This will help you get to know your scales on your own terms — you can always stop and regroup when you make mistakes. If you go this route, focus on making up fun guitar licks and working on speed.
One thing you'll want to keep in mind when it comes to practicing guitar solos though is to stay consistent and patient with your progress. A lot of beginner guitar players tend to think that canned guitar licks will get them where they need to be. But the fact is, spending a little time every day with your scales and approach will help you not only get better at improvising your own licks, they'll help know how to integrate the ones you find online.
In general, like anything else when it comes to guitar, progress almost never happens instantly, it happens little by little and it's almost unnoticeable until you look back on a killer guitar solo you did and realize that all the hard work was worth it.
At the end of the day, your guitar soloing skills are dependant on how solid you are in the fundamentals. If you feel like you have any blind spots when it comes to the basic chords, strumming or don't know how to use a capo, check out our PDF guides or contact us for more information about how we can help you shore up your skills as efficiently as possible.
This step-by-step guide starts from zero, so beginners can learn how to sing and play at the same time as quickly as possible. These are the basic instructions that should come with every new guitar, and it's what should be taught in every student's first guitar lesson as well.
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