If we want to cultivate our soloing its helpful to learn from our favourite solos. Spending quality time learning the licks and techniques used, the tones and the context is very healthy for our playing. We need to develop a vocabulary of our own by using bits and pieces of other information, and then letting it marinade in our own playing until it becomes ours. However, its not all about learning more licks, scales or techniques. There are some basic elements that we can use as pointers within our own solo writing or improvisation that can help us create beautiful solos with a little more intention, meaning and constancy.
Guitarists get the nickname ‘Noodlers’ for a good reason, we noodle, we move between different patterns on the fretboard, licks and melodies that we know well. This ends up as along stream of un-related ideas. The quickest way of developing a solo is using repetition and motivic development. Repetition is simple, just repeat something, even its not verbatim. This is like a hook within the solo for the listener and the player to develop. You end up with a motif, it could be melodic or rhythmic. The next thing is to develop, add to it or take away from it. This isn’t a rule, but more of a pointer, a direction to focus your intention within. You’ll find that you don’t need half as many licks in a 16 bar solo to play something cool!
Music is painting space with sound, when we watch a view, we see clouds moving, birds flying, people walking past, some shouting on their phones, some walking with partners, we see the flow of life. Life is naturally contrast, its constant movement, apart from within memory or imagination, the future, past and even the present isn’t a solid thing that we can hold onto. Music is a direct expression of this truth. Contrast is what draws our attention, if we stare at a featureless wall, we’ll find things to notice, but often we can zone out. Same with music, if we’re playing all the ‘right’ notes or playing the same thing over and over, it becomes featureless. So using contrast is a useful pointer, it could be that you develop a motif as in the first example, but then you respond to it with something of the opposite flavour. I also want to bring Dynamis into this contrast element, if we’re playing everything the same all the time, it can take on a robotic and frustrated quality. So experiment with light and shade in your technique. It can lead you down new roads.
“A person who thinks all the time has nothing to think about except thoughts. So, he loses touch with reality, and lives in a world of illusions” – Allan Watts. The same goes for music, space and silence can ‘frame’ our musical statements, where you use it is up to you of course. But if we’re talking all the time, we can forget to listen. When we truly listen, we can see clearly where we need to go.
Having a bit of a map can be helpful when improvising or writing a solo. Where do you want it to go, what places are you going to visit on your journey. Whilst I couldn’t say that I think of a story or trajectory all the time when soloing, as I often see it as a musical unfolding conversation. It still never the less is a story, a statement of some kind. Giving your solo an intro, middle and end can be a useful way of ‘organising’ the unknown musical space. You don’t have to stick to this, but it can take away some of the over thinking when playing, see this as a limitation exercise to push your solo in a direction, giving it a natural trajectory.
Our tone is our voice. Listen to your tone, is it right for what you’re playing over, is it complimenting or is it arguing with the space. Neither one is necessarily right or wrong. But tone can totally change how we play, what ideas we go for, what we like and don’t like. Technique is linked with tone directly as it’s the way we make the sound, do we pick all the notes in a phrase, do we use slurs and hammer ons, vibrato with a bar or vibrato with the fingers? All these things can be considered and taken care of. Focus on the feeling of making the sounds, enjoy looking at the way you ‘say’ things on the guitar.
So hopefully these pointers are useful intention setters for your soloing prowess. My final point would be to go back and listen to your favourite solos with he above pointers in mind. Rather than just learning the licks, see if you can learn the blueprint of the solo, what kinds of contrast are you hearing, tone changes, space and motifs. The whole of music is teaching us, we don’t always have to learn things note for note to improve as guitarists, sometimes we need to learn from the overall picture of what’s going on, we can add this to our own expression any time. Enjoy the journey!