Flying Solo: 10 Tips to Help You Create and Improve Your Lead Lines

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The guitar is a brilliant and expressive solo instrument, and many of us spend our practice time preparing for the chance to solo. Countless hours are invested in honing the tools of improvisation (scales, sequences, arpeggios, intervals, etc.).

Unfortunately, when that “big moment” arrives, many of us end up scratching our heads and wondering what to play, or even where to begin.

If you fall into this category, or if you are simply finding yourself stuck in a soloing rut, these 10 tips to better soloing are dedicated to you.

TIP 1: MAKE THE FIRST NOTE COUNT

Many times, just getting started is the hardest part of soloing. After all, deciding on an opening lick is a big responsibility, as it can often determine how successful the solo will be.

At times like these, it’s a good idea to simplify matters and begin with just one well-selected note. And which note would that be? Try the last note of the vocal line. This establishes common ground between the vocalist and the soloist, and it helps generate a smooth transition into the solo section. This works particularly well when the vocalist sustains the last note, giving the soloist the opportunity to over it. [FIGURE 1]

FIGURE 1

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On the other hand, the element of surprise can be quite effective in jump-starting a solo. Choosing an unexpected or unusual note to open your solo can be just the attention-grabber you need.

Since the most pedestrian-sounding note choices for opening a solo are usually the root, 3rd and 5th of the chord or key center, the unexpected ones would include the 4th, 6th, 7th and 9th. Who can forget Jimi Hendrix’s immortal opening solo statement in “All Along the Watchtower,” where he hammers home the D# note (the 9th) against the tonic C# minor chord. [FIGURE 2]

FIGURE 2

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TIP 2: WHEN IN DOUBT, PLAY THE MELODY

The art of melody embellishment—to improvise variations on the main melody of a tune—is a time-honored, traditional approach to soloing. Stating the melody of the song in a solo not only forms a sense of continuity, it also offers a basic musical platform on which to build a more elaborate and ornate melodic structure. Just how replete and complex those variations can be is limited by the soloist’s creativity, technical prowess and musical taste.

FIGURE 3 is an example of the ornamentation possibilities that a few guitaristic inflections can add to an everyday melody like “Happy Birthday.” Beneath the blues trappings of bends, open strings and vibrato moves, you’ll notice that the basic theme is still recognizable.

FIGURE 3

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Borrowing from the main riff of a song can be just as potent soloing device as alluding to the melody. Listen to the solo break in the Beatles’ “Day Tripper” for a supreme example.

In FIGURE 4, Ritchie Blackmore’ classic riff from Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” provides the basic structure for an example of developing a theme.

FIGURE 4

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TIP 3: “QUOTE” OTHER SONGS

It’s been said that “good composers borrow, great composers steal.”

The same philosophy applies to soloists. The best know full well that awesome technique and prodigious harmonic depth only go so far when trying to move the masses. Some form of familiarity and recognition is essential to keep an audience’s rapt attention, and the best soloists are aware of the impact that can be generated by tossing in a phrase from a well-known tune or riff. Go to any jazz club and you can be assured you’ll hear bits and pieces of surprise melodies played “out of context” during extended solos.

The art is not unknown in the rock world. Eric Clapton adapted the melody from the standard “Blue Moon” for his opening solo phrases in Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (2:04 in the video below).

Played out against a “Killer Joe” chord progression, the jazzy lines in FIGURE 5 are lifted directly from the melody of a familiar TV theme. A passage such as this works well at the beginning of a “blowing” chorus for the purpose of rousing attention and can just as easily (and likely) be inserted anywhere in the solo.

FIGURE 5

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Play through FIGURE 6 to see if you can recognize the two “hidden” melodies within this funky solo. Here are couple of hints: For the first one, go back to your childhood on Saturday mornings. For the second, think of Liverpool.

FIGURE 6

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TIP 4: USE RHYTHMIC AND MELODIC MOTIFS

When it comes to hooking an audience, few techniques have the success rate of a good rhythmic or melodic motif (repeated rhythmic or melodic figure). In the hands of a good soloist, these little jewels can have the power to drag an audience across the invisible barrier that separates listener from participant.

A good way to get started using rhythmic motifs is to apply them to your favorite scale sequences. In FIGURE 7, a common E minor pentatonic sequence is enhanced with the help of a cycled rhythmic motif. Four 16ths and one eighth note constitute the motif that is cycled end over end, across two measures of an E7#9 chord. Notice that the first note of each cycle emphasizes a different part of the beat in each measure.

FIGURE 7

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Four dotted 8th notes followed by two 8th notes form the highly syncopated rhythmic motif in FIGURE 8. This cycled one-measure rhythmic motif adds considerable flair to the melody—a simple ascension up the A Dorian mode.

FIGURE 8

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The example in FIGURE 9 is an illustration of the development and resolution of a melodic motif. The progression is a I–IV in the key of C, and all of the notes are from the C major scale. A seven-note motif is introduced in the first measure and “echoed”—or answered—in the following two. Notice that the notes in the second measure follow the same melodic shape as the first but start a perfect 5th below to match the IV chord (Fmaj7) change. The third measure serves as a further development of the motif, while the fourth carries it to its resolution.

FIGURE 9

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TIP 5: USE KEY-CENTER PLAYING AND CHORD-TONE TARGETING

For most players, the first step in learning how to solo over changes is the key-center method—the process of grouping together as many chords in a progression as possible into one key. This allows for the application of a single scale and is a great method for improvising freely over a collection of chords.

But what really separates the pros from the rest in key-center playing is the ability to outline the chord tones of the different changes, thus bridging melody with the underlying harmony.

The following figures offer two examples of chord-tone targeting within the confines of key-center playing.

FIGURE 10 represents a bluesy approach to key-center playing over a standard iii-vi-ii-V-I progression in the key of Eb major. (All of the notes are from the Eb major scale.) In the pickup measure, an Eb major pentatonic (Eb F G Bb C) line leads to the target note of the first measure: G, the root of the Gm7 chord. The line ascends to the b7th (Bb) of the next chord (Cm7), immediately jumping down to the b3rd (Eb) to “nail” the change.

FIGURE 10

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The next target note (F: root of the Fm7 chord) is delayed until the last eighth note of the first beat, but the last two changes are pegged immediately: the 3rd and 5th (D and F) of the Bb7 chord and the 7th, 5th and 3rd (D, Bb and G) of Ebmaj7.

FIGURE 11 offers another approach to chord-tone targeting in a melodic-rock example over a I-V-vi-V progression in E major. Employing notes from the E major scale and C# minor pentatonic scale (relative minor), all of the phrases are sequence-oriented and begin on a strong chord tone of each new change.

FIGURE 11

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TIP 6: EMPLOY CHORD/SCALE RELATIONSHIPS

Another way to add flavor to your solos when playing over changes is to isolate each chord and treat it as a separate entity. A working knowledge of modes and chord/scale relationships (knowing which scales work for certain chords) is essential for this sophisticated style of playing, but a good ear and strong musical intuition go a long way in the creativity department, too.

FIGURE 12 is a typical ii-V-i jazz-style progression in D minor. Elaborating on the key-center approach, the lines are derived from three separate and unrelated scales: E Locrian (the diatonic mode for the ii chord in D minor) is used in the first bar; the A altered scale (seventh mode of Bb melodic minor) is dispatched over the V chord for maximum tension; and selected notes from D Dorian mode nail the Dm13 chord.

FIGURE 12

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The melodic-rock phrasing in FIGURE 13 puts the focus on each chord in a i-bVI-iv-V progression in A minor. The first measure commits to neither Aeolian nor Dorian modes with a “safe and melodic” A minor pentatonic add9 statement. The F Lydian mode (the diatonic mode for the bVI chord in A minor) supplies a pleasingly melodic ascending phrase in the second measure, but instead of segueing to the expected D Dorian mode, the D blues scale is superimposed over the iv chord (Dm). In the fourth measure, a two-octave E7b9 arpeggio is draped over the V chord, supplying added tension that is resolved on the root of the final Am chord.

FIGURE 13

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TIP 7: TRY CHORD-MELODY SOLOING

You don’t have to be playing solo jazz guitar to whip out a chord melody. With the proper voicings, chord melody lines can work in just about any style not only for comping purposes but also for beefing up your single-note lines.

FIGURE 14 uses common jazz chord voicings and substitutions to support a simple melody over a ii-V-i-bVI progression in C minor.

FIGURE 14

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Representing the first two measures of a 12-bar blues in A, the example in FIGURE 15 uses a handful of A6, A9, D7 and D9 chord partials along with a couple of single-note glissandos to fashion a blues-style chord melody.

FIGURE 15

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Don’t overlook the opportunities for chord melody in rock and R&B. The double- and triple-stop lines in FIGURE 16 pay homage to Curtis Mayfield and Jimi Hendrix, the masters of the style.

FIGURE 16

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TIP 8: ADD SOME FLASH WITH TRIADS AND ARPEGGIOS

If you feel your solos have been sounding too predictable, maybe you’re stuck in a scale rut. Try pulling yourself out of the ditch with a few triads and arpeggios. With their wide intervallic formulas, these little “pills” are just what the doctored ordered for curing the closely knit strain of “scale fever.”

In FIGURE 17, the moods-shifting capabilities of arpeggio and triad substitutions are demonstrated over an Emaj7 chord. The G#m (iii chord in E major) arpeggio adds a major 9th quality; the A triad (IV chord in E) supplies a “passing” suspended 4th feeling; and the B triad (V chore in E) alludes to an Emaj9 chord quality.

FIGURE 17

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The F Mixolydian mode receives the triad treatment in the first two measures of FIGURE 18. Representing every note of the mode except the 6th degree (D), the shifting F and Eb triads (I and bVII chords of F Mixolydian) provide a feeling of constant motion. For closers, the final Am7b5 arpeggio substitution serves up an F9 tonality before finally coming home to the F.

FIGURE 18

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TIP 9: USE EFFECTS

With all the attention given to notes and chords, don’t overlook the dramatic properties that sound effects can add to your solos. Here are few tips for adding sonic punch to your lines with the help of a few common pedals.

• Use a tremolo pedal and play sustained low-note melodies. You might also want to try varying the speed dial with your foot while sustaining a note or chord.

• Use a wah to enhance a unison-bend melody.

• Set a delay pedal to a long echo slap (approx. 500–800ms) and swell into notes with a volume pedal to create steel guitar– or violin-like lines (FIGURE 19).

• Get a note to feed back and fluctuate the whammy bar or a whammy pedal to create a melody. This can also be achieved with string bending.

FIGURE 19

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TIP 10: THINK OF THE BIG PICTURE

Many guitarists work long, hard hours developing their skills and phrases only to encounter difficulty when it comes time to put those ideas together in a cohesive solo. Considering that the preceding nine topics are the nuts and bolts of solo construction, here are a few things to keep in mind with regard to the big picture:

• Think of your solo excursion as telling an interesting story to a roomful of eager listeners. One way to do this is to divide the solo into three distinct sections: a beginning, a middle and an end.

For example, you could start with a simple melody voiced low on the neck, climb to mid-neck position and play some soulful bends, then go out in a fiery burst of sequenced lines at the top of the fretboard.

• Make sure you leave natural breathing spaces in the form of rests in your solos. Remember, few things are more tiresome than a run-on sentence or a person who won’t shut up.

• Use a variety of dynamics in your solos; don’t play every note at the same volume all the time. By simply lowering your volumn intensity now and then for certain passages, you can have a dramatic, anticipatory effect on your listeners.

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