It can be pretty overwhelming when the spotlight lands on you. Faced with the opportunity to play anything, how do you decide where to start? There are many options, but many great guitar solos work by starting small and building to a climax.
If you’re feeling unsure, aiming to build intensity throughout your solo gives you a good chance of creating something satisfying. You could start soft and finish loud, start low and finish high, or start slow and finish fast. Paul Kossoff’s All Right Now break is so popular because it does all three. It’s not an unbreakable rule, though – some solos start with an intense burst of shred to get your attention – but it’s a reliable strategy.
If in doubt, it always works to play the vocal melody, as on Smells Like Teen Spirit. George Harrison’s Let It Be break masterfully quotes from and embellishes the tune, and many of Brian May’s best solos do the same. Learning melodies will improve your ear and make sure you’re never stuck for something to play.
You can also borrow other famous melodies. It’s an old jazz favourite to quote the Pink Panther, and Gary Moore uses Danny Boy for his solo in Thin Lizzy’s Róisín Dubh. It’s also fine to repeat yourself. You might think you’re running out of ideas, but the audience will often appreciate hearing a familiar phrase. Repeating the same lick with varied endings will help to build melodic hooks with enough variety to stay interesting. Blues legend Albert King could get entire solos out of one idea.
Finally, it can help to learn a repertoire of licks that you know will work if your imagination fails you. Eddie Van Halen opened at least four solos with his favourite Chuck Berry lick, so there’s no shame in that!
Example 1. Whammy bar dive
Poison’s CC DeVille once admitted he did this to buy time to decide what to play next! Along with its cousin the pick scrape, the divebomb guarantees a dramatic entrance. Starting low on the neck gives you space to build to a screaming finale.
Example 2. Doublestop lick
Doublestop licks are almost always exciting entrances, and this one is so versatile that you’ll find variations on it in everything from Metallica’s Enter Sandman to Purple Rain (in a major key) by Prince.
Example 3. Screaming bends
You’ll never go wrong bending up to the root note, as we’ve done here – although bending up to the 5th is another classic. The wide vibrato adds excitement, and keeping the notes slow and long leaves space to build speed later.
Example 4. Call and response
These are ‘question and answer’ phrases. The first moves upwards, copying the rising inflection people use when asking questions. The second lands down on the root note to sound resolved. The first few notes are the same, helping the phrases sound thematically linked.
Example 5. Quote a melody!
If there isn’t an obvious melody in the song you can use, steal one from somewhere else! Here we’ve used Greensleeves as an example of how you can transition from the melody into more conventional guitar licks.