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Whitesnake's Joel Hoekstra: how to solo over a ballad

How to solo over a ballad
(Image credit: Igor Vidyashev/Atlas Icons)

To me, nothing is less tasteful than simply playing a bunch of fast licks to show off your chops on a ballad. I believe that a guitar solo in a ballad should provide a strong melodic hook of its own and balance well against the feeling of the song overall. 

With this in mind, I’d like to cite the short solo I crafted for When I Think of You, featured on the new Whitesnake album, Flesh & Blood, as a good example of how to approach soloing over a rock “power ballad.”

When I Think of You is in the key of C major, and a great way to start a solo on a song like this is to emphasize the triadic chord tones of the tonic, or home key.

The notes of a C major triad are C, E and G, and I begin the solo by playing a simple lick that’s built from two notes: the root, C, and the 5th, G (see Fig. 1).

(Image credit: Future)

When I end the phrase, I move back down the triad by starting on the 4th F, before repeating the triadic tones, as illustrated in Fig. 2. Notice that I’m adding a nice slow, wide finger vibrato to every held note here, to evoke a “singing” vocal-like quality.

(Image credit: Future)

Fig. 3 shows how I put the two parts together.

(Image credit: Future)

This phrase comes right out of the C major scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B), as well as C major pentatonic (C, D, E, G, A; see Fig. 4).

(Image credit: Future)

I repeat the initial phrase then wrap up the line by melodically setting up the change to the IV (four) chord, F, as shown in Fig. 5.

(Image credit: Future)

Now that I’m on F, I like to incorporate a quick downstroke sweep across the triad into the single-note phrase. Fig. 6  illustrates how I start with the sweep and then finish the phrase back in C major pentatonic, ending on D, which is the 5th of the next chord in the progression, G (G, B, D).

Over the next two bars, I recall the initial theme, but now I vary it slightly by playing 16th notes at the end of the first bar of the phrase, followed by an expressive “overbend” of one and one half steps, from G up to Bb, as shown in Fig. 7.

(Image credit: Future)

After that, at the end of the solo, I move high up on the neck to create the feeling of a crescendo.

Fig. 8 presents the entire solo. In bar 7, after playing the keynote, C, over the F chord, which is that chord’s 5th (F, A, C), I move up to a C note an octave higher then drop down one fret and bend up to that same note from B, a half step lower, after which I play a descending G major arpeggio over G. I follow this with a whole-step bend from the high C note up to D.

(Image credit: Future)

As you can see, I took a balanced, melodic and thought-out approach to this solo, with the idea of serving the song first and foremost, which I think should always be the first priority when soloing.

  • Joel Hoekstra plays for Whitesnake, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Cher and his own side project, Joel Hoekstra's 13. 
  • Whitesnake's latest album, Flesh & Blood, is out now via Frontiers Music.