Tim Henson explains what makes a great solo, a good guitar and a killer tone

Tim Henson playing his Ibanez signature guitar
(Image credit: Wired/YouTube)

Owing to his boundary-pushing playing style, Tim Henson is something of an authority when it comes to all things guitar. Therefore, whenever the Polyphia man discusses topics such as tone, guitar solos and guitars themselves, it’s probably wise to listen.

Lucky for us, those topics all came up during Henson’s recent fan Q&A with Wired, during which the progressive virtuoso was tasked with discussing and explaining his own take on the three key aspects to guitar playing.

In response to a fan who was struggling with understanding what makes a good guitar tone – a fairly subjective aspect of guitar music in itself – Henson commented, “It has everything to do with taste and using your ears.”

He elaborated, “I remember when I was 10 years old I could not hear what the bass guitar was doing. I just couldn’t distinguish it between the guitar. Then, just a year later, I was like, ‘I can clearly hear that now; I don’t know what was wrong with me.’

“Now, I’ve been on this earth long enough to understand what a good mix is, and why it’s a good mix. Listening to a lot of music and comparing mixes and comparing guitar tones will help you on your journey to crafting a good guitar tone.”

Prior to offering his take on tone, Henson was asked a similar question relating to guitar solos – specifically, ‘What makes a great guitar solo? What you are playing or how it is played?’

Again, Henson’s answer is pretty conceptual, and – like any guitar player worth their salt – avoids compartmentalizing “good guitar solos” into a neatly defined box.

“For me, how memorable the solo is, and if you can sing the solo,” offers Henson, who references Brian May’s lead effort from Bohemian Rhapsody to illustrate his point. “For example, I think the guitar solo from Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the best guitar solos of all time. If you can sing with it, it’s more memorable than just a bunch of notes scattered.”

With solos and tone ticked off, Henson’s attention was turned to the guitar itself – namely, what makes a six-string “good”. “There’s something that I mentioned earlier, which is the word ‘mojo’,” Henson mused. “I guess that’s the feeling, and how much it inspires you to create, how much it inspires you to play.

“My first guitar ever was a Squier Strat. It was $150, but it had a lot of mojo, it really made me want to pick it up and play it. Other than that, a guitar can be good if it is built really well.

“With shoddy craftsmanship you’ll see things like the frets – if you were to run your hand [along the side of the fretboard] and you’re feeling jagged things and getting cut, it’s not going to be great craftsmanship. If there’s a space between the neck and the body joint, that’s probably not a well-built guitar.”

Having said that, Henson concedes there can be times when badly built guitars can in fact be good guitars, so long as it still has that all-important mojo. “It’s really hard to put your finger on what makes a good guitar. It’s kind of just a subjective thing.”

Elsewhere in the Q&A, Henson puts his tutor cap on to help fans struggling with certain techniques, breaking down concepts such as barre chords, two-hand tapping, pinch harmonics and sweep picking, as well as offering up a whistle stop tutorial of Polyphia’s mind-boggling track, Playing God.

With his educational mind in full-swing, the prog pioneer went on to recommend Black Sabbath’s Iron Man as a good beginner song to focus on when practicing power chords, and though he doesn’t actually play the riff, notes, “Classic song, one of the first songs I ever learned.”

Near the start of the 16-minute video, Henson also gave a special shoutout to John Mayer, labeling his fretboard workout Neon as “a riff that sounds easy, but is actually hard to play”.

Though some people would no doubt think Neon instead belongs in the “riffs that sound hard and are actually hard to play” camp, Henson pressed on, waxing lyrical about the fingerstyle technique and left-hand contortions Mayer showcases in the 1999 hit.

It’s not the first time this year that Tim Henson and Neon have been mentioned in the same breath. Earlier this month, a YouTuber named STRVSS flexed his sharp editing chops by overdubbing a Henson playthrough video with audio from a neo-soul-esque rendition of Neon, fooling fans into thinking the Polyphia maestro was indeed covering the track.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case, but now Henson himself has mentioned Neon, there’s renewed hope that a genuine Polyphia-style cover might arrive somewhere down the line.

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Matt Owen

Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.