This Is How Guitarists Make Their Solos


guitarists make their solos by gathering inspiration

Writing a solo is without a doubt the most thrilling part of playing the guitar – aside from performing it, of course. Crafting the perfect solo, however, isn’t as easy as it may seem. Just like any epic project, it requires some planning and dedicated effort.

Guitarists make their solos by gathering inspiration, singing the solo aloud, deciding on a tempo, and practicing a whole bunch! Writing a memorable solo can take some time, and unless you’re an advanced guitarist who can improvise easily, it’s best not to rush the process.

The remainder of this article will explore all the steps involved in creating the perfect guitar solo. It will also feature some tips and tricks from experienced musicians Caley Campbell from Caley & The Cadillacs, Andrew Sowka from Winternom, and Dave White from David Dino White

guitarists make their solos by gathering inspiration

How To Make a Great Guitar Solo

It is possible to improvise a guitar solo, especially if you’ve got a particular tune in mind and you’re a guitarist with lots of soloing experience. For the most part, though, solos are made over time by following a few simple guidelines. Below are six steps to consider when you’re getting ready to craft a new guitar solo.

Get Inspired 

The first thing you have to do before grabbing your guitar, according to multi-instrumentalist Dave White, is simply to get inspired.

Inspiration is that tiny flame that grows within, sparking us to take action and use our talents to create. People gain inspiration in various ways, usually through engaging with content related to their specific goals. 

Just as a painter might gain inspiration at an art gallery, for example, a guitarist writing a solo might want to put on a pair of headphones and listen to Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd on repeat for a couple of hours! 

Listening to your favorite guitarists shred is a great way to get inspired and better understand how you might want your solo to sound. There are so many unique styles of playing in the music industry; expanding that musical palette and listening to a wide variety of musicians will subtly refine how you write your own solos! 

Listening to music isn’t the only form of inspiration. As I said, inspiration is subjective– how one person finds it can be totally different from someone else! Caley Campbell, guitarist and lead vocalist from Caley Campbell & The Cadillacs, will play a song with entirely different chords and melodies just to get his creative juices flowing. (Imagine hearing Evanescence ‘Wake Me Up’ as a country song).

On the other hand, Dave White might go for a long drive with his windows down and his favorite music on the sound system. 

When I seek inspiration to play the piano, I often browse new piano music in my library for songs I think I’ll enjoy. It also helps when I bring my keyboard outside– preferably to the beach or park on a sunny day. A change of scenery can jog the brain and body out of one mindset and into another! 

Set Aside Time

Writing a good guitar solo can sometimes take hours, or even days or weeks. It isn’t typically a process you can speed through, nor one you can do halfheartedly. The best solos are crafted amidst focused passion, so setting aside dedicated time to create a truly epic solo is another mandatory step.

To that point, your allocated writing time should be consistent. Focusing on your solo once every few weeks or months will not only significantly slow down the writing process overall, but it will also intervene with any progress you may have made. 

On the other hand, while making time for music is essential, that time will be wasted if you’re trying to force your way through writer’s block. Caley Campbell noted that getting frustrated is a good sign to take a break. Go back to the inspiration stage of your solo-writing journey and return to the guitar when you’re feeling more prepared. 

Sing the Solo Out Loud

Many experienced guitarists will give you this advice: sing your solo out loud. 

If you can sing, hum, or whistle your solo, there’s a good chance you can replicate it on the strings because it indicates a strong melody, according to Campbell. This is easier if the potential solo follows the vocal melody– think Let It Be by The Beatles. 

sing the solo out loud

Other musicians, like Masterclass teacher and YouTuber Stitch Method, will echo this sentiment, even suggesting that one should use the melody of the song’s lyrics (or at very least, its hypothetical lyrics) to write the solo’s notes too. Either way, if you can recreate the solo vocally, you’re on the right track.

Consider the Elements of Song

When writing a solo, consider the elements that make up the song it’s in. Are you playing a blues song or a love ballad? Is it fast or slow? In what manner are your bandmates playing their instruments? These are all different elements to consider when crafting your guitar solo.

Make It Memorable, Not Over-the-Top

White stressed the importance of not going overboard with the length or intensity of your solo. You want it to be memorable not for its flashiness but for the way it complements the overall song, so don’t waste time trying to pull off crazy solos that don’t match the music.

Consult With the Band

If you’re playing with a band, consult with your bandmates about what sounds best; if you’re not, you can always ask other musicians for feedback or advice. Being receptive to others’ ideas is a great way to expand your own. You could even bring your potential solo to a jam session or a singer/songwriter circle and share it with like-minded people. 

It’s also important to play in the same manner as your bandmates. If they are calm and relaxed, it would neither make sense nor look right if you played a loud, energetic solo. Pay attention to how they’re playing, the song’s vibe, and what feels most appropriate for the tune.

Dominant Key and Chord Progression

Dominant keys and chord progressions can also help you create a sweet-sounding solo.

Dominant Keys

Most solos are written in the dominant key’s scale. A dominant key is just what it sounds like – the key that is most played in the song. If a piece is written to the key of C, the notes in the C scale will sound perfectly in tune.

Chord Progression

With that being said, consider the dominant key of the song you’re soloing on and build your solo within that key’s scale. If there is no song to accompany your solo, you can create a simple chord progression to play over. In that case, you’d include the root notes of each key in your piece.

dominant key and chord progression

For example, if the chord progression was C, G, A minor, F, you might use those notes in your solo. 

Song’s Cadence

Pay attention to the song’s cadence– how two chords or notes come together to finish a section of the music or the space between the final two chords that affects the song’s direction. 

Some cadences make the song sound complete, and others make the song’s phrase (the “section” of music you’re playing) sound incomplete, based on which notes in a scale are used. 

Four different types of cadence exist in music theory:

  • Authentic Cadence: The song is played moving from chords (or strings) 5 to 1. This means you’re going from the fifth note of the key to the first note of the key, which gives the solo a definitive or ‘complete’ sound.
  • Plagal Cadence: With plagal cadence, you move from notes or chords 4 to 1. A plagal cadence is also a complete sound. 
  • Imperfect Cadence: An imperfect cadence starts on the first, second, or fourth note and always ends on the fifth. The musical phrase sounds incomplete when an imperfect cadence is used.
  • Interrupted Cadence: An interrupted cadence usually progresses from the fifth to sixth note and is incomplete. 

This website gives a great, in-depth explanation, complete with audio examples, of the various cadence types.

Cadence is important because it will shape the overall progression of your solo, providing musical phrases to support and lead into the next.

Tempo

Tempo refers simply to the speed of the song. Decide on one that matches the song’s energy. Again, a slow blues song would sound pretty epic with a slow, soulful solo to match – not to be confused with the fast-paced energy of bluegrass! 

There are eight types of tempo with varying ranges of beats per minute according to music theory:

  • Prestissimo: At 200 beats per minute or more, prestissimo tempo is quite speedy. 
  • Presto: From 168 to 200 bpm, presto tempo is still fast, but not as fast as prestissimo.
  • Allegro: From 120-168 bpm, allegro is moderately fast.
  • Moderato: From 108-120 bpm, moderato tempo is an average speed for many songs. From here on, the tempos get slower and slower.
  • Andante: Described as “walking speed,” andante ranges from 76-108 bpm.
  • Adagio: At 66-76 bpm, adagio is moderately slow.
  • Lento: From 40-66 bpm, lento is relatively slow.
  • Grave: At 20-40 bpm, grave is very slow– funeral music is often set at a lento or grave tempo.

As you can see, there’s a variety of different tempos to play at. Choosing the right one involves examining the rest of the song’s flow. If you’re playing a classic rock song, you might want to write your solo in allegro or presto. On the flip side, moderato or andante might be better suited if you’ve written a gentle love song.

Practice 

I’m sure you’ve heard this from friends and mentors alike: practice. Practice as often as you can! The more you do, the tighter your solo will sound. Practicing also improves your speed and skill set, making solo-writing easier the next time around. Another bonus is that through consistent playing, you’ll come across pitches that sound harmonious that you can include in your piece or save for a rainy day!

practicing also improves your speed

Practice on Your Own

Practicing on your own is probably the simplest way to pgo about the process, as you don’t have to coordinate a jam session that fits everyone’s schedule. The best way to practice your solo is to record the chord progression and use it as a backing track to play over. In doing so, you’ll be practicing in an environment as close to that of playing the solo on a finished song.

If you don’t have a song or a chord progression, you can determine the dominant key of your solo and do a quick google or YouTube search for backtracks in that key.

Many websites offer downloadable backing tracks, such as:

Practice With the Band

When in doubt, go to the band. Practicing the solo in front of (or with) your bandmates is excellent exposure to the pressure accompanied by stealing the spotlight. Their instruments will undoubtedly add to the quality of the solo, and at the very least, their companionship will encourage you to keep practicing.

practice with the band

Make It Your Own

Last but not least, make the solo your own. Add a special touch or a signature move that you love, and find satisfaction in what you come up with. The happier you are with your solo, the more purposeful it will feel to play it. So, pour your soul into it, and then play your heart out!

How To Spice Up Your Solo

So, you want to add flavor to your solo! Below are a couple of tips and tricks gathered from an array of musicians to give your solo a little je-ne-c’est-quoi:

Shred

Shredding is a style of guitar playing that is usually played on an electric guitar with a distorted sound. Shredding takes a lot of practice, as it utilizes a number of mastery-level playing techniques.

You can hear an example of Van Halen shredding: 

Vibrato

Vibrato and string bending both use the same technique. When pressure is put onto a fretted string, the pitch will get higher, and when that pressure is released, the pitch returns to normal. So, when you wiggle the string (by fretting it and pushing it up against the fretboard), it creates a vibrato sound that moves from high to low pitch in quick succession.

Listen to this YouTube clip (go ahead and skip to about 2 minutes in):

String Bending

Like vibrato, string bending requires pressure on the fretted string and makes the note sound twangy. The only difference is that you don’t put and release the tension on the string over and over; you instead only put pressure and hold the string in that position while playing to produce the sound.

At roughly 14:20 minutes in, is a final YouTube example:

Shredding takes significant practice (as do vibrato and string bending, of course), but the latter two can be accomplished using various equipment. For example, whammy bars are often seen on electric guitars and serve to apply the pressure needed for vibrato and string bending on all strings simultaneously. This means that even full chords can be altered to make a twang or vibrato sound. 

Installing a whammy bar on your guitar can be done in a few simple steps. While some guitars weren’t built with whammy bars, most have an attachment for them next to the bridge, nearest the high E string. Insert the screw-end of the bar into the attachment and twist it counterclockwise until it feels pretty tight but not impossible to loosen. 

Not all guitars were built with whammy bars or with the proper attachments, so check your instrument before going further. Suppose your guitar does have the appropriate attachment. In that case, you can buy Patelai Whammy Bars (available on Amazon.com) for a relatively inexpensive price, and they should last you for a long time.

If you’re interested in learning how to shred, the YouTube tutorial below might offer some assistance:

Final Thoughts

Guitarists make their solos through dedicated practice, gaining inspiration from a variety of musical sources, and playing them over a song or chord progression. Matching the solo to the music in all aspects is critical when it comes to writing a good tune. After reading through this article, you should be able to better understand how guitarists craft and create their own guitar solos. 

All solos are unique to the individual who wrote them, so use these tips and tricks to guide your own distinctive sound!

David Sandy

Hey there! My name is David Sandy and I'm the founder of Sandy Music Lab. I've been playing guitar for several years now and created this site to be able to share and explore music with others. Check out my recommended guitar gear!

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