Home » Master Guide: How To Play Guitar Solos

Master Guide: How To Play Guitar Solos

Guitar solos - How To Play Guitar Solos

I get no greater feeling, no clearer mindfulness then when I’m ripping out a screaming rock solo! Lets dive straight into how to play guitar solos!

Guitar solos happen when the lead guitarist takes center stage and delivers us a musical piece that compliments the song. Learning how to play guitar solos means learning a few scales, licks and concepts about what a solo should be. Understanding these concepts means we can explore our favorite artists and quickly understand their tricks.

YOU can play lead solos too! I know that it might seem like a daunting challenge to some to learn how to play solos. It feels like it could be almost impossible to achieve the mastery of Slash or Joe Satriani. However, it is not as hard as you think once you know the secrets to mastering them!

Compare it to learning to speak

When we learn to speak, we start by learning individual words and associating them with things. Eventually, we can string a few words together and start to form meaningful sentences.

Over time, we can start to use words to describe things, or to say how we feel and what we are thinking about.

Once we become comfortable with speaking we can have conversations and articulate detailed information at length, and we don’t even have to think about it when we do it. We can just get into the flow. We can also learn new words and speaking techniques throughout our lives.

This is what learning guitar solos is like!

If you already play guitar then you will have started to put in some of the ground work that will enable you to play solos. You may know things like chords and scales, individual notes names, in addition to strumming and picking techniques, vibrato, slides etc. These are equivalent to learning things like words, sentences and articulation when learning to speak.

If you are new to guitar then check out my Ultimate Guide To Learning Guitar Chords!

Think of an actor learning lines, it is similar when we learn solos;

When we are learning guitar solos, we can break them down into small chunks and work on these until we get them right. Play them slow and only one or two phrases at a time. Start to piece different sections together before playing the entire solo.

This is like practicing individual words and learning lines for a theater performance. We go through each line until we feel comfortable with it before moving on.

What Is A Guitar Solo Anyway?

Guitar solos have become the dominant solos within western popular music. It’s not often you hear a bass solo or a flute flutter in the middle of your favorite songs, is it?

Sure, you can have vocal solos or synth solos, nothing wrong with these. But it’s the mighty guitar solo that dominates the middle solo sections in songs from many different genres. Jazz, blues, rock, metal, country and flamenco all use guitar solos extensively within their genres.

So, a solo is a moment within a song when the guitar player gets to show us how good they are. The band will usually play a steady backing track while the lead guitarist plays their solo and tries to look cool.

I don’t like guitar solos that are like, ‘Look at me, look at me!’ I like guitar solos that are little songs within the songs.

Taylor Hawkins

Guitar solos usually happen somewhere in the middle of a song, and sometimes and the beginning and end too. The lead guitarist may also put licks in various other places within a song, but its the part where the guitar gets center stage, this is the solo!

A solo is usually made up of single notes being played melodically by the guitarist. Solos can have a reoccurring theme within them or they can be a continual progression. However, They can also be based on a melody from the song or can be a separate musical section.

Are Guitar Solos Hard To Play?

Just like learning anything else, learning how to play guitar solos can be easy and it can be hard. Most of the time it’s fun though, so don’t give up…you’ve made it this far!

Of course, there are easy lead parts and there are hard ones. . .some so hard but amazing that they almost made me give up guitar…honest!

Again, like learning other things in life, lead guitar becomes much easier with practice and you become much more confident with experience. Moreover, the more you play, the looser and more soulful you’ll become.

If something is hard to play, I break it down and turn it into a little exercise. These exercises will usually concentrate on a certain technique such as picking, and build on my current ability. However, other areas such as muscle memory and fingering techniques will also be improved from these exercise.

See the section further down on making exercises from solos for examples of exercises I’ve built from guitar solos.

How To Guitar Solo Over Chords

Whenever you hear a solo in a song, the background music will be playing certain chords that are in a specific key, such as C minor. The lead player will know this and build a solo in this key.

Once we know what chords we are playing over, we can choose the appropriate scales for those chords. Once we have the scales it is then up to us to play what we want.

When learning lead guitar, we learn lots of different techniques such as legato, sweep picking, speed picking, bends, harmonics etc. When playing a solo, it will be made up of a variety of different techniques, and these techniques will be played in a specific key.

So now we have;

Chord progression in Am - How To Play Guitar Solos
The Chord Progression & Key (Am)
Am pentatonic scale - How To Play Guitar Solos
Am pentatonic
A natural minor scale - How To Play Guitar Solos
Am scale
Bluesy bending lick - How To Play Guitar Solos
Bluesy bending lick
Slide lick - How To Play Guitar Solos
Slides sound great in this lick!
smooth legato lick - How To Play Guitar Solos
smooth legato lick

Every guitar solo you hear is made up of these key components. This means we can be less daunted by them because we know what they are made from.

If you are new to lead playing then I suggest that you pick an easy solo to learn first.

Before learning a guitar solo, learn the chords that are being playing in the background first. Make sure you know what chords they are and what key the song is in. From here you can work out what scales are being used!

Once you have knowledge of the chords, key and scales being used you can then either start learning the piece or jam over it and create your own lead lines!

What Scales To Play Over Chords

There are many chords and many scales that we can use when we play solos. Luckily, it isn’t too difficult to learn how to find the key of a song and then work out the chords and scales that are being used.

Check out my Guide To Learning Guitar Chords if you want to know more about understanding chords!

Some songs will use simple chords like power chords. These are neither major or minor individually, however the chord sequence may dictate whether you play major or minor scales. With power chords you can use a wide variety of scales because you can change between major and minor more freely.

Other songs will have very specific chords, like; Am, Dm7, Bbmaj7, D. This would mean you choices of scales are much slimmer. With more knowledge and experience you will be able to switch between scales on certain chords if you wanted to!

The Basic Rules of Scale Choices

  1. Figure out if song or solo section is in a major or minor key (see below for how to find key!). If song is major, you could use major scale and major pentatonic scales. if minor then use minor versions of these scales.
  2. If you are less confident at lead playing, try exploring the pentatonic scales first as they contain less notes than the major or minor scales.
  3. Don’t worry about all the different modes and scales that you may hear about. Names like Phrygian scale or Mixolydian scale can sound scary, or make you think that there are so many scales to learn and understand. The truth is; Most popular music uses the basic major or minor scales for all of the songs and solos!
  4. I’m basically repeating the above advice; Don’t over complicate things! For most of your lead guitar career you will mainly use major and minor scales, and the major and minor pentatonic (same as major and minor scales but have 2 notes taken out, making it simpler to play!).

There are a ton of other scales out there, and there are a number of different ways we can use certain scales over certain chords. Practically all western music that exists can be accompanied by the major and minor scales, or is written in these. Within these scales there are the modes;

Major Scale Modes

  • Ionian
  • Dorian
  • Phyrgian
  • Lydian
  • Mixolydian
  • Aeolian
  • Locrian

I won’t go into detail about them in this article, but they are basically the same notes as a major scale but you start and end on a different note, rather than the root note. The third note of a C major scale is E, if we played the C major scale but started on E and ended on E we would be playing the E phyrgian scale!

The sixth note of the C major scale is A. If we started on A and finished on A we would be playing the A Aeolian scale, which is actually the minor scale! Therefore, each major scale has a relative minor scale, and vice versa!

So, as further motivation for you, the major and minor scales are actually the same, just starting and ending in a different note for each scale!

Finding The Key Of A Solo

Learning to find the key of a solo or song is a really valuable skill to have! Once you can do this, you can switch on the radio or your music collection and play along to every song you hear, really!

There a a few things you can do to find the key of a solo. Don’t worry if you find this difficult to start with, it took me many months to become comfortable with finding the right keys and scales.

Try these…

  • Determine what the root note is. This is often the first chords that is played, but not always. Listen and try to understand which note/chord is dominating the music, this will likely be the key! Find this note on the guitar and you’ve found the key.
  • Try playing single note up and down the fretboard on one string. Move slowly up from the open string up to the twelfth fret and back down again. See if you can find a note that sounds good and that you can play continuously and it doesn’t sound out of place. Try on different strings also!
  • If you have some guitar licks that you know, play them in different places until you find a place on the fretboard where they sound good. Find the root note of the position you’re in.
  • If all else fails, google the song or solo and see if there is a guitar tab for it. Look at the tab and see what key is specified. For the solo section, check what the rhythm section is doing and get the key and chord progression from here!

It is a learning process to finding the keys of solos and songs. Don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it initially, this is something you’ll be doing for the rest of your guitar life, and you will get better at it, guaranteed!

Guitar Solo Techniques

If you are learning how to play guitar solos for the first time it can seem like every solo is a random combination of notes and phrases. But, once you learn a few solos, especially if all from the same or similar genre, you will notice repeating patterns.

Guitar solo techniques are found in all guitar solos. Once you see a few of them, you will start to see them all over the place when watching your favorite guitarists. They include things like;

  • Hammer-ons & Pull-offs
  • Bends
  • Vibrato
  • Legato
  • Speed Picking
  • Sweep Arpeggios
  • String Skipping
  • Tapping
  • Sliding
  • Double-stops
  • Sustain

Lesson 4 in this series goes in depth on Guitar Techniques!

Practicing any one of these techniques individually will really boost your learning, and you will sounds awesome too! Check out tapping and legato if you really want to impress people!

Guitar solos will have a combination of these techniques within them, and by no means do they have to include all of them! Every guitar player will have preferences for certain techniques and favor those more, thereby helping to define their style.

Guitar scales and techniques can make you sound great, but it’s musical phrasing that will make you a Guitar God!

When learning how to play guitar solos you will quickly start to build a collection of scales, licks and techniques that you can play. These are enough to make you sound good and give you a great foundation for learning solos and mastering lead guitar.

After gaining these skills you can explore your favorite guitarists and learn how they build solos and how they use scales and techniques to create melodic phrases, which is the ultimate aim of lead guitar.

Making Guitar Exercises From Solos

We can make exercises out of hard guitar parts that we can’t quite play yet. Or we can make them from things we can already play. By making exercises we focus our attention upon a technique of ours that needs work, such as speed picking.

Learning lead guitar and licks takes time and commitment. With so much repetition of similar licks, scale shapes and bends etc. it becomes easier for us to play lead guitar and sound like a God!

Below are three different exercises I’ve made from the Sweet Child O Mine solo by Guns n Roses. Use this free online metronome to build up speed with these licks!

Guitar string bending exercise
Good exercise for practicing bends!
Speed building guitar lick
A lick that you can build speed with!
Tasty guitar lick
Aim for good phrasing with this lick!

Tips For Learning Guitar Solos

Guitar solos are so fun to play, they really are! And it won’t take you long before you’re playing along to your favorite artists too.

Below are my 5 tips to success

1. Relax – guitar solos can be difficult to play sometimes, or frustrating because you’re so close but not quite there yet. We’ve all been there. However, always remember that guitar is fun, and whatever you can’t do now you will be able to do in the future, providing you keep playing.
2. Break things down – If you find a lick you cant play, break it down, slow it down, practice small parts of it, make exercises from it! Even if you can play a whole solo, perhaps there are techniques in there that you can make exercises from, thereby improving you playing and creative skills.
3. Speed things up – This is a fun little exercise to do. If you find a guitar lick that you are struggling with, play it along to a metronome or drum machine. If you can’t quite play it up to speed, keep going and gradually go faster that the original lick, maybe up to 15bpm faster. You won’t be able to play it and it will most likely sound terrible, but when you drop the metronome back down to the original tempo of the song, the lick should now feel more manageable to play.
4. Learn from others – You may have a few favorite lead guitarists, or you may have many. Either way, there are always more to learn from! Stepping outside of your normal genres and into the sounds of new genres will greatly expand your understanding of lead guitar, as well as improving your playing.
5. Bends and Vibrato – My guitar teacher was never that excited by my flashy lead guitar tricks. Instead, he was always more focused on my bends and vibrato. “…They make or break a guitarist!” he would say. And it’s true; if you want to be a smoking hot guitar player, you have to be great at bends and have a sexy vibrato style too! These are both easy to practice and will improve with time, moreover they will really make you sound pro!

Conclusion

You can learn guitar solos either by reading guitar tabs and learning them note for note, or you can go deeper into them and understand what they are playing over and what scales and techniques they use. By pulling apart guitar solos we can improve our knowledge or scales and phrases, thereby allowing us to use this knowledge to further develop our playing.

Making exercises from licks and solos is another great way to expand you creativity and writing skills. Keeping things fun and always being open to new sounds and styles is a must for your progression and individuality.

Up Next…

In the next lesson of this course we will dive into the world of Guitar Scales…

Lesson 2. Lead Guitar Scales – Minor Scales