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  • Writer's pictureAaron Carrington

How to Improvise Guitar Solos - 5 Things to Consider

Updated: Jun 29, 2023

Contents


Introduction

A very common question students ask me is ‘how do I write or improvise my own guitar solo?’. In this article we will explore some tried and tested compositional approaches to give you some understanding of how to improvise guitar solos.


Guthrie Govan improvising a guitar solo

How Is Writing a Guitar Solo Different from Improvising?

Writing a solo and improvising a solo aren’t all that different in terms of their approach. Both are intended to sound good, to keep audience interest and leave the player satisfied that they’ve added something positive to the situation.


The main difference is that when you’re writing, you can potentially have as much time as you want to play around with ideas and craft something extra special and memorable that people want to listen to. Whereas improvising is more along the lines of tapping into solid ideas that you have already learned and expressing them in real time.


That’s not to say that improvised solos aren’t memorable because many certainly are but there is certainly more ‘risk’ when having to come up with things quickly in a musical situation.


Form

Form or structure as it’s also known is about understanding the underlying building blocks of a piece. Namely, how many bars and sections. There are of course, many variations but many guitar players are familiar with the concept of a 12 bar blues in it's traditional form using 7th chords.


It’s got four bars of chord I, two bars of chord IV, two bars of chord I again and then a turnaround (named so because it takes us back to the start of the form) that uses the chords V, IV, I and back to V to finish the cycle. The idea is that each musician in a given situation knows this instinctively and is therefore able to obey it’s rules and play over it accordingly in turn.


It’s helpful to think of it like a game. A game has rules so that it can function and writing and improvising is no different. Written down, a 12 bar blues looks like this:


Guitar solo chord chart


Space/Thinking Time

When first learning to play or improvise a solo there’s a definite temptation amongst guitar players to play too many notes without stopping and with influences like Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani and Angus Young, who can blame us!


At the right time during a solo, this approach can be a great way to build intensity but it’s a good idea to be able to balance the scales (no pun intended!). And when you continuously play a flurry of notes, it’s all too easy to focus on those notes rather than where you are within the form.


Really, it might be better to try and build up to that flurry of notes so that when you get there, they provide a nice contrast to everything else you’ve already played.


Space is a fantastic way of doing this. It slows everything down a bit, gives you time to think and gives your audience a ‘rest’. Here’s a great exercise you should try; Play for a bar, rest for a bar. So play for bar 1, rest for bar 2. Play for bar 3, rest for bar 4 etc. And that’s almost it.


Almost…


You’re not allowed to go over the bar into the next one. You must, at all costs, stop before beat one of the next bar starts. This reinforces the concept of space whilst helping your brain keep track of where you are in the form. It also gives you time to think about what to play next.


Listen to the below clip of an entire 12 bar blues sequence (in the key of A) and pay special attention to the space in between each bar, make sure you count each beat of every bar:



Rhythmic Repetition

Take a rhythm, then reinforce the idea by repeating it. You can either use the same notes or you can use different ones but the rhythm must be the same.


Listen to the below example. I first play a lick, then I apply space to bar 2 (as mentioned above) then in bar 3, I play a different set of notes with the same rhythm and bar 4 is again, empty. Things like this can provide a sense of familiarity whilst building interest in your solo:



Melodic Repetition

This is a similar idea to the above but now we apply it to melody. Play a set number of notes, then repeat those exact notes in the same order. Your rhythm can stay the same or it can change but the notes must stay identical and in the same order.


You can hear how this is applied to the example below where I've kept the same notes but changed the rhythm. Notice how the use of space is also identical to the above example and the second lick is played slightly more aggressively to provide additional contrast:



Conclusion on How to Improvise Guitar Solos

The subject of writing and improvising goes very deep but these are some great foundational elements that when you get them, can change the way you write and improvise solos. In this article we’ve had a look at the difference between writing and improvising, form, space, rhythmic repetition and melodic repetition. After a bit of practice you'll be able to improvise solos in real time using these methods. Start by writing solos, then once you understand how the above approaches work, they may well creep into your improvisations anyway.


About The Author

Aaron Carrington the author of this post and owner of Carrington Guitar Academy

Aaron Carrington is the owner of Carrington Guitar Academy in Bath, UK. Since graduating from The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance in London. Aaron has played in high profile locations such as Buckingham Palace, The Savoy and The London Eye.


He’s been a regular part of the UK wedding and corporate gig scene and has travelled internationally to the Middle East to play in top quality residency bands 6 nights per week. The finesse gained from this level of playing experience is passed on to his guitar students.


Now permanently in Bath, Aaron strives to deliver the highest standards of guitar teaching at Carrington Guitar Academy by offering a personalized lesson plan tailored to each student’s goals. You may also catch Aaron busking regularly on the streets of Bath. If you're interested in guitar lessons get in touch to book a FREE trial lesson!




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