Anatomy of a Guitar Solo

This is a post from my old blog, posted back on March 28, 2013. Not the best written post ever, but it’s a nice little insight into my mind when it comes to music and what I listen to. I thought there were a few readers here who might enjoy it. I am removing the references to one of my many abandoned blog series, because I just never continued it. Maybe I’ll reignite some of those old series here… or maybe not. We’ll see…

Of course, what makes a guitar solo good is a subjective question. There are even people out there who don’t like guitar solos!

I know… right? Seems like a mythical concept, like gods! But oh… they exist. They’re out there…


This post explains the kind of guitar that I personally like to hear. This is only my subjective tastes, so…

People write off soloing today because they consider it self-indulgent. And yes, in many ways, that’s very true. It doesn’t help that in the 80’s we had lead guitarists who honestly did not know how to solo. Sure, they knew the technique. They could shred and sweep with the best of them… but they couldn’t solo. They would play these insane shredding solos on slow, emotional songs. They would even insert solos into songs where they just didn’t fit!

So the first thing I look for in a guitarist is how well they know their music. Technique is only a small part of it. You also have to know if a guitar solo will even fit, where in the song it will fit, what kind of solo will fit, and how you’re going to play it. You can’t shred over a slow love ballad, and you really can’t solo over most pop songs. If the song’s an acoustic song, don’t throw in a heavily-distorted shredder. If what you have is an experimental psychedelic piece, don’t play a bunch of straightforward metal licks.

In other words, before you write that solo, ask yourself if, what, when, where, and how.

A good guitarist is a guitarist that almost always has a good answer for each of those questions.

The second thing I look for is how they use their technique, and how much knowledge they have of different techniques. Knowledge of each the scales and theory only gets you so far. The question is whether or not you know how to utilize them. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Change it up! Also, sloppy is not necessarily a bad thing. Jimi Hendrix proved that. Sloppy can actually be one of your techniques if you know how to use it. Shredding is another great technique, but like all techniques, only works in some situations, and not always.

In most songs with solos, the solo is only effective when it’s a part of the song. It should drive the song forward, not stop everything and break the mood. David Gilmour is the master at this. His solos always propel the songs he plays on forward. He never plays anything that doesn’t fit. This is also why Jimmy Page’s solos in “Stairway to Heaven” and “Since I’ve Been Loving You” are so damn good.

The third thing I look for is something I talked about in my [post about David Gilmour’s solo in Comfortably Numb from the P*U*L*S*E* show]:

How slow can they play?

For this one, I’m just gonna quote what I said in my post about “Comfortably Numb”:

My measure of a good soloist is not their breadth of knowledge on the techniques, or their ability to use them. I really don’t care how fast they can play. I couldn’t care less that they can play a whole solo of nothing but pinch harmonics. I’m appreciative of, but not awed by, a solo of sweeps.

The reason this solo is my favorite is because it soars. It relies not on speed or technique, but on space, rhythm/timing, and ingenious use of chorus, reverb, and delay. Of course, if you don’t have rhythm, or understanding of the scale used (a basic minor pentatonic), or understanding of the playing techniques Gilmour employs, you will fail at this solo. And this betrays yet another amazing thing about it: If you just listen to the solo, it sounds very easy, but that’s actually deceptive. Yes, learning the notes, in that order, is very simple. You can even build the effects and the technique. You could play a perfect copy of this solo, make not a single mistake, hit every note perfectly, and still sound like shit. It’s the deliberateness with which it’s played. If your timing is even slightly off… even by a hair… you will destroy this solo. And getting that timing is not easy; at all.

The best part of it is that, in Gilmour’s hands, that deliberateness is actually improvised. The solo, though rehearsed, includes sections that are not the same throughout. Compare the version on the DVD to the version on the released soundtrack of the show (which, unlike the DVD, includes audio clips from different nights of the tour), and you will hear differences. Another great example, which I’ll actually be highlighting in a future post, is the song “Money” as performed on the P*U*L*S*E* tour. The solo on the DVD is markedly different than the one of the soundtrack, and yet both are brilliant and include that deliberateness that could normally only happen by way of tons of practice and rehearsal in the hands of your average lead guitarist, and yet is improvised quite well by Gilmour.

What I’m talking about here is how the solo is crafted. In many cases, it isn’t how many notes you play, but how much space you leave. That space between each note can be evenmore important than the notes themselves. Sometimes, you have to play slow.

But playing slow isn’t as easy as many think. You have to be very deliberately when you play slow. Playing slow requires more than just your run-of-mill Marshall distortion effect. If you aren’t careful about crafting space, your solo will inevitably sound boring, stale, and dry. You really don’t want that.

That guitar solo Gilmour plays in “Comfortably Numb” P*U*L*S*E* highlights exactly what I mean.

The fourth and final thing I look for is the uniqueness of the playing.

I adore solos that do things you wouldn’t normally hear with a guitar. It really was Jimmy Page’s use of the viola bow on his guitar that turned me on to psychedelic and experimental guitar, and it’s why I now listen to progressive rock like Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree and psychedelic rock like Syd Barrett and Jimi Hendrix and drone like Noveller (Sarah Lipstate… whom you’ll read about later in the Great Guitar Solos series). I want to see guitarists that break new ground with the guitar, driving it into areas it’s not normally meant to be in. Conventional is boring, so break the conventions! Good guitar solos aren’t just a few bars of scales… they are more than that. The guitar is so much more versatile than people realize. So I look for guitarists who think of new and innovative ways of using it.

Effects are a huge part of this. Some guitarists like to stick to basic distortion, reverb, and wah, and that’s fine, but that’s also boring as all fuck. Get delay! Tape echo! Flanger! Leslie! Different kinds of wahs! You don’t need to just stick with simple. When used right, effects can be amazing. Yes, you can also overuse them to drown out the fact that you aren’t that good, but I would argue that’s much rarer of guitarists who use effects than the stereotype would suggest.

So, in summary:

1. Know your music. Before you write that solo, ask yourself if, what, when, where, and how.

2. Don’t stick to one or two techniques. Incorporate all the techniques you know. Don’t be a one-trick pony in your playing.

3. Don’t be afraid of playing slow. Slow is good! But make sure you know how to craft slow. Know how to make the spaces between the notes work for you.

4. Experiment. Don’t constantly stick to conventions. Effects can be your friend. Have fun, and try new things.

Really, that’s all it takes to be an amazing guitarist. Of course, these aren’t actually easy (as a failing wannabe myself, I know). But you can get them down. And if you can, you should.

Also, if you’re hoping to suggest great guitarists to me, keep these in mind. I simply won’t listen to shredder-only guitarists. They have to do more… a lot more…


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Listening to guitars for a long time certainly doesn’t qualify me as an expert, but I know what I like 🙂

    The guitar solo which has impressed me the most was in this song, on Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets”. How would you rate it?

  2. says

    Sometimes it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play.

    By coincidence, I’m currently working on the Comfortably Numb solo myself. As in just a few minutes before reading this. It’s brilliant.

    I’ll float a name I think fits the bill: Tom Verlaine (Television). Not so much on effects, but I’ll take him over the usual blues bores or shredders any day.

    Not sure what it has to do with atheism etc., but I’m happy to see this sort of thing on the site 🙂

  3. says

    Ah, but it does have to do with music, which is part of my blog’s title… 😉

    I love music, and love to write about it, being a wannabe musician myself. So… here it is.

    The atheism writing is gonna be sparse for a little while because I’m well past the point in my journey through atheism where all I want to do is bash religion and say why I’m right to not believe. Now I mostly just rant at assholes who happen to be atheists (like Richard Dawkins, for example).

    But I will definitely write atheist-related stuff in the future…

  4. says

    Very nice. I’m not a big fan of Brian Eno, but that music has some great guitar work, for sure. This is a definitely a solo that works extremely well.

  5. tonyinbatavia says

    One post in and I’m already digging your blog. I’m looking forward to more, Nathan.

  6. says

    Jeff Beck says more with one note in “The Nazz Are Blue” than any fretboard masturbator ever has. The guitarist solos I enjoy most are those which complement, add to, and fit within the structure of the song. Elliot Easton and Brian May are masters of this, never playing too much or too little.

    If I had to name a single favourite solo, it would be Roman Jugg’s solo on The Damned’s “Is It A Dream”. The bridge builds up an incredible tension and the solo releases it like none other (with the exception of the aforementioned “Comfortably Numb”). What Jugg lacks in proficiency, he makes up for in emotion.

    If this double posted, my apologies. I got a “timed out” error that doesn’t tell me if it succeeded or not.

  7. says

    Yeah, I’ve been getting that error, too. Very frustrating.

    And those are some wonderful solos, BTW. To be fair, The Damned isn’t really my style (I’ve never been a fan of 80’s music, with the exception of Guns n’ Roses [mainly because of Slash] and the start of Grunge… ah Nirvana…), but I definitely heard what you love about that solo.

    Funnily enough, Jeff Beck’s solo in “The Nazz are Blue” was one of the solos I had intended to highlight in the series, but never got around to it.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    I agree about leaving space. To do that you really have to have a feel for the rhythm. Do that right and you can shine on like a crazy diamond for an entire album side. Another one who solos like that a lot is Mark Knopfler. He sounds like Miles Davis with all the notes he doesn’t play.

    Another thing that chaps my pickups is guitarists who solo by rushing up to the highest octave and just staying there. There’s a whole neck on that instrument, people. It’s there for a reason. Zappa is one of my favorites for soloing on the low notes. Check out Watermelon in Easter Hay for a great example.

  9. rubenremus says

    Reading your article, the one solo which jumped into my head was Andy Latimer’s long, soaring solo on Camel’s composition “Ice”.

  10. says

    Glenn Tipton’s solo in Judas Priest’s Beyond the Realms of Death is brilliantly constructed, in my opinion (KK’s outro solo is good too, but nowhere near as cathartic as Glenn’s).

    It starts with the slow bluesy progressions and continues to build into faster runs. Incidentally, it occurs over an almost identical Bm progression to Comfortably Numb.

  11. newfie says

    Welcome, Nate. I can see that I may spend some time here. As somebody who cut their teeth on guitar in the 70s and 80s (played in a few big-hair cover bands), I agree with you.. to a point. There was a lot of crap back in the 80s, but there was also a lot of good, innovative, influential playing happening back then as well.
    Nuno is one of my favs, not only technically proficient, but percussive, tasty, and funky. Lots of interesting phrasings and odd time signatures in his playing.
    This is from Extreme’s 2009 Take us Alive tour, recorded at the House of Blues in Boston. Great show, if you haven’t seen it.

  12. says

    I love Extreme’s song “Get the Funk Out”, but I got kinda turned off of them after hearing “He-Man Woman Hater”… though that’s perhaps partly because the person who introduced me to that song is a troll in the worst sense. I do like him (he’s my brother’s roommate… my brother, though, is more like me in terms of worldview), but it’s impossible to have a serious convo with him, and his “humor” is definitely the libertarian “I offend everybody” bullshit kind.

  13. newfie says

    I took “He-Man Woman Hater” as an anti-misogyny song, as I took “Little Girls” as anti-incest and anti-pedophilia. Nothing wrong with lyrics about issues, but I guess it all comes down to how one interprets them. They continued it on their “III Sides To Every Story” album, “Warheads” and “Rest in Peace” are anti-war, “Color Me Blind” anti-racism, and “Peacemaker Die” dealing with the Martin Luther King assassination.

  14. says

    Hi there, Nathan! And welcome to Freethoughtblogs! A little late, I know, but still… Anyways, I liked your post. I’m a musician (guitarist mostly, and suuuuuuuck at soloing), and always find it hard to pin down exactly what are the things that makes me like the things I like, so is nice to read about these things. If you like guitarists that think outside de box, I would recommend Adrian Belew and he’s animal sounds, he’s really amazing, and a great songwriter too. You probably know him, being a prog rock fan. Robert Fripp is also incredible. I think “The heavenly music corporation” (with Eno!!! Why don’t you like him??? 😉 ) was the single most important track for me when it comes to thinking about the possibilitys of the guitar. And I totally second @Steven Clinard at #2 with Tom Verlaine, though I would add that what makes him great is how he works in tandem with Richard Lloyd

  15. says

    Oh! There’s a youtube series called “Guitar Moves”, hosted by Matt Sweeney, about great and/or unconventional guitarists, it’s really great, you may want to ckeck it out 😀

  16. says

    Man I’m replying to this late… sorry… 😀

    I don’t dislike Brian Eno. He is immensely talented, absolutely; a phenomenal guitarist. His music just… you know… ain’t my jam.

    There’s very, very, very few artists I actively dislike. There’s just a lot I don’t listen to because they’re just not my jam. I can still recognize their talent and even why they’re popular. Prince and Michael Jackson are great examples of this, as well. Both are incredibly talented and I absolutely get and respect their musical popularity… they just aren’t my style, is all. I’ll listen to them if I hear them on the radio, and if you come into Teavana while a Michael Jackson song is playing and I’m working, you’ll see me bobbing my head to the beat and generally enjoying the songs. So I definitely respect the talent.

    But I don’t have the music in my playlists.

    Music tastes are very subjective, so I basically don’t judge anyone for what they listen to, and in the overwhelmingly vast majority of cases I can respect why they like what they like.

    Actually, Beyonce is perhaps the best and most recent example: I don’t really listen to much Rap, Hip Hop, and R&B. I think there’s a whole ton of incredible talent there but, as I say, it’s not my style. That said, I have Beyonce’s “Formation” in my music library because despite not being my style at all, the song is absolute fire, and even while it is the only song I have of Beyonce’s in my music library, I do think she is basically a goddess of music, even while she isn’t really my style in general.

  17. Chris DeVries says

    No, I think you and Wilson are both right. Even prog rock (and metal) has become largely derivative, bands copying the sounds and styles of other prog bands rather than taking the word “progressive” to heart and actually being mildly innovative. Other bands (Dream Theater is a great example) are derivative because they’re trying to riff on THEIR OWN successful work instead of continuing to push the envelope. Some of this, by new artists at least, can be excused by the necessity to learn the ways of the past so that you can move beyond them; it’s just that so few bands ever DO move beyond.

    I don’t know if rock is dead, or if the guitar is no longer king. I suspect yes to the former and no to the latter though. Rock was a product of its time, and all of the extensions of the genre, from Fleetwood Mac to AC/DC share certain qualities in common. That which they DO NOT share in common is what makes the music interesting, and it is true that there exists a large stylistic diversity within the body of rock music. But apart from new playing styles being popularized that shake up the genre, I think rock cannot be innovative anymore. The only thing one can do to reliably push rock music forward is to defy the very conventions that are found in virtually all forms of rock, and then, would it be rock ‘n roll anymore?

    Metal, on the other hand, has seen something of a resurgence in the last decade or so, and from the new ways of playing metal I’ve seen come into being, I don’t think the panoply of possibilities in metal has come even close to being exhausted. Metal can encompass much more sonic space than rock ever did because there are fewer restrictions on what can be metal.

    It’s funny you mentioned Kendrick Lamar. I also have found it incredibly difficult to get into Rap, Hip Hop and R+B, but when I first heard Lamar (on Colbert), I was blown away. It was like…rap mixed with jazz and a hint of prog…something I’d never heard before, and I was immediately taken with it. He is an extremely talented songwriter, and To Pimp a Butterfly was as good, in my opinion, as a classic Zeppelin or Pink Floyd album. It was, at the time, unique. I know that they say there’s nothing new under the sun, but the reality is a little more subtle -- you can still write music that SOUNDS new because it combines influences in a way that is unfamiliar. The best artists are the ones who make the old sound new, the ones who don’t play to your expectations of what music should be. It doesn’t matter that there is technically nothing new; people’s perception of newness, of unfamiliarity, is all that matters. I am not sure that the expectations of rock music listeners can be subverted in a way that keeps the music rock, but makes it sound new, because I agree that there is a conservatism that has made rock stale. Metal fans tend to be more open to new sounds and experiences, so a lot more styles can fit under the umbrella of metal. In my opinion.

    On an unrelated note, you mentioned arranging theme songs for various shows as rock or metal -- have you seen Leo Moracchioli’s work? He is a Norwegian music producer who spends his free time in his studio, covering all sorts of pop music as metal songs, and puts the resulting videos on youtube. I strongly recommend his version of Toto’s Africa, as well as Dire Strait’s Sultans of Swing (just search his name on youtube with the song names). He even did Hanson -- MMMBop…I think that’s the only time I felt that maybe he didn’t completely sell me on the metal-ability of a song. Most of the time though, from Gagnam Style to Despacito to Bittersweet Symphony, the songs sound pretty amazing as metal.

  18. says

    I don’t have the music education or quite the breadth of experience as a listener to comment on most of what’s said here. But I will say the Puff Daddy / Kashmir thing was definitely harmed in my esteem by coming on immediately after the worst dialogue in the Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie. One second it’s Matt B making your brain curdle, the next it’s the beginning of Kashmir plus “Uh-huh, yeah. Uh-huh, yeah.”

  19. Dunc says

    I’d say that rock hasn’t been innovative in decades. If it has, I missed it… And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just means you have to accept that the form has explored the available space for innovation and now there’s nothing left to do but polish it -- just like in blues, or trad jazz. The two best gigs I’ve been to recently were Marquise Knox (a young blues guitarist / singer from St Louis) and the Bratislava Hot Serenaders (a Slovakian jazz orchestra playing absolutely 100% period-accurate 20s & 30s jazz). Neither were in any sense innovative (quite the opposite), but they were both bloody brilliant.

    Everything you could do and still call it “rock” has been done already. Literally everything.

    (Oh, and you do know that “Black Mountain Side” is damn near a straight lift of Bert Jansch’s version of “Black Waterside”, right? So if your DADGAD isn’t a straight lift of that, it’s actually more original that the original…)

  20. says

    When Jefferson Starship is headlining a suburban festival, it is time for Rock to innovate. It was the music of youth and rebellion. Now it is nostalga music.

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