What’s Wrong With Guitar Solos

Let’s face it.  Guitar solos are out of fashion.  They’re sneered at as an expression of supreme self-indulgence.  They’re about as hip as a square.  Having played guitar for eighty two percent of my life and actively listened to guitarists for ninety two percent of it, you have little conception of how much it pains me to say this.

How did we reach this point?  After all, we don’t decry solo violinists for their virtuoso pyrotechnics.  Who is to blame?  I have lots of guitar playing friends and some of them won’t like me saying this, but guitarists are to blame, that’s who.  For decades, they’ve been boring us to death with unstructured, formless, interminable guitar solos, which contributed very little to the quality of the music they were contained in.  I have a confession to make, too.  As much as I appreciate guitar played well, there are just so many guitar players who I cannot stand for more than a few minutes at a stretch (which feels more like a sentence).  Like an overly-rich dish, where the music of some guitar players is concerned, I definitely can’t eat a whole one.

This comes down to some misguided thinking, on the part of many guitar players.  They mistake what a guitar solo is for and what it is supposed to do.  Indeed, some think that a guitar solo isn’t for anything and doesn’t have to do a thing.  Others will tell you that the purpose of a guitar solo is to attract attention to yourself, upstage the vocalist and show off, so that you look good.  That’s probably the least important function of a guitar solo, in my opinion.

The electric guitar is an enormously versatile instrument, capable of rendering subtle, delicate, elegant shades of tone, or fierce, screaming, shrieking, battle cries.  The late, great, guitarist’s guitarist, Les Paul, held that everything sounded good, when played on the electric guitar.  It’s an intimate, yet powerful sound.  An electric guitar can knock out a power chord that can demolish a house, or a minor arpeggio that can bring you to the verge of tears.  You can play florid little flourishes, trills and appoggiatura, with flair, or solid, chunky downbeats with undeniable authority.  With an electric guitar, you can produce languid, legato lines, slides and bends, or untrammelled, near-hysterical tremolo.  Like the piano-forte, it sounds wonderful when played loud and forcefully, but oh so delicious when played quietly and softly.  In the right hands, it can produce a range of emotions from anger and aggression, to bereft sadness, to joy and playfulness, to sombre reverence.  It can kick and squeal, snarl and growl, or cry and sing with the most beautiful vibrato applied to a sustained note, or even chime like a bell.

To exercise this vast dynamic range, I like the challenge of playing as softly as I can, seeing how fascinating I can make the notes, but with insane amounts of gain and distortion dialled in, so that taming the beast is hard to do.  I also like trying to play with strident force, producing a massive attack, but with an immaculately clean sound.  Seeing how long you can sustain a single note, or for how long you can make a chord sound, or looking for the most percussive and shortest sound you can make are all worthwhile pursuits, when developing your guitar playing technique, in my view.

In case you missed my perhaps misguided attempt at subtlety, the title of this article is a statement, not a question.  What follows are my views on what is wrong with guitar solos; conclusions I have reached after decades of study.  This is my personal manifesto.  Some guitarists will disagree, of course, but I hope they at least make some of you re-evaluate your lead guitar playing.

It’s a sad fact, easily verifiable through your own observations, that most guitarists approach the guitar solo with the emotional engagement of a drooling zombie.  They just exercise their reflexive tendons and shred until they’re tired.  Unfortunately, they tire usually long after everyone else is tired of their shredding.  They pour out the same repetitive themes and licks, like so much aural diarrhoea.  Aside from their overt facial grimaces, there is little evidence that the guitarist is thinking about anything, in particular.

Don’t get me wrong.  The endless noodling that characterizes so many jam sessions is a good gymnastic workout of the hands and fingers and the ad-lib improvisation may even be a rich and vital source of spontaneous musical ideas, worthy of further development, but what the guitarist plays here is not a finished solo.  It is student work, in progress; a rough sketch.

The guitar has the potential, easily unlocked, to be emotionally affective.  A well executed guitar solo can cause you to feel so many emotions, at a visceral level, because the sound, being electrically amplified, seems to have the ability to reach the core of your being, while other instruments (except perhaps the trombone) lack the power and frequency range to do this so readily.

Even though it is capable of lyrical, vocal-like melody lines and dark, complex harmonies, through its many rich chord voicings, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the guitar is also partly a tuned percussion instrument.  You hit it, after all.  You can make it swing, drive the beat and consequently it can cause you to “shake your booty”.  The percussive qualities of the guitar can be quite sensual and should make you bump and grind.  Listen to the sound of the guitar, doubled with sawing cellos, in this iconic track, “Children of the Revolution” by T-Rex:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xgcxd9wtXUE

So what is the purpose of the guitar solo, in a song?

I think that in the case of the best solos, they are there to support the emotion of the song.  When the lyrics cause you to think thoughts, the guitar solo is there to make sure you feel them.  Consider Queen’s song “You’re My Best Friend”.  It’s clearly such a squeaky, joyful, loving little song, with such an adorable lyric that it makes you want to just cuddle and giggle with your significant other.  It’s peppered with charming, little, incidental guitar embellishments that support this mood.  Then, along comes Brian May with his twelve second solo, two minutes and twelve second in, positively bubbling and squealing with happiness, making you feel the sentiment more keenly than you would have without it.  It’s short and sweet – very sweet.  Take a listen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2JSUXaY-tw&ob=av2n

Compare and contrast that to the solo played by Les Paul in this song of benediction, reverence and reverie, “Vaya Con Dios” (God be with you):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqZ0Sdz_V40

Isn’t the solo just lovely?  (Two minutes and fourteen seconds from the beginning and barely fifteen seconds in length).  Lovely, but arguably no less effective than Brian May’s solo in the previous clip.  The solos are doing different jobs, separated by several decades in the recording.  They are conveying very different thoughts and feelings and reinforcing the import of the lyrical content with strength and fidelity.  In my opinion, both solos work admirably.

Another purpose of the guitar solo is to react to the words and the mood of the song.  Consider the song “Bohemian Rhapsody”, by Queen.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJ9rUzIMcZQ&ob=av2e

The lyrics are all about a terrible murder, which is having a profound and depressing impact on a son.  There is no guitar at all, in the song, until two minutes and twenty five seconds, where a few dramatic and apocalyptic embellishments are played.  By the time the guitar solo begins, at two minutes and forty five seconds, the lyrics have the singer in utter despair.  The guitar solo begins, painting an audio picture of a mind in turmoil, leaping from crisis and panic, to anger, to resignation.   The range of emotions that this twenty five second guitar solo leads you through are astonishing.  If you have the imagination, you can envisage the internal mental state of the person singing the song, through the melodies and phrases of the solo.

Another song with a guitar solo in a similar vein is Pink Floyd’s “Time”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYiahoYfPGk

The lyrics are about mortality and missed opportunity.  Most of us can relate to a fear of not getting everything done that we want to complete, before our time on Earth is at an end.  The lyrics vividly describe this scenario.  Most people would react with a sense of alarm at the lyrical content, when contemplating their own lives, so when the solo starts, it’s as if the guitar gives voice to that internal pain and anguish.

They say that grieving involves five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  We could interpret the solo as loosely moving through those five stages, or at least emotions that are in some way similar to these.  Certainly, there is a repetition of the highest, screaming phrases, the second phrase being slightly higher and more anguished, which may represent some kind of attempt to bargain.  These soaring, searing high notes represent the peak of agony, in the mind of the listener.  The final phrases are redolent of acquiescent acceptance.  This guitar solo is ninety seconds of sublime, roller-coaster, emotional catharsis – an emotional journey, if you will.

I am almost one hundred percent certain that this model of grieving was not in David Gilmour’s mind, when he wrote (or more likely, improvised) the solo, but it’s kind of how it sounds, to me, or at least you can apply this emotional change model to the solo.  I wonder if there was some kind of subconscious emotional release in mind, though.   My point is that you can use such a model of emotional states to construct an eloquent, succinct and powerful guitar solo, which develops an emotional response to the song’s lyrics and leads the listener through their own emotional response experience.  David might have simply happened upon it, but I think it’s a good way to think about guitar soloing.  The guitar solo is a sorbet for the ears, after the lyrics have taken you to a particular set of reactions and ideas.

Another use of the guitar solo, or in this case, lead guitar playing, is to act as a counterpoint to the vocal melody line.  The guitarist bounces off the melody to add surprise and interest to each phrase of the song.  One of the masters of this answering guitar line is Edward Van Halen, as heard in the song “You Really Got Me”.  Incidentally, this song also contains one of the most blistering guitar solos ever.  Clearly, it reinforces the theme of the song, which is sexual attraction.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YRqkRmRocQ

Sometimes, the reason for a guitar solo is simply to provide emotional release.  It grants permission for the listener to release the emotional tension built up by the song.  Here, the guitar solo doesn’t so much suggest a range of emotions, or lead the listener through them; it simply provides the impetus to open the emotional floodgates.  The listener is free to vent what they feel.  A great example of this use of the guitar solo is the song “Comfortably Numb”, again by Pink Floyd.  The cathartic first and second solos provide a means to release all that is pent up.  Incidentally, these solos have consistently been voted “best guitar solo ever” in guitarist magazine polls.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkJNyQfAprY

Another example of this genre is the solo from the song “One of These Nights” by Eagles.  Have a listen to the solo and see if it isn’t a release of stored sexual frustration and desire (assuming the video doesn’t get pulled from YouTube again by one Eagle or another suing the rest of them).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmmWJBwxvz0

By way of contrast, here’s one last, long guitar solo (actually duet), that provides emotional comfort, peace and sanctity.  Notice the simplicity of the melody and the soft, soothing, gentle way it is played.  There are few more re-assuring and refreshing songs than Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ombnqWR3eA

When it comes to effective guitar solos, I could cite hundreds more, but I don’t want this blog post to become as boring and predictable as the typical guitar solo.  What is noteworthy about all of these examples is the brevity and compactness of the solos, their careful construction, their relationship to the mood and lyrics of the song and the way they surprise and carry the listener along.  These are not forgettable, repetitive, meandering, fretboard self-indulgences.  These are musically valid statements that support the composer’s or song writer’s aims.  They add to the communication with the listener, rather than dilute it.

Is this post simply a jealous rant against those highly skilled guitarists that are so practiced that they can perform feats of fretboard daring?  No.  Of course there can be bursts of virtuosity in the playing, but I find it much more effective when used sparingly and in contrast to simpler, more memorable, melody lines.  The greater the contrast, the more impressive the virtuoso passages seem to be.  Yes, it can be impressive that somebody can sustain long runs of leaping, sweep-picking arpeggios or sixty fourth note scales, but not all the time.  Refer back to the solo in Bohemian Rhapsody to see how a short flurry of virtuoso playing, set against a back drop of more pedestrian playing, actually produces a sparkling, affecting surprise.  You notice it more, because there is less of it.

When guitarists pound out the same emotion, song after song, solo after solo, it’s like being locked in a room with a madman, to me.  Imagine being forced to spend a whole week with somebody who is constantly blue, ridiculously and relentlessly happy, or incessantly angry.  After a short while, you would want to punch them.  There’s something unnatural or disingenuous about somebody that maintains a peak of the same emotion for a long, unbroken period of time, whether it’s happy or sad.  Human beings just don’t do that.  If they do, they’re quickly referred for psychiatric help.  It’s just not natural to sustain the same emotion for any length of time.  It shows that they’re not paying any attention to your mood and emotional states and are cut off from engaged interaction with other human beings.  That’s not much of a basis for entertaining an audience, is it?  People that act this way are emotionally suspect.  Long, repetitive solos, played the same way on every song, with the same sound and licks, are just like this.  They resemble people that can only express a single emotion.

To my way of thinking, it is important for a guitar player (indeed, any musician) to express a range of emotions, through their playing, over the course of a concert, or album.  In fact, I hope I have illustrated that it can be very effective to express a range of emotions over the course of a single guitar solo.  This is the problem I have with people that label themselves as “blues players”, for example, who only ever play music that is depressed.  Lighten up for a bit.  Nothing is ever that bad.  Similarly, shredders that only ever sound defiant and angry in their playing are like that bloke down the pub with a chip on his shoulder, who gets drunk every night and wants to fight everybody.  These are just not the kind of people you want to spend any time with.  If a guitarist takes on that kind of persona, through their soloing and lead lines, they are as tiresome and loathsome as the real-life characters that exhibit these emotions to excess.

There are so many tones and guitar sounds to use, it amazes me how limited the sonic palette of some guitar players is.  I agree you should never attempt to use every colour in the box on every guitar solo, but some players take minimalism to extremes.  Jazz guitar players, to me, are like painters that paint photo realistic landscapes in just brown, blue and green.  Clever, but dull and unadventurous.  They just never turn the flanger on, or use even a hint of delay.  God forbid that they should attempt to use distortion!  Similarly, heavy rock soloists are like artists that paint only with neon paint and in a limited range of garish colours.  Country players sound monochrome, to me.  There are so many other tastes, tones, textures and colours available – why not use some of them, at least once in a while?  Why stick to cliché?

So this is my point:  compose the guitar solo.  I don’t care how you compose it.  You might record lots of sequential takes of the guitarist improvising and cut the best bits together in a composite.  Alternatively, you might think it up in your head, in your sleep and simply play it the way you hear it in your head.  You might work it all out painstakingly on manuscript paper, complete with all the rules of counterpoint and harmony, or you might simply write it, phrase by phrase, on an acoustic guitar in the studio (if you have the luxury of cheap studio time).  I don’t much care how you compose the solo, I just care that the solo serves a musical purpose, makes a valid musical statement and engages with the listener to help them experience heightened emotional states, preferably related to the mood and subject matter of the song.  Context is everything.  Interminable “widdly-widdly”, show-off notes are not the aim of the game at all.

The electric guitar is maturing, as an instrument.  There could be a renaissance in guitar solos, similar to that early period in the sixties when the instrument was still new and innovation in how to play it was still commonplace.  If guitar players start to think about their instruments with the mindset of a composer or arranger, rather than as extensions of their crotches, they’ll get better guitar solos and solos worth listening to.  Composers and arrangers are already skilled at making the most emotionally affective use of brass, strings and other instruments.  As guitarists, if we begin to view the passion, colours and tones that we can produce with the electric guitar as compositional choices within an arrangement, we’ll produce guitar solos that move people, reach them and say something meaningful to them.  I think that’s a worthwhile aim.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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9 Responses to What’s Wrong With Guitar Solos

  1. davidreidart says:

    A formidable post! I had loads of fun listening along with reading your analysis. Some of these tracks are not from my favourite bands but I enjoyed all the solos in this context. Thanks

    • Thank you for your kind comments. It’s always a tough choice, when choosing which guitar solos to show. There are so many good ones to choose from. I hope the ones I picked were illustrative of my theme. Glad you enjoyed listening along.

  2. Alex says:

    Very good article. My view is that if you don’t have anything to say don’t say it. The solo should not be mandatory but a meaningful addition to the song. I believe a good solo comes about from truely listening to what you play with your ears and not with “your fingers”. Also, tension and release is everything. Having tension all the time, i.e. wide vibrato in every single note, fast sweeps e.t.c. or, on the other hand, playing flat is pedantic and appaling. Balance is very important. I totally agree with what you said how a solo should transcend the song, the lyrics, give a “solution” and speak to us. Cliches are good in small doses and provide the familiarity factor, but the crucial element is some genuine element that will give character to the solo,

  3. Bill says:

    Great stuff. I’d like to quote you for a workshop I’m giving for music teachers. First can I quote your blog, and second, how can I give you credit? “Tropicaltheartist” or something else?

    • Hi Bill,

      If you’re teaching music teachers, I would be delighted for you to quote my blog. You can credit me as Michael Topic, aka Tropicaltheartist. 🙂

      I’m glad you found the article useful.

      Thanks for the acknowledgement.

  4. “If guitar players start to think about their instruments with the mindset of a composer or arranger, rather than as extensions of their crotches.” Hilarious. I agree.

    Part of the problem with the solo is that at some point it almost forced itself upon every single song structure. Yes, I am saying that solos raped songs. j/k But seriously, think of the height of guitar solo wankery – American 80s metal/rock. I think you would have been laughed out of the room if you suggested that maybe one song on an entire album didn’t need a guitar solo, and might actually be better without one. And so they had to write songs in such a way where, in advance, they KNEW they had to make room for a solo. Lame! This forces the hand of the arranger big time. So I think part of what we’re seeing now (solos being out of fashion) is a reaction against that, in addition to what you mentioned. In some ways it can be seen as the composer saying “uhh, yeah, Mr. Guitarist, you’re going to get a solo, IF it makes the song better. Not just because.”

    George Harrison knew how to play a solo that truly served the song. Not a show off by any means. His solos in “Let It Be” and “Something” are soooo emotional. I can’t help but think that Lennon and McCartney probably restrained him in that way, so that he knew it had to be tight, melodic, and to the point. That’s the way it should be. Then at some point the guitarist threw the reins of his master (the composer and/or the song, depending on how you look at it).

    Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE to hear a good solo from Iommi, Slash, Harrison, Van Halen, Rhoads, Page et al. But that’s music from a different time, and half of the appeal is nostalgia. But even then, solos that really served the song, and had a lyrical/melodic nature were still the best ones. Now, it’s pretty rare for me to hear a modern “solo” solo that I like very much, especially if it lasts more than about 10 seconds. Basically anything more than eight bars is pushing my patience. Better be amazing.

    I think there was a false notion popular for a few years on the late 90s or early 2000s that “the guitar is dead” (people love hyperbole). Possibly some truth in that – the electric guitar as the centerpiece of a song or genre probably has already seen its salad days. But I think it would be more accurate to say that bands/artists with a self-indulgent guitar-centric aesthetic had gone out of fashion. People still love the electric guitar.

    Personally, I really like the aesthetic employed by the likes of Doug Martsch (Built to Spill). It’s thoroughly guitar-centric music, but true “solos” are few and far between. Yet there are TONS of moments where the listener becomes aware of some really great guitar tone, effect, riff, melody, or lick. But everything serves a purpose. A higher register lick adds a little reinforcement to a lyric expressing some kind of pain, annoyance or indecision. A chunky chord comes in right when some very resolute or defiant notion is expressed. And throughout there is near-omnipresent use of multiple guitars, each with a different tone, doing some subtle atmospherics, usually one in your left ear, one in your right. It’s not about how awesome of a guitarist he is, but how well he uses the guitar to compose. Just one man’s opinion. Check out “Trimmed and Burning” for a good example, although honestly pretty much all Built to Spill songs would demonstrate what I’m talking about.

    I think in a lot of ways his aesthetic is employed by a lot of indie bands, at least as it pertains to the guitar solo. There really are very few indie bands that “shred” like Eddie. It’s almost a hallmark of the genre (because being “independent” or not sure as hell has nothing to do with it). Cool riffs, sure. Awesome tone, effects, arpeggiated chords, feedback, weird sonics, all that, but not so much virtuosic, “technical” playing and “solos.” A reaction to its overuse in the 80s and 90s? I think one can make a pretty compelling case that it is, and that it’s precisely that aversion to guitar wankery that spawned a new genre called indie rock, however hard it is to define exactly what the genre label even means.

    • I like to think that taste was finally applied 🙂

      • True. I think there is definitely something to be said for that. Think of Autoune (and the related technologies). First used to correct mistakes. Then used as an over-the-top, gimmicky way to modulate one’s voice to sound like a robot, giving the music (at least for the first year or two) a cutting edge sound (like it or not, it definitely sounded new). And then the better part of a decade later, artists like Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), and now Polica, started using it in a way that (I feel) actually has artistic merit and creativity. When new technologies take hold, it often takes a while before they’re used in a way that people would approach an old instrument. They realize that the novelty of the instrument itself just isn’t enough to carry the weight. It’s still important what you DO with it.

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