Writing Catchy Solos
It is a constant struggle in every shred guitar player’s life to come up with solos that not only rip but stick in the listener’s head. This, at least in my humble opinion, is one of the most important things in speed soloing, yet, one of the hardest things to do. Personally, it is one of my musical goals to be able to pull of those high energy, edge of the chair pyrotechnics, and make it stick in someone’s head. Just because you can play 90,000 notes a second doesn’t mean jack. You have got to make it mean something. Let’s take a look at some things that may hopefully give you all a few cool ideas.
The Context of the Song
Before you even THINK about picking up your guitar to start writing a solo, first listen to the context of the song. You better not be playing string skipping arpeggios at high velocity over a slow ballad for extended periods of time, just like you better not play one long 18 bar bluesy bend over a high octane speed metal riff.
The goal of the soloist is to complete the message of the song. Maybe, that job is climaxing the excitement? Maybe, that job is making the listener cry. It is your job to take the listener to the next level of intensity. The band isn’t going to do it for you. Ask yourself before you start writing: “What message are you trying to send?”
Here is an example: When I did the solo to “Lost Forever,” by Dark Shift, I got the climax solo. Lewie plays the more melodic solo, right before the climax of the song. I had to come up with something that was going to take the song’s excitement to the top. basically, it was my job as the soloist to take the listener, tear off their face, kick them in the gut, and then shove it down their throat. Do you think that this can be accomplished by playing some laid back melodic stuff? HECK NO!!! We don’t want to put anyone to sleep, we want them to head bang until their neck gives out.
The point is that you should always establish a goal for your solo before you start writing. Relating this back to being catchy……….. if you start off and tell yourself that you are going to come up with something catchy, you usually do. When you begin with the end in mind, it is a very powerful tool for achieving your objective. Knowing your objective before you start writing is very important.
Most people never notice this, but most of those great classic solos that everyone just loves, use the same, or similar chord progressions. Actually, most hit songs in pop, rap, metal, etc use the exact same chord progressions too (Imagine that). What sells in one genre, sells in all the others. A little known fact in guitar soloing, yet it is one of THE MOST OBVIOUS THINGS, is that the chord progression you are playing over is literally half of the solo’s “feel.” The individual’s vibrato, phrasing, etc has a lot to do with it, but again, in my humble opinion, it is equally weighted with the actual chord progression being played under the solo.
Ever notice that when soloing over a vii – IV – V progression, it doesn’t seem to matter what licks you play, as long as it is diatonic, it sounds catchy? (or if your into jazz, anything goes… then again you probably wouldn’t be playing over a 6 – 4 -5) Hell, you can play a one note bend and it sounds good over that.
Here is a fun little exercise:
- Go pull up some kind of file sharing software (I wonder if the RIAA or Metallica will sue me for encouraging you to do this? haha).
- Download a bunch of songs where you think that there is a brilliant solo. Instead of listening to the lead guitarist, listen to the riff’s chordal movement.
- Listen to about 10-20 songs.
- Figure out the notes in each solo riff that are being played. I don’t mean transcribe it, just map the chord movement out on your guitar and then write down the key your in and the progression being used.
- You should start noticing similarities in the chord progressions. Like I said earlier, their are a few golden progressions that you can never go wrong soloing over. Once you figure them out, you can cut your solo’s all down to 1 note because the chords will do the work.
I’m going to make some recommendations:
The Motor Cycle Driver – Joe Satriani
Kissing the Shadows – Children of Bodom
Beat It – Michael Jackson (Van Halen on Guitar)
Cemetery Gates – Pantera
One – Metallica (The 1st Clean Solo)
Back in Black – AC/DC
All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
As I am – Dream Theater
Listen to the solos in these songs. The progressions under the solos should give you a good idea of what I am taking about.
So far we know the context of the song, we’ve got an idea of where we want to go in the solo, and finally we have a catchy chord progression to solo over. So, now what? How are going to write a catchy solo? Well, it is time for you as a soloist to shine. It is time for you to put down on tape what makes you unique. Let’s talk about phrasing. There are 2 really important elements to think about when soloing. If you want to be catchy, you have to master them both.
The first one is rhythm. If you were to play a 1 note solo, the only way to make it interesting would be to do it rhythmically. I once saw an excellent exercise on a Scott Henderson video that teaches this concept quite well. What he did was take 3 notes in a pentatonic scale (you pick the 3 notes you want to use) and make a solo out of it over a funk vamp. All he did was concentrate on playing different rhythms and phrasing melodies with those rhythmic variations. Quite frankly, it was the best 3 note solo I’ve ever heard! Practice improvising over a funk vamp just using those 3 notes. NO FAST PLAYING either. The goal is to practice coming up with rhythms to make those 3 boring notes interesting. Here are some ideas:
- Play with different rhythmic variations on 1 or 2 notes
- Take a lick and play it on the beat, then reverse it to be off the beat.
- Play in a different time signature than the riff. Example play a lick that is 5 quarter notes in 4/4 time. Every time the riff repeats, a new note will be on the downbeat until the riff cycles through.
Daily practice of an exercise like this will greatly improve your ability to come up with catchy rhythms on the fly.
The second element of major importance is the contour of the phrase. By contour, I mean: Do the notes go up? Do they go down? Does the phrase start going up, but then come down at the end?
This concept is incredibly important when doing fast alternate picking/legato lines. If you want to play fast and make your phrases catchy, you better have exciting contour to your licks. You’ve got to make your phrases go somewhere. They just can’t sound like random fast garbage. One thing that helps is to look at the chord progression. When you start a phrase, see if you can land on the next chord change, or change the contour of the phrase on that chord change.
Look at the chord also that you start the phrase on. What chord is it? What scales or modes can you use over it? Approaching each chord, or each small section of chords like it is its own key signature. This is a very jazzy approach to soloing.
Not All Scales Were Created Equally
Some scales just naturally sound a lot catchier due to the intervals being used in relation to the key. The minor pentatonic scale is one of these. While it maybe hard for some people to pull of ragging picking and legato licks in this scale, if you can, it can make for some really catchy stuff! Ever notice how about 85% of all commercial rock/metal solos have some kind of pentatonic wank in them? There is a reason for this.
What I’m getting at, is that if you are having a hard time coming up with something catchy that rips, then this is one of those great fool proof ways you can fall back on every time to get the job done. I am not saying make all of your solos penta-wankfests! Use it tastefully, because it is already over done. Incorporating advanced shred pentatonic scale techniques can really differentiate you sound when your doing this kind of soloing too.
You are an artist. You have a musical tool box. Use it! Use all of it! It is good to be catchy, it is good to rip, and it is good to be really soulful. Your job is to make sure that you use everything you know to paint a musical picture. Writing catchy solos is a very important part of the listening experience. I love it when I am listening to a good song and the lead guitar player belts out an awesome solo. The rewind button on the CD player is instantly administered for a second helping. I think that a lot of shred guitar players loose sight of actually making music when they solo. Guitar isn’t a competition, it isn’t a marathon, it is an art form. Making an effort to create catchy solos, at least from your own perspective, will definitely make playing more enjoyable. No matter what you do, you are never going to make everyone happy. As long as you can enjoy what your doing, then that is all that matters.
Have fun and practice hard. Until next time………….
Hit me up: