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Reader questions: Crafting melodic guitar solos 101

Another reader question and answer, this time about composing melodies for guitar solos.

…I was wondering: do you think notes up first before you get a cool run to practice or how do you make up these melodic surreal sounds?
— Jas

Lifes too short
“Melodic surreal sounds” — I love it!

I wish I had a genuinely instructive answer to this question, but I’m not really sure where my melodies come from. However, I can outline the steps I take to get there — perhaps they will work for you, too.

When I have a solo to do, I loop the solo section in my recording software and improvise over it until something “clicks.” (Clickage is totally subjective, of course!) Theory isn’t relevant for me at this stage; I play by ear, only resorting to theory if I have absolutely no inspiration whatsoever and need to take a more analytical approach just to get rolling.

Sooner or later, an idea will emerge (from wherever the heck they come from) and then I record it. Sometimes I can do a solo all in one sitting, but if I’m not feeling inspired it can take several sessions before I’ve got enough ideas. If inspiration is lacking, I’d much rather shorten a solo than spend a lot of time filling up the measures with uninspiring wankage that isn’t fun to play.

Additionally, if it’s hard to play an idea up to speed, I use a program called Transcribe to loop the backing at a slower tempo , increasing gradually to where it should be.

That’s really all there is to it, but here are some of the general principles that I keep in mind:

  1. Go for strong notes rather than weak ones, particularly at the beginning and end of phrases.
  2. Add unexpected-but-cool notes if possible.
  3. Go for melodies and phrases, rather than widdly, meandering stuff.
  4. “Just say no” to uninspiring chords — or change them until they work!

For some backings it’s easy to come up with a ton of ideas, for others it’s a royal pain. It helps to have chord progressions with lots of “movement” in them. If you’re familiar with the solo section from the Stream of Passion songs “Haunted” or “Embrace the Storm,” those are good examples of what I mean by chords with “movement.” In “Haunted” I think I even asked to change one of the E minor chords to major to be able to add more movement. A more mainstream example would be Steve Vai’s “For the Love of God.” Lots of movement there.

Finally, if you just can’t make the chords work for you (or aren’t allowed to change them), I’d decline to play on the song. Life is too short to play over shitty chords.

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+ Comment by Kristof
2007-07-26 14:37:11

“For the Love of God” … oh how I love that song.

I’ll check out the Transcribe one! I have another, related, question for you: how do you cope with solo’s you can’t play or has this never happened to you? I mean: solo’s which have notes that you can’t possibly reach, an arpeggio you would like to lay down that is just too complicated or maybe thinking “this needs two-hand tapping” but you’re about 12 fingers short …

And another related question: have you ever experienced how you would have a solo in your head and when you start playing it, after a few notes, you can’t remember how it went? This happens a lot to me, sometimes because I have very bad hearing and have to analyse a in-head solo note for note to be able to play it on guitar.

+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-27 23:24:01

Yeah, definitely check out Transcribe. I love it so much that I’m actually working on a review for the site. Coming soon.

And yes, I am constantly coming up with stuff in my head that I can’t actually play. It’s frustrating. What I do in that case is to either practice until I can do it, or give up and try something else. It depends on how far out of my skill range it is.

The only time I’ve ever come up with something that I can’t remember is when melodies or song ideas have come to me when I’ve not had a way to record them. Like when I’m out exercising or driving. That’s why I try to remember to take my digital voice recorder with me wherever I go — even jogging.

+ Comment by JT
2007-07-26 17:20:25

Jas, I don’t know how long you have been playing, but in case you’re starting out, here are some tips that have helped me (hopefully this makes some sense, English isn’t my first language).

-Take some of your favorite songs and play along the vocal melodies. It’s easier than to analyze the solos themselves right away, and it’s a fun way to etch into your brain which note is found on which fret, and which notes and patterns tend to work well together.

-Once you’re comfortable with playing the vocal melody, start adding extra stuff here and there. For example, when the singer is maintaining a whole note, play four quarter notes instead. You can often use patterns made of the same notes you found when playing the vocal melody as it is. The patterns you think of when improvising like this can be potential guitar solo material as well.

Even though I haven’t got many scales memorized by heart, this kind of vocal line playing and improvising has definitely helped me create better melodies for solos. Hopefully it helps you a bit too.

+ Comment by Chen
2007-07-27 06:19:07

Totally valuable advices. Thank you so much Lori.
Also for those who uses myspace, here’s a feedreader widget you can put on your myspace which can read all of Lori’s feeds

+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-27 23:25:05

Thanks, Chen! I’m glad you liked it. :banana:

+ Comment by CapnZilog
2007-07-27 09:02:08

Another spot-on thread. I’m totally in awe of people that can compose with nothing more than pen and paper (keyboardists, usually) but it’s Lori’s method that works for me. To which, I must add, the story of how David Gilmour comped his solo to “Comfortably Numb” was one of those “aha” moments that got me thinking about the power of breaking down large musical problems into smaller pieces.
Eventually, my own approach (taking Lori’s rules into account) evolved into something like this:

1) Solo over the backing enough times to get a feel for where the most inspiring section is. Maybe it takes a certain number of bars for the backing’s potential to “blossom”, or maybe it only blossoms at the beginning or near the end. Call that section your “Current Favorite Section” (CFS).

2) Loop your Current Favorite Section until you come up with a catchy phrase, and don’t worry if it’s short. In fact, good phrases seem to tend to fall in the 4-8 bar range, and if they’re much longer than that it could be a sign that the phrase is starting to turn into a wank.

3) Advance to your next Current Favorite Section and repeat until done.
The reason this works is because you’re starting small with the most inspiring section at a time when you have little musical leverage. But later on, as more of the “holes” get filled in, the less inspiring sections become easier to write for because you can see more of the big picture.

At the end, it’s probably a good idea to perform a “polish pass” over your creation and relearn it from scratch, judging it for continuity and flow. Chances are, you’re probably very close to correct already, and your final result just needs a few tweaks.


+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-29 16:30:02

Excellent advice as usual, Cap’nZ! And it’s EXACTLY how I’m approaching the Warbride tunes I’m working on. Yes, finally my computer is stable and I’ve been able to get to tracking my solos. Oh, my aching fingers!

Anyway, I cut out the sections and render little mp3s, which I then put into my Transcribe! software and loop. That lets me slow things down if I want to work on something I can’t quite do, or if the backing is too quick to let me figure out something complex to tempo.

Transcribe! f’n ROCKS — I really must post a full review soon.

+ Comment by Kristof
2007-07-27 09:25:57

I think I even asked to change one of the E minor chords to major to be able to add more movement.

Very interesting, given the difference in feel between a minor and a major chord – especially the E minor since that’s a favourite chord of people playing tuned in E. The E minor is a lot darker, which is why I find it interesting that you would actually change it to a major. I’ll have to relisten the solo there again!

Also, did they change the chord for the whole song or just the part where you would do your solo?

+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-27 23:31:28

You know, I don’t actually remember. Originally there were vocals in the solo part, which the Metal Diva in me couldn’t live with and asked them to take out because they were clashing with what I wanted to play there. It was a major/minor thing, if I recall correctly. Marcela was hearing the chord as minor and I was hearing it as major, so when both hit the third, dissonance ensued…

However, I think chord pattern for solo section is different from the verses and chorus, so any changes would have only been there.

+ Comment by Christian
2007-07-27 12:40:42

Kristof: I can’t recall the chords for “Haunted” from the top of my head now, so here’s my take why you would like to change an E minor for a E major chord.

A very easy explanation (at least for theory) would be that if the E minor would have been a dominant chord in a minor progression (like Em Am) to change it to a dominant chord (E7, wihtout the 7) to emphasize the dominant character (there’s a tritone between third and seventh that wants to be resolved). So you get more of a tension and release movement.
And the cliche wants you to play A harmonic minor over the E major, which sounds very Yngwie :grin:

But that’s just a shot in the dark.


+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-27 23:31:54

It’s. All. Greek. To. Me. ;)

+ Comment by jomaheux
2007-07-27 17:33:19

Christian is right about the dominant chord.

In the case of “Haunted”,that chord happens to be an F# leadin to B minor.
One of the E chord is “majored” in the progression on which Marcela is signing.It’s being emphazed by the descending bass line that has a chromatic “moment” between A and G. :geek:

BTW,my most favorite amongst all of those great solos is the one in “Calliopeia”.

+ Comment by Lorinator
2007-07-27 23:35:43

Thanks, Jomaheux. Calli was the hardest one for me to do. It’s in a weird time signature (11/8?) and even though I liked the drama in the chords, it took me forever to figure out something I could do for them. But I liked the way it turned out in the end. My favorite part of the song is the instrumental section before the solo. That was always fun to play.


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