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Please explain to me what I am lacking for writing literally any good guitar stuff (riffs, solo etc). I am into progressive metal music, and I am self taught with enough music theory to theoretically write stuff of my own. I do know that we have to give emphasis on chord tones of the chord progression and can add color notes(chromatic notes), slides, tapping, bends etc.

I usually start with some random noodling to come up with a pretty cool phrase for a riff, but the problem is I can not complete the riff or write the next riff, or I just go off in some different direction with no sense. I am aware that it doesn't fit or sound connected (or it feels incomplete in some way), and the same thing happens when writing solos. I did learn few songs by ear in the same genre. What exactly am I doing wrong, and why can't I write cool phrasing like my guitar heroes? I specifically listen to Periphery, Plini, Intervals, Animal As Leader, Nik Nocturnal, Polyphia etc.

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    This comment won't help you immediately, in a few years, come back and listen to some of the stuff you've written. You'll be excited and appreciate some of them in ways you couldn't before. It's because a large part of liking music has to do with expectation and surprise. And precisely because you're so demanding of yourself, you're not gonna be totally satisfied with anything you write, immediately. Write for the long run, trusting that every piece you write, even if "unsatisfactory," sharpens your blade. (I'm learning Infinite Regression right now, next up Tarred & Feathered.) – Andrew Cheong Nov 8 '20 at 22:52
  • You perhaps see music theory as some kind of knowledge rather than as a toolset for composition. Try watching Nahre Sol's video on piano composition complexity, where she uses music theory knowledge to convert the happy birthday theme into deeply complex and rich compositions: youtube.com/watch?v=m6buIdQacoM&ab_channel=WIRED The idea being that a sound theoretical knowledge gives you 2 things: (1) The toolset to do lots of interesting things to simple musical ideas (2) an understanding of the feelings evinced by said tools, so that you can write what you want to really express. – Marko Nov 9 '20 at 9:12
  • It seems like you're approaching music from a very technical perspective. A solo is a bit like a story - you have to be trying to express something, to tell a story, to support the theme of the song. If you're having trouble, it might be that you simply don't have a theme or a story for your song - you don't have an idea of what you're trying to say. You have a dictionary with all the ingredients, but a story is not about grammar or vocabulary; it's about a struggle, an achievement, defeat, an idea or concept. What are you trying to write about? – J... Nov 9 '20 at 13:13
  • As an exercise - pick a two minute scene from a movie you like and write a solo to go along with the images. Try to express the feelings of the actors, the action of the scene, the majesty of a moving landscape, an epic battle... whatever. Watch how you can suddenly create when you put a story to your music. If this works for you, you're probably not short on theory - just on content. – J... Nov 9 '20 at 13:15
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I think this is a pretty common problem. There are lots of guitarist that have plenty of technical chops as well as theory knowledge, but are unable to create actually musical solos.

A big part of the problem is thinking too small-scale: noodling around in a loop may indeed end up with a short snippet that sounds pretty cool, but often no way to go any further with it, as you seem to have found out yourself. It's the equivalent of a painter fully fletching out one character in a big still-all-white painting, including the expression in the eyes and all, only to then notice that the character can't possibly stand in that spot within the composition.

Start the other way around: “pencil sketches”. Work out the rough shape of the solo in one go, without noodling around on any details. Maybe sing the thing without using the guitar at all.
Only when you have a sketch that makes sense as a musical whole, start going into the details for how exactly the individual parts are played for best effects – you may find that this will then fall quite naturally in place. In fact, lots of great solos were actually improvised in one take and then more or less left as they were.

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    Great suggestion of not using the guitar, I think it’s important skill to be able to envision and hear music in your head without having an instrument in your hands. – John Belzaguy Nov 7 '20 at 1:17
  • @JohnBelzaguy - true! But then to be able to immediately grab your instrument and turn the music in your head into real music is even better. – Tim Nov 7 '20 at 8:44
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    Absolutely, being able to make the connection from the mind to the instrument is a huge step in a musicians development, one that not everyone can achieve. – John Belzaguy Nov 7 '20 at 8:50
  • @JohnBelzaguy - it's something I do with students. Sing/hum/whistle 3 or 4 notes - having played one note prior as a start note - then find those notes on the instrument. Then sing a reply, play it. Can get to quite long phrases, ending with the reply following directly. For most, eventually it becomes, should I say, automatic. Sort of extension to I play a phrase, student repeats it on instrument. As in the aural part of a lot of exams. – Tim Nov 7 '20 at 9:02
  • I'm going to be a contrarian here. I don't agree that telling people to hear music in their head (auralizing) is useful advice for writing music or improvising. I suspect that most people giving this advice are not very good themselves at auralizing, because if they were, – Robert Morelli Nov 9 '20 at 4:20
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You are not doing anything wrong, being creative, improvising and composing ideas can be very difficult. It one of the things that takes musicians the longest amount of time to get good at. When I come across someone who is struggling with creativity I like to pass on a 3 word phrase that is associated with the late great Clark Terry, one of the finest and I believe underrated jazz trumpeters. It’s very possible he is not the originator of this phrase but that’s not as important as the message. It can apply to any style of music, not just jazz: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.

Imitate: Find transcriptions or transcribe and learn phrases, sections, or even entire solos that were played and recorded by musicians that you admire. There are benefits to trying to learn how to play something that’s already been done and is established.

Assimilate: Once you start imitating, go beyond the notes. Think about and analyze what they are playing and the and figure out what about it makes it work so well. “I see he is playing notes x,y,z against chord q, what is the relationship between them?” Listen to the contrast between the verses and choruses of songs or what a player does to develop a solo you like and ask yourself what you think makes them work.

Innovate: Once you can physically play phrases and riffs and start to figure out what it is about them you like and why they work well the next step is to try and make your own music. Having the ability to play and understanding the music of your heroes should open up your creativity much more than just knowing theory, scales and chord progressions.

7

It seems like you are expecting too much of yourself. You say things like "I learn a few songs...". How many and for how many years have you been at it?

Most players devote a lot of years to transcribing other people's music and learning other guitarist's solos before venturing off in their own direction. Have you tried modifying a solo you know by someone else? This is a great way to start getting creative. Put on you favorite song and play with it. If you can get a version without the solo track that would be great but if not then you might have to play over them (a little messy). First play the solo with then as close as note for note as you can or care to (most of us don't commit to learning note for note). Then once you feel comfortable try picking a place where you can move away form the recorded solo and try your own thing. This could be going in a different direction than the soloist, or repeating a lick that you like. This is particularly easy with guitarists that leave some space. In Blues you often have solos with punchy licks separated by a lot of space. In this case you can fill in that space with a response. For prog metal that may not be possible. Another thing you can try is pretending you are guitarist #2, like in Iron Maiden or Judas Priest and try harmonizing or playing a counter point with the recorded solo. This process will get you familiar with the structure of a solo and what types of patterns sound good.

Keep in mind that one way to think of a solo is as a "Variation On A Theme" so you don't want to noodle around, you want to take what you know and use it to your advantage by reversing licks, playing them on different modes, etc.

It sounds like you have a bag of techniques and don't know what to do with them. Understanding how songs are structured helps and while music theory is helpful here the best way to learn is to keep copying players you like. Emulate them. Steal from them. You don't want to become a player that sounds just like 'Person X' but if you're creative that won't happen. You'll go through a period where you do but come out the other end with an original sound.

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    This idea of extending original solos is excellent. The RGT diploma exams (UK) use this idea: choose from a list of songs, play through first time exactly as on the track - same phrases, same nuances, same sound as the original artiste. Then play several more verses, using the same techniques as the artiste, but using your own ideas. All this really concentrates one to 'get into the mind of' whoever. It's challenging, but fun. – Tim Nov 7 '20 at 8:52
  • Stealing fact never appealed me, it's like that I am not having ability to build music of my own or from scratch(right?). – user9339131 Nov 7 '20 at 12:46
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    None of the music you listen to has been built from scratch. It's a long line of "who influenced who". – Edward Nov 8 '20 at 1:22
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    @user9339131, Perhaps I'm being a bit facetious when I say "stealing" out right, but I did explain myself. Unless you live in a vacuum you are stealing whether you know it or not. It's called being influenced. Many great musicians have unintentionally lifted riffs from other music sometimes w/o even knowing it. You are depriving yourself of one of the best methods of learning music by avoiding this. Many of the so called "original" licks or riffs can be traced back 100s of years. – ggcg Nov 8 '20 at 14:23
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    Igor Stravinsky: “good composers borrow, great composers steal” Just adding that for fun... – John Belzaguy Nov 8 '20 at 16:59
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Music theory spends an awful lot of time talking about chords, scales and rhythm, but not as much time talking about how to structure melodies and songs. There are a lot of other things that go into making a great guitar solo, and you may be overlooking those things in your listening and studies.

Think about songs like a book or movie, and then let's say a guitar solo is like a car chase or love scene or something within the story. Chords and scales are like English grammar - they help explain how language works, which is useful. And bends and slides, well they are like explosions and car crashes and other fun things that happen. But what about the actual plot? What makes you tense in some parts and relaxed in others? Why was the twist at the end so awesome? Actually was the twist right at the end, or maybe 80% of the way through? Come to think of it, have you ever seen a twist 5 minutes into a movie? What makes you hate the bad guy so much and root for the good guy? What made you cry? Why exactly were you still thinking about the story two months later? These are things that can still be studied and learned.

Listen to some of your favorite songs and start to think about things like this: is it faster in parts and slower in others. Where does it sit in the pocket (have you studied the pocket?)? Where is it faster and where is it slower? Does the rhythm appear to push or pull? When it's pulling, does it sound like the guitar is being pulled back by some invisible force, or is it the guitar that's pulling everything else? A pulling effect can be achieved by a number of techniques: low slow notes, playing behind the beat, and by bends and slides etc. But how does this contribute to the overall story telling? Is there a feeling of tension and relaxation? Is there a feeling of sadness turning it happiness? Can you be more precise about those emotions (e.g. instead of sadness, think about grief, longing, loss; instead of just saying 'happy', think about excitement, fun, love)? Is there repetition within the solo? How would you describe the emotional effect of that repetition? Is there a feeling of surprise at any point? What made it surprising? Does the guitar tone change at any point? Did the change in tone cause a feeling of tension, release, happiness, sadness, excitement or some other emotion? Did the individual licks tend to go from low to high, high to low, or some other direction or shape? Did the guitar solo start in the lower notes and end on the high notes? What effect did this have? What was your favorite part of the solo and why exactly?

You probably have always subconsciously listened to music this way, and before your mind started filling up with chords and scales you probably even spoke about music in this way, but now you need to take your advanced education and start to re-analyze the emotional techniques at play. Take a look at this Jacob Collier's video for more inspiration.

3

Remove the guitar and look at the music

Seriously, step away from the guitar. It's limiting your conception of the problem.

The problem isn't that you can't write a good guitar solo. It's that you can't write a good tune. Whether that tune is played on guitar or Mongolian noise flute is irrelevant. When you get good at working out a tune that fits, you'll be able to create solos - but you can't start with technique and work backwards to get a solo. At best, technique lets you know a few options you can use in solos, but it can't create a solo.

Start with your voice

The obvious way to start is to hum a tune. You might not be able to do the same speed, but it doesn't matter. The most important "solo" in a song is the hook riff, and those almost universally are hummable. Keep thinking, and keep humming along to songs to come up with hook or backing riffs. Record them, play them back, and see if you like them. You don't have to be a great singer, because you're not listening back for the singing quality, you're listening for the intent in the riff.

And then when you've got a tune, you need to be able to translate it to your fingers. That's harder than it sounds, because whilst muscle memory is your friend for learning patterns, it is absolutely the enemy for new ideas. So having got the hang of humming riffs, a great exercise is to hum your riff and play the same notes on the guitar. Hum each note and play that note on the guitar. And only that note - don't throw in extra hammer-ons and pentatonic frills around it and things like that, because that's using unimaginative muscle memory instead of musical imagination.

This is remarkably hard to do, but it's really good practise. This exercise forces your brain to set up the same link between tune and fingers that you already have between tune and voice. We can all hum tunes instinctively, but the mark of a good player is to be able to play tunes instinctively on your instrument the same way. Some old blues guitarists used to do this routinely, and you'll hear them in the recordings singing their guitar melody line as they play.

Keep in the zone

Don't rush your riffs. If you can only play imaginative, melodic riffs more slowly when you're starting, that's fine. Just keep in the zone where it's your musical imagination and "humming" guiding your fingers, and not muscle memory to throw in the same unimaginative thing you've done a million times before. As with all things musical, the more you do it, the more able you'll get at doing it faster. Look at the intro to The Prophecy by Iron Maiden, for instance - it's not fast, but it's super effective.

2

I think it's a lot simpler than some of the other answers suggest. You wrote:

I usually start with some random noodling to come up with a pretty cool phrase for a riff

Ok that's good. If invention is actually 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, then you've account for the 1% and your work has just begun. Note that "pretty cool" should not be your standard for phrases you write. Your personal standard should be "better than anything ever played by any guitarist ever". You probably won't ever write such a phrase or solo, but my answer is that if the best solo ever isn't your goal with every solo you write, then you probably won't make it anywhere close to contention.

Ok, so how do you make your phrases better? And how do you make your solos better? Hard work!

  • After coming up with a "pretty cool" phrase, keep working on it. Play it different ways. Change the timing, invert the intervals, make variations.
  • Look for other forms of the pretty cool phrase (hereafter PCP) that are also pretty cool or better. Form a library of PCPs (write - tab is fine - or record them) that are all related to each other.
  • If you don't already know how to make chord progressions, this would be a good time to start learning. You can also copy chord progressions from songs you like. Take your library of related PCPs and transpose them to work over different chords. See how they feel over the different chords and note when you like a PCP better over a certain chord.
  • If you don't already know your scales, this would be a good time to start learning. Think about what kinds of scales your PCPs fit into and use that in two ways: To suggest chord progression and also look for the half steps. The half steps in any scale are where the flavor is. Make sure you know where you've got the flavor in your PCPs.
  • Ideally, all the hard work on the PCPs and working with chords and scales will start to gel and you'll find two related PCPs that sound nice played one right after the other. Now you've started to put together phrases into solos and songs. This make a take a long time. The more you do this, the faster you'll become at doing it.
  • Finally, never forget about the importance of repetition in music. Some of the most famous and popular music is only built from a small number of PCPs that were refined into great melodies and then just repeated in interesting patterns. If you've got the right 2 - 5 notes in the right rhythm, you can repeat them and generate a lot of exciting music. I'm thinking "Whole Lotta Love" by Led Zeppelin or the shark theme from Jaws by John Williams.

There's no step by step process that we can give that will help you make a PCP into a solo, but by doing the hard work on your PCPs (and not just being satisfied with them), you'll start to generate more ideas and hone your musical mind.

Also, with theory your goal should be to learn the scales and chords and cadences and then force yourself not to think about them (or only think about them a little) when writing. They are not tools for writing, they are tools for honing what you've already written. Use them to analyze a PCP and understand how that PCP can fit in other musical contexts.

Another good way to use music theory to write is to pick a "rule" to break. Music theory isn't really a set of rules, but if you temporarily imagine it as a set of rules and then pick one that you're going to break with your solo/riff/whatever, that often generates some great ideas. Also picking a rule to follow and then picking a time to break that rule helps. Example, I once decided I was going to write a melody on the whole tone scale. I wrote several boring candidate melodies. Then I accidentally played a note that was not in the whole tone scale and it made the boring melody I was playing at the time sound amazing. So it's a whole tone melody but with one "wrong" note inserted at the right time that makes it pop. After that I started doing that stuff all the time. Pick a scale to play in and then add a note to your PCP that is not in that scale.

1

I think a common thread among these answers seems to be "If your approach to composition is not pleasing you, change how you are approaching the design process".

I notice that your post tags Guitar and Metal.

Try listening to other instruments and how they 'tend' to approach 'solo' composition. Check out other genres and how the greats out there do it.

I have found that becoming hyper aware of my sensation that something I am performing 'is not unique' then STOPPING the moment I have that sensation-back up-try again has been fruitful...and developing this skill to be usable 'on the fly' has really enhanced my live performance.(though sometimes a familiar approach is valid and even preferable...so be gentle with this).

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