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I have always been fascinated with guitar solos and am committed to learning. However, I can't really afford a tutor and want to dig in all by myself. I have been practicing for the last 2 months now and have improved gradually although not yet perfect. I have been working on my accuracy and speed. I know there's a lot to learn. all i want to know how to keep things going and what to do to get better at it. What are the major things that i should be working on. note: I just want to play cool solos and licks.

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    Hi Alok, welcome to the site. On this site we prefer to have or questions as specific as possible. My feeling is that your question is very broad and won't be answerable in a definitive way. Can you be more specific in what aspect of playing gives you trouble? – Tim H Aug 23 '18 at 9:16
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You need to develop two skills or behaviors, both of which are a requirement for improvisational soloing:

  1. Idea generation : your "inner self" (or whatever you want to call it) has to generate musical ideas that would be nice to hear. In a way, you hear things in your head.
  2. Ability to play the ideas. Being able to realize the ideas your inner self wants to hear. Make the things you hear in your head become reality.

And these two must work together so that the idea generation only wants to do things that are realizable, i.e. when performing, only want to play things you can play with your current skills. Nobody has to know what you cannot yet do.

For some people, part 1 is the problem: ideas just don't come up. They have been taught, tamed, domesticated to only receive external ideas from outside, and play those ideas. And for some others, part 2 is the problem: they may have ideas, but they cannot carry them out - or they cannot limit the set of "wants" to the set of actually doable things, so it sounds awful.

The recipe for developing both parts is, play by ear. Listen and repeat. Melodies, rhythms, chords. Then play variations, try different decisions and feel how it changes. What if you had done something different - you'll only start to understand how things work if you try doing it differently. Playing a musical idea has to be your decision, and you develop the sense for decision-making only by playing (as in, child's play), toying around with things. Repeat, repeat, repeat. By playing by ear what you hear, you develop your musical vocabulary, you learn phases, and by playing different variations you lean what the words and phrases mean i.e. what happens if you say that in some context and situation. If you only play exact pre-made phrases in each context, you do learn the phrases, but it's just dumb repeating without understanding. You need to know or be able to imagine what would have happened, if you had said something else, only then you know what the phrase or word means.

When you do this by listening instead of looking at notation, you break the harmful "chain of command" from your eyes to your hands, that's taming down your idea generator.


Edit: looking at the other answers, I see that the above might be a bit too abstract. For more practical advice... Learn the following:

  • The major scale. And get to know where "home base" is there, i.e. the first note. Where "1" is. When learning to play melody and chord phrases, you must be able to relate the notes you play to the scale. Where the notes sit on the scale, and if there are unexpected "weird" notes that are not part of the scale.
  • Basic triad chords in the scale/key. I, IV and V, and the parallel minor VIm, IIm, III, and any other chords in the song you're going to solo over. And where the notes of those chords sit on the major scale. When playing solo lines, you must know what notes there are in the sounding (or imaginary) chords at each point in time.
  • Learn to find chords to songs by ear. Simple children's songs at first (Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, London Bridge is Falling Down, etc.) and then more complicated things.
  • Learn to find the key a song is in. You must know where "1" is, i.e. the first note of the scale, or otherwise you can't see what is up and what is down or anything.
  • Rhythm: you must know, or have a feeling of where "1" is in time. (though for most people this is not a problem)
  • Learn to improvise different alternative chords. What chord substitutions can be done and how they affect the set of chords that could come next. Because when you play a solo, you are most certainly going to be poking stuff at the chords, so you must know what you're doing. Otherwise you're adding random uncontrolled notes, running and waving your arms around in the room eyes closed. You must have a feeling of what other stuff there is, or you'll bump to the things and hurt someone. ;)

The reason you need to know chords in order to play solo lines is, solo note pitches are not isolated and separate from chords. It's all the same. Lead melody or solo, and chords are part of the same whole, and depending on when and what notes you play, you're making changes to the chords in a way. By playing a note, any note, you're either agreeing with, adding to, or creating tensions or other modifications to the harmonic expectations.

The rhythm thing is important, because the timing position of a note affects its perceived harmonic meaning. If it's on the beat (or stronger beat), it has a greater harmonic weight than if it's not on the beat (perceived as "passing tone"). Whatever you play on the strong beat is effectively a chord-tone, whether you want it or not. You're making statements about the chords. Even if, and particularly if, you're playing a single-note solo line alone without any accompaniment, you are implying chords. What chords do you have in mind? You must have some chords in mind, and you must know what notes there would be in those chords, even if you don't actually play the notes. That's the "plot" of your story. You don't show the audience all the details, but you still have the big plot in mind. The chord progression, the movements, are the big plot.

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"I just want to play cool solos and licks"


I'm going to assume that you want to learn how to improvise cool solos, and put licks into your songs. So, here we go. I'm going to focus mainly on the soloing part, since I've never really experimented with licks myself and will probably get stuff wrong.


The short answer:

  1. Find out what key you're playing in and whether you're playing a repeating chord pattern (such as 12 bar blues).

  2. Learn scales. The good ones to know are the major and minor pentatonic, and the major and minor scales.

  3. Play the scale with the starting note on the root note of the key you're in.

  4. Practise.

  5. Practise.

  6. etc...

To learn licks, you can make some up yourself OR you can learn licks from YouTube videos and listening to people's music. Make sure you know whether the lick is for a major or minor scale, and where along the scale it starts. Then, while improvising along that scale, you can reach that note and play the lick.


The long answer:


1. Find out what key you're playing in and whether you're playing a repeating chord pattern.

There are some common chord patterns that would be useful to know. It's not necessary to know the names of the chords, but you need to know where each chord is in relation to the root note of the key:

enter image description here

The 12 bar blues uses three chords. I is the chord on the first note of the scale, IV is the fourth, V is the fifth.

If your root note is on the bottom E string, you can easily find 4 on the A string at the same fret, and 5 two frets above it. This will be handy during step 2.


2. Learn scales.

The major and minor pentatonic scales look like this:

enter image description here

The black notes are the Root note of the key. So, if you're playing in D Minor, slide up the E string to fret 10 so that you're starting on a D and then play the minor pentatonic.

You can play the minor pentatonic over a major key to get a cheesy rock sound if you really want, but I'd recommend using major for major keys and minor for minor keys. Please don't play the major pentatonic over a minor key within earshot of me.

These pentatonic scales are great because there's two notes on each string and you can use hammer-ons and pull offs to legato your way up and down the scale really quickly. Just keep practising against a chord loop and work your way around the scale.

Now, I also mentioned the major and minor scales:

enter image description here

For some reason in these diagrams the root note is white, but anyway. Learning these two scales will let you sound a little more sophisticated than a simple pentatonic scale because you're using all 7 notes in the key. This gives you more freedom to play melodic lines within your improvisation. Notice that this time there's 3 notes per string. This means that you can, once again, use hammer-ons and pulloffs to legato up and down at high speed.

You can also switch between the pentatonic and normal scales while improvising. As long as you keep track of where the root note is, it will sound fine.


Advanced scales

If you haven't heard of pentatonic scales before, or you don't know music theory, I recommend ignoring everything below here.

There are five pentatonic scales and seven major modes which you can learn. Let's look at the pentatonic scales first:

enter image description here

Notice that the minor pentatonic is position 1 and the major pentatonic is position 2. This is because the spaces between the notes are the same, but in a different order. If you learn all five positions, you can slot them all together like this:

enter image description here

If you memorise this, you will be able to play the pentatonic scale and then change between the positions to move up and down the neck, as well as up and down the strings. This means you can climb higher and higher, and then drop back down to the lower register.

So, by the same logic, here's the positions of the major modes:

enter image description here

And when you slot them together you get this absolutely horrendous mess:

enter image description here

If, one day, you ever manage to memorise this absolute monstrosity, then you'll be able to improvise in both major and minor, and other obscure scales like Dorian "Happy minor" and Phrygian "Evil minor", or my personal favourite Lydian "Space scale". If you want to learn more about the major modes, I recommend this video by Signals Music Studio.

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    The three notes per string major is good, as the pattern follows 6/5th strings same, 4/3 strings the same, and 1/2 strings the same - fret-wise. So, easy to remember. – Tim Aug 23 '18 at 10:39
  • @Tim Yes. My favoute is the dorian because of the repeated 1-3-5 shape. Makes for some interesting patterns – Aric Aug 23 '18 at 11:12
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Most important is to learn some scales. Yes, it sounds boring, but certain sets of notes are often used to make certain styles and thus certain solos.

Once you can play up and down these scales, you'll soon realise that if you mix up the notes from just one, you're on the way to making up tunes and solos.

Let's take the first two - major and minor pentatonics. A good start point for beginning is Em pent. Start on the bottom string open, then 3rd fret. 5th string open, then 2nd fret. The same on 4th and 3rd string, then 2nd string open, then 3rd fret. Last note (for me) is top string open. Go up and down this until you can go from any note to any other. You'll probably find several notes in succession that remind you of existing solos. No surprise really, as so many solos do use this minor pent. If you can get someone to play some chords for you, Em, Am and Bm; or E7 A7 and B7 all work, you'll be able to hear which of the 11 notes fits each chord best. Try starting solos on one of the three E notes for good results initially.

From that, now use the same notes, but start in 6 string 3rd fret, and go up to 1st string 3rd fret. Now, it'll sound like a different set, a different scale. G major pent. Those notes will work over chords G, C and D.

This is turning out quite lengthy, so just adding a blue note into the Em pent - found at 5th string 1st fret and 3rd string 3rd fret will give a very different feel to the scale, and solos which you make from it.

After comes full major and natural minor scales, which give you more notes (15) to play with, and both are related strongly. I recommend getting an RGT grade I book, which explains this and more in detail, if you can't have a teacher.

So, knowing your scales, and being able to play them backwards, forwards and inside out, soon you'll hear a few notes that someone else plays, and you'll be able to visualise how you can play them on guitar. Then pick up said instrument and do it. And amaze everyone, including yourself !

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    Talking about scales may give the incorrect idea that a scale is magic powder that can be thrown anywhere in any order... as long as its from the right scale, everything is "correct". Wrong. Scales are usually quite nonsensical as musical phrases. You need to know a couple of scales, but just don't play them in your performance. :) Playing a scale is like saying ABCDEFG... as a phrase. Makes no sense. I'd say, spend 1 % practicing scales and 99 % playing sensible phrases and songs. It's much more important and useful to know which notes belong to the chord you want to play, IMO. – piiperi Aug 23 '18 at 10:46
  • @piiperi - my second para. states what you say. I really don't think anyone would believe that merely 'playing up and down scales' would produce good tunes - although it has been done exactly thus quite a few times! The idea is, those scale notes are embedded in muscle memory, so if one wanted to play 1,3,6,5,2, it would come out as such, without thought. Practising sensible phrases is o.k., but I wasted years doing that; if I'd realised a phrase was from a particular scale, I would not have wasted that time. You learn a phrase, that's all you learn. 'Give a man a fish...'- well-known adage. – Tim Aug 23 '18 at 10:59
  • @piiperi - and, actually, any note can 'belong' to a chord. It's how and where you play it that's the secret ! – Tim Aug 23 '18 at 11:01
  • It's surprising that you feel playing phrases was a waste of time. Looking at these scale-players, I've concluded that playing scales has messed up their thinking. Some fairly advanced players play the wrong notes and cannot hear e.g. that there's a II major in a chord progression, so they play an F on top of a D major chord, when a tune in Am uses the dorian feel for a short while. Something has gone a bit wrong for those guys. You seem to imply that you could just play scales and automatically recognize which of the notes belong to a chord. I haven't seen that happen. – piiperi Aug 23 '18 at 11:16
  • @piiperi - what I tried to say was that learning a phrase, which is what I did as a kid, only taught me that phrase. Had I realised, which only really happened when I started teaching music, 50 odd yrs ago, that each note from a particular phrase, had its special place within a scale,, and I knew that scale, I could play it before I even had the guitar strapped on. And transpose it, and play it in different octaves - not just slide it up the neck. your 'advanced' players obviously aren't doing the even more important thing than playing - listening, but still knowing scales helps them.. – Tim Aug 23 '18 at 11:32
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I am an advocate for learning about triads first, before putting too much energy into working with scales. There are four fundamental triads: major, minor, augmented, and diminished. But you could gain much from just an understanding of major and minor triads.

A C major triad contains the notes C, E, and G, while a C minor triad contains the notes C, E♭, and G. When you want to play a phrase over a C major chord (this could be a C, CMaj7, C6, Cadd9, C7, C9, C13, etc.) you could play a phrase composed of the notes C, E, and G. Similarly, when you want to play a phrase over a C minor chord (this could be a Cm, Cm6, Cm7, Cm9, etc.) you could play a phrase composed of the notes C, E♭, and G. When you gain some facility with this, you can add notes to flesh out the harmony a bit, e.g. add a B♭ to play C, E, G, B♭ over a C7 chord, or add an A to play C, E, G, A over a C6 chord.

To make this work, you need to know how to spell the triads for any chord root (not just for C), and you need to know the notes on the fretboard very well. You can also learn the fingering patterns for major and minor triads if you need to think in terms of shape, but you need to know the note names on the fretboard anyway so that you will know where to play your patterns.

This approach has a couple of advantages over a scale-based approach for learners, in my opinion. Learners tend to "noodle around" in a scale that more-or-less fits the chords of a tune, but better players are making note choices that (often, but not always) relate to the harmony of the tune. By focusing on chord tones first by using triads, you will develop a better sense of what the chords are doing, and your solos will relate better to the chords even when you are playing scales. Also, when you encounter a tune with some chords for which you can't readily think of a scale, you can use your knowledge of chord tones. For example, if you need to play over a C7♯11 but don't know about Lydian Dominant scales, you can remember that this is just a C major triad with a ♭7 and a ♯11, and play C, E, G, B♭, F♯.

Another useful thing to learn about would be pentatonic scales. There are both major and minor pentatonic scales, and you should learn them both. Happily, they share exactly the same pattern on the fretboard (but different root notes). Pentatonic scales (and the related blues scales) are very common in rock and pop music, and may be useful for one who wants to "play cool solos and licks." But again, strong lines based on scales often begin and/or end on chord tones, so it is valuable to know about triads and chord tones. A combination of triads and pentatonic scales could carry you a long way (although I am certainly not saying that you should not learn about other scales).

Most importantly, focus on one thing at a time. Whatever technical things you are learning about, focus on them for a while, then apply them to some actual music. Then move on to learn about something else. And always listen to your favorite players, and try to figure out what they are doing in their playing.

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I'm going to offer a different approach: Learn famous solos note-for-note.

Determine your favorite guitarist, go to a store or online and buy books or e-books or PDFs of their songs and pick one or two solos to start with. Go very slowly and learn to play the solos exactly the way they did.

Many people reading this are now thinking "but you'll only learn to imitate, not create!" My personal experience is that learning other guitarist's solos gave me command of the different musical elements necessary and some experience with how those elements can be combined, plus it built up my technique for actually playing the solos (e.g., learning when and how to use different kinds of vibrato, slides, bends, etc.) And it teaches how there are almost undetectable but important aspects of playing a solo, like timing and dynamics and just feel that are very important, and aren't generally captured at all in the theory of solos (scales and chords, etc.)

If you go this route, make sure you learn solos from different guitarists, not just 20 solos by the same person - otherwise you'll just sound like them and you won't find your own sound. Also consider spanning all the genres you like, and even force yourself into at least one genre you don't normally listen to.

  • I don't think this advice contradicts any of the others. But you can't do just this. If you don't know any scales whatsoever and cannot locate where the tonic is, don't know what's the difference between major and minor triads, or anything, being able to play existing solos note-for-note isn't going to make a cool solo. – piiperi Aug 24 '18 at 19:47
  • @piiperi I probably didn't make it clear that my suggestion is that one can learn scales and tonic notes and relationships to underlying chord progression by learning solos. That's how I learned. – Todd Wilcox Aug 24 '18 at 20:07
  • The format of this site is unrealistically simple. :) As if there was one "correct" answer to a question about music. I can sympathize with everybody here. Myself, I learned basically everything about music just by sitting at the piano, and it's like the music taught me. But I find it extremely improbable that anyone else could experience the same. – piiperi Aug 24 '18 at 20:46

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