What I Listen For In a Guitar Solo

I may be part of a dying breed of people who even care about guitar solos. But I love ’em. I play guitar but I loved solos long before I knew which end of the thing to hold. In fact it was the desire to play blues that inspired me to pick up the guitar in the first place.

And so for the two of you who may even care, I thought I’d break down what I love in a guitar solo. I’ll use certain solos to demonstrate, but this is by no means my list of favorite guitarists per se (although they’d all be on that list.)

–Phrasing – “Musical phrasing refers to the way a musician shapes a sequence of notes in a passage of music to express an emotion or impression,” saith Wikpedia.

It’s certainly that but it’s more than that. It’s akin somewhat to the way a person talks. Do they stop for breath or do they plow right through? My favorite guitarists allow the song to breathe, stopping at the end of a passage, often very short passages. You may not notice it but it’s there. Two masters of this are Eric Clapton and David Gilmour.

Listen to Gilmour’s solo on “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt2.” It starts at 2:11, he plays through 2:15, then another phrase, play, pause, etc. It’s all phrases. It breathes. You can sing it. It’s like somebody talking who stops for breath and doesn’t run on and on. There’s places where he doesn’t play at all. Space. Sinatra’s noted for his phrasing.

This is my problem with the shredders like Van Halen. Great player but take a breath once in a while, Eddie.

Spotify link

–Feel. Duke Ellington said, “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.” Well for me, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that feel. I don’t give a shit how technically competent a guitar player is. If he or she can’t convey feel, count me out. This is why I love blues players. Again, it’s all feel. It’s sensuous. Wild thing I think you… move.. me.

Check out Clapton’s intro to “Have You Ever Loved a Woman,” from the Layla sessions. It’s all great blues with tremendous feel and of course, tight, concise playing and phrasing.

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–Vibrato and bending. Vibrato is that that shaking/quivering of the string that gives it a voice-like quality. Violinists do it too. B.B. King played vibrato because when he first heard slide players he didn’t realize they were using a slide and tried to imitate them.

Bending, of course, is pushing that string so it pushes the note up a couple higher. (Or even lower.) Albert King used to bend halfway up the neck. Jazzers tend to do it less, rockers more, and don’t even try to play blues without it.

B. B. is the master of the vibrato and the man to copy. Everybody learned how to play vibrato and bend from B.B. (He learned it from, among others, T-Bone Walker.) It’s all there in his intro solo to “How Blue Can You Get.”

Spotify link

–Tone. If you read any guitar magazine for any length of time, they’re always talking about tone. Tone is that thick, warm sound or maybe even that brittle, sharp sound. SRV played with the heaviest gauge he could find and had tone to burn. As a dude on one site said, “to me, fat and round are the same – well defined, sustained, loose, wide or well-dispersed, good depth.”

Carlos Santana has tone to spare – warm, with tons of sustain. (Another good thing to have.) Here he is on “Europa.” (Song starts at :10)

Spotify link

–Excitement/Intensity. No, not every solo has to be exciting. But when a song is cooking, I want a solo that’s exciting, that gets me revved up and air guitaring along. And even if the song is mellower, there’s still something charged about the solo that makes me pay attention.

Studio guitarist Larry Carlton is great for this. Listen to his outro solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne.” (Starts at 3:51)

Spotify link

–Improvisational skill. I’m sticking to rock guitarists here but could easily add in a bunch of jazz players here. But for rock I’m going to go with Duane Allman. Duane has everything all these players have but he could stretch out a solo and keep it interesting for quite a while.

I hadn’t heard “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East in a while. It came on the Jam channel on Sirius while I was driving around the other day. And again I marveled at Duane’s ability to just churn it out over very simple chord changes. (Dickey is no slouch on this number either.)

Check Duane out starting at 1:45. His solo has everything I talked about above – phrasing, tone, excitement, feel. All in bluesy/jazzy context.

Spotify link

Larry Carlton’s solo demonstrates what I don’t necessarily look for – length. The “Charlemagne” solo is 44 seconds long! Hey, if a solo is long, fine but it has to hold my interest. (Duane’s is long but kicks it.) As mentioned, I also don’t listen for some dude that knows the exact right scale to play over the right chords. Unless he’s got the above shit goin’ on he’s just wanking IMHO.

And I am definitely not looking for that guy that can play a million notes a minute. I’ll take Angus Young or even Kurt Cobain over those guys. Unless, blah, blah, blah.

Anyway, that’s my 2 cents on the matter. Feel free to chime in even if you’re not a guitarist. I may be able to play some shit but that doesn’t make my opinion any more valid than anyone else’s. I dug these guys before I could even play. I just didn’t have the vocabulary.

 

 

37 thoughts on “What I Listen For In a Guitar Solo

  1. Nice work, Jim. Can’t disagree with any of that. I finally got to see Santana a couple of years back and had a seat right up front. You’re right about that tone. I never got it when I was younger but it’s honey to me now. And I love Gilmour, he brings real intelligence to everything he does.

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    1. Yeah, thanks. We saw Santana a couple of times over many years, both times in outdoor venues. The first time it got so unseasonably cold, we split. The second time was just a couple years ago. Loved the show but Carlos’ guitar was buried in the mix. Sob. Oh, well. He’s still out there and I still have his stuff to listen to. And Gilmour’s a flaming wonder. Boy, he plays great. Intelligence is the right word. Taste, too. I suppose ‘taste’ should have been one of my indicators. I’m just now learning his solo to ‘Brick In the Wall.’ It’s complex-sounding but deceptively simple. And then it gets exciting when in the third part of the solo he jumps up (literally) as high on the neck as you can go. I never ever get tired of it.

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    2. I was chatting with Michelle MB and told her I added a few things to my post on reflection. I said, “BTW, I went back and added a couple things to my post which I never do. So, one was that Sinatra was noted for his phrasing, but you doubtless knew that. And I added “intensity” next to excitement. In a hot tune it can be both, a mellower one might just have the intensity if you know what I mean.”

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  2. Not a player, but love Gilmour for the reasons you mentioned. And versatility; contrast this with “Comfortably Numb.” Just cherry-picking solos, also love Felder’s on “Hotel California.” As a long long longtime Queen fan, I remember Brian May’s philosophy of playing “a song within a song.” Elliott Easton’s a great example of that as well. Was lucky enough to see Santana years ago with Alphonso Johnson on bass…mind blowing.

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    1. Yeah, totally agree with your choices. If you look at the bottom of this post, it will lead you to an earlier “My Favorite Guitar Solos,” post where I listed them without as much analysis. “Hotel California” is third on that list. That’s actually Felder and Joe Walsh. I know, I studied both solos and can more less competently play them. It’s a joy to play these guys’ solos. I liken it to an artist who goes to the museum and copies, say, a Rembrandt. They’re obviously not creating it but they have the thrill of understanding it a greater depth. I like the “song within a song” quote. May and Easton are terrific players but I never thought the latter got enough solo time in The Cars. But of course, that’s not the type of band they were.

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      1. There’s a great story about Easton’s solo on “Touch and Go,” which is his favorite. He’d spent tons of time working it out to perfection, and then went into the studio and played it for the band and Roy Thomas Baker, only to have them say “Meh.” They asked him to go in and try it again, and he just ripped it off, full of frustration-fueled adrenaline. According to him he was practically in tears. When he got done, they said, yeah that was better–the first time through was too “written.”

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        1. Man, that sucks. I hadn’t heard that story before. So frustrating. My favorite Easton solo and on my “to-learn” list is the one from “Shake It Up.” It’s perfect. BTW, I went back and added a couple things to my post which I never do. So, one was that Sinatra was noted for his phrasing, but you doubtless knew that. And I added “intensity” next to excitement. In a hot tune it can be both, a mellower one might just have the intensity if you know what I mean.

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        2. Found this in Wikipedia. Who knew Lennon even knew who the Cars were? “Former Beatle John Lennon mentioned the song in his final interview on 8 December 1980, praising it for its fifties sound and comparing it with his current record at the time, “(Just Like) Starting Over.” He said, “I think The Cars’ ‘Touch and Go’ is right out of the fifties ‘Oh, oh… ‘ A lot of it is fifties stuff. But with eighties styling, but, but… and that’s what I think ‘Starting Over’ is; it’s a fifties song made with an eighties approach.”

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        3. Yeah; I did know about that. Should have put it in my letter to the RRHOF NomCom a couple of years ago…but they were nominated, so it worked out. Lennon also mentions the B-52s and “Rock Lobster” in that interview; says it’s Yoko’s influence. Would love to hear Fred Schneider’s take on that.

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        4. Heh! If I’d been a performing artist around that time and either John or Yoko mentioned me in any kind of complimentary fashion, I would have been totally stoked.

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    2. One other thing – I know the conventional wisdom is that “Numb” is Gilmour’s best. And while I do like it, “Money” and “Time” are my favorites of his. That may just come down to the “I know it when I like it” feeling more than any specific things I can add up.

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      1. Jim
        When you talk about great guitar solos by Gilmour I think “High Hopes” or “Marooned” off of Division Bell might be his best Pink Floyd solos (if you can really call them that).

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  3. I’m all over the map with this one Doc. The first guys I heard were EC, Beck, Page, Hendrix, Green, Santana, Gilmore. They set the bar high but I do like it messy and greasy also. Like I’ve said before, so many good players in all styles. You’re piece is very good. Every song is staple or very familiar. On the Gilmore piece. You have given me new ears. I had really drifted from Floyd by this record. I might give it more of a listen. I do love a guitar solo.

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      1. Very good piece Doc. I will be listening to ‘Money’ with new ears. Have only heard it a thousand times and i still like it. CB has to dig the music also. I can appreciate good musicianship but some of it doesn’t move me. I glance at “Best of lists” and I have others I dig way more. I remember Eric talking about JJ Cale and how much he dug his playing. I dig it too. I think he has a lot of those things you pointed out.

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  4. My favourite guitarist is Richard Lloyd from Television. I think he comes up with great melodic ideas that take the song somewhere else, like on Matthew Sweet’s ‘Evangeline’ or Television’s ‘Guiding Light’.

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  5. Nice breakdown, Jim – it’s obvious you are a practicing electric guitarist who loves his craft! My guitar-playing these days has become very sporadic. Plus, I’ve always been an acoustic guitarist first and foremost, mainly focusing on strumming and finger-picking, much less on playing guitar solos. That being said, I enjoy listening to nice guitar solos, both on electric and acoustic guitar.

    I think I can easily agree with everything you said. While sometimes depending on my mood I might enjoy listening to a shredder like Eddie Van Halen, a guy working the fret board up and down like a “maniac” can quickly become a bit overwhelming and exhausting. So phrasing is really important, in my humble opinion. Feel, tone and all the other elements you noted are certainly important as well.

    I also like when a solo doesn’t sound schematic and predictable but has a nice melody to it that adds to the song – maybe this would fall in the category of making it “a song within a song,” which MichelleMB mentioned. I think Mark Knopfler is a good example of a guitarist who has played great melodic guitar solos.

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    1. Yes, and actually I’m also a practicing acoustic guitarist. Like you, I fingerpick. In fact, I was learning a Leo Kottke tune that I happen to have the music to. But I get so fucking seduced by electric solos that I wind up forgoing the acoustic for a while. And so since this post was about solos, I focused on the electric. Acoustic solos are not uninteresting but nothing excites me like a good electric solo.

      As to the shredders, we can agree on a guy like Van Halen. There is no denying his talent and sometimes it’s enough for me to hear and enjoy a solo like his. (I do not have the patience or maybe even the chops to learn his style).

      I agree about the melodic thing which is what I was attempting to say when I said you could sing Gilmour’s solo. But were I to add anything to my post, then yeah I’d add the word ‘melodic.’ And, of course, taste. Minus taste it’s all meaningless.

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  6. Your “take a breath” comment made me think of Herman Lee. He’s an incredible player but goes for a blur of a solo. It’s technical, precise, but sometimes feels stressful. Fast solos should to be written in a way that a listener or guitarist can hear each note to understand what’s in the solo. For example I have to be able to hear each note in succession for me to understand how to play a solo before I start “shoving notes into a measure.”

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    1. I confess to not being familiar with him. Is he a jazzer? Also, you mention solos being written. Seems to me more solos are improvised and/or pieced together than written per se, no?

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      1. He’s the lead for Dragonforce, and IMO is impressive mostly for speed. It’s fast and technical, that’s all really. There’s not much substance to his solos. As for solos, you may be right. Kirk Hammett made it clear that on the most recent Metallica album he almost didn’t practice at all, especially when it came to solos. He wanted the solos to feel as naturally improvised as possible. This approach works, but some guitarists spend time understanding the song, the background riffs, and overall feel to write something that matches the song completely. However, my last band I was in, the pianist and I would trade solos of 70s-90s cover songs and most of the time we joked about just staying in key and improvising 95% of the time. The crowd didn’t mind as long as we played the most well known parts of songs correctly, for example the solo to What Is and What Should Never Be by Led Zeppelin. Solos are tricky, living things!

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        1. Yeah, I think guitarists at the very least study the progression to figure out what scales, arpeggios they’ll use, etc. But I think that for them – at least the rockers – “writing” doesn’t mean putting pen to paper but just working out a solo and then recreating it. I know that Gilmour is meticulous on building his solos. Don’t know what his process is but he may well just record successive passes at it till he gets what he wants. In the case of someone like the Steely Dan players, some of those guys came from a studio and/or jazz perspective and so it wouldn’t surprise me if they wrote at least some part of their solo out. And of course, Becker and Fagen would sometimes piece together three or four solos and make that the final product.

          As to actually playing for an audience, I haven’t done that for years so I am free from the tyranny of having to replicate those solos. I can do it as I just learned Gilmour’s “Money” solo. But I no longer have the pressure of having to duplicate that on stage.

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  7. I agree with everything on the list! But I do love me some shredders as well. One player I would add is “Slash” as far as phrasing, feel and tone, Slash clocks al;l of the boxes for me! Also gotta give an honorable mention to Billy Gibbons!

    Great post! 🙂

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