April 08, 2022
Being a solid backing player is super valuable and will always keep you busy if you’re a working musician, but sometimes you just have to go off, and a killer solo or two can put you in a whole new category.
Unfortunately, not every solo hits the mark. Great solos require a mix of improvisation skill, judicious understanding of music, and quick-witted creativity – as well as a bit of flare and the ability to make it look so easy you can use the solo as an excuse to interact with the audience.
Luckily, many if not all these skills can be practiced and mastered. With that in mind, here are a few tips for playing better solos, whatever your instrument.
It seems simple enough, but practice is the bedrock here. When it comes to soloing, there are two ways you can practice. You can write solos ahead of time and play them as written, which means regular old repetition like anything else. Or you can practice the art of improv to build the ability to create something new on the fly. Both are legitimate paths, but even if you don’t plan to just wing it on stage, a little bit of improv skill is helpful in case you make a mistake or get lost.
And the truth is, full-on improv rarely cuts the mustard, so you should probably practice with both ideas in mind.
It’s not plagiarism to study great solos and write down cool licks and it’s just smart to record or write down the cool stuff you discover in practice. Keep a library in your head of licks you can go to and string together a solo.
Not all musicians bother with theory, but when it comes to improv and writing solos, it’s all about knowing which notes are off limits. It may sound surprising to some, but this is a real sticking point for some players. It gets a lot easier when you know your scale – in fact it should be your first task.
That doesn’t mean you should lock into scale patterns and call it a day. Knowing what you really shouldn’t play is just the prerequisite.
If you know the scales, you know what not to play, but that may not be enough. Next you need to understand the music. Is it heavy, soft, fast, plodding, ethereal? Understand the music, the key, and the feel you’re going for. The easiest shortcut here is to start with the main melodic theme and start varying it. That way you’re still in vibe of the song, which is important. Even when Coltrane soloed over My Favorite Things, you could still tell the song was My Favorite Things.
Especially when it comes to improv solos, overthinking things is the best way to freeze up. Just like an athlete on the field, you’ll make mistakes, but it’s best to forget them then and there and move through. Every solo is an opportunity for something great to happen, but not every solo will be your best ever. Do it and let it go.
Take this advice in two ways. One: realize mastery takes time and practice. If you’re not awesome right now, you will be, just give it time.
Two: don’t rush through your solo, and don’t think a great solo is all about a sheer number of notes. You can start off with a long bend, for example, and gradually evolve into a full-on shred.
Especially if you’re new to soloing, remember you can do a lot with simple variations on a theme. If you’re nervous or unsure you can pull a lick off, it’s ok to leave it for practice and do what you know you can do well on show day. Keeping to what you know you can do well at first will help you build confidence as you rack up successful solos.
In practice, do the opposite. Now’s the time to stretch, try things, fail, fall down. You can’t get better if you don’t push yourself to progress, so cultivate an attitude of looking for the next challenge.
Probably the number one thing that makes a bad solo bad is bad rhythm. Many players noodle around and lose the beat, making the solo section sound like a train wreck. On the other hand, a solo that’s locked into the groove, even if it’s simple, hits harder. So, use a metronome to practice soloing with good rhythm. You can slow the beat down until you nail a riff and slowly build it up. You can also practice faster than normal to make the show feel easy.
Finally, let go of preconceived notions, especially when you’re practicing and finding new licks. Have fun with it, get into the groove, steal licks from great solos and twist them, play the wrong notes and find out when they actually sound cool – in other words let yourself be creative. Soloing is an opportunity to turn from player to composer, and it’s the place to be your most creative self, whereas the rest of the song may call for strict adherence. Let go and open it up!
If you’re scared of soloing, don’t be. It’s not rocket science, and you don’t have to be Hendrix to nail a solo. Just practice the thing and cultivate confidence. You’ll be shredding in no time.
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Musicians can be notoriously hard to buy for. Not all music equipment is equal, choices are personal, and musicians tend to snap up what they want when they want it. So, when Christmas comes around, it can be hard for loved ones to come up with the right gift. Still, it’s not impossible. Finding the right gift for a musician you love just takes a little patience and listening.
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