It may seem strange to say, but one of the best ways to learn the nuances of soloing is by… not soloing. Say what? I’m sure that’ll make a lot of guitarists indignant. How could I possibly suggest that the best way to shine and step out front is to step back?!?!
Well, that’s exactly my point. How are you going to get good at leading or soloing if you’ve never stepped back and listened? The greatest soloists are good accompanists. They know how to support other soloists. They demonstrate a knowledge and awareness of musicality… and they understand teamwork!
Even when you’re soloing, it’s not just you out there. Unless of course you’re playing alone. As soon as another person steps onstage, you both need to start communicating. I can often tell how good a soloist is by watching what they do before they solo. A player’s awareness and sensitivity reveals their ability to connect during a solo. I might even say that technique and music theory are the two most basic (and accessible) skills in soloing. I know, I know. How dare I make such a radical statement.
Many musicians are taught to bow to the god of improvisation, whose commandments include knowing your scales and fretboard positions. And if you don’t know them you are committing a mortal sin against the guitar. But I would say that these really aren’t the ingredients of a great solo. They just embellish it.
Technique and theory are important skills to develop. So it makes sense that they get a lot of the spotlight. We just have to be careful they don’t steal the limelight. Because if we look more carefully,, there is a lot more to the art of soloing.
Some soloists mentally check out when they start to solo. It’s as if nobody else is part of the weave. But a great soloist realizes that it’s about teamwork. Many guitarists lack this skill because they don’t spend enough time supporting someone else who’s soloing.
Having a great accompanist back you up on a solo can really elevate it. It makes me play things I didn’t know I could. I might be driving the truck, but it’s more like a fire department’s ladder truck. I may be driving, but someone is on the back of the truck steering with me. If my fellow guitarist is not good at comping (rhythm guitar) or accompanying, it can really make soloing tough.
Some players think they can check out when someone else is soloing. This isn’t the path to musical success. You have to be as present when you’re backing someone up as you are when you’re soloing. Music is communication. And there is a bit of a buddy system going on when musicians perform. When we’re onstage, we stick together. This means it’s not just about whose turn it is. We’re all there to back up everyone else.
Ways to Improve Soloing and Accompanying Skills
Play with others as often as you can. Jamming with friends or other musicians is vital to building your accompaniment skills. When jamming with others, think about what to play while they are soloing and follow along. Adjust to their dynamics or rhythm shifts.
As I’m writing this I’m listening to Bitches Brew from Miles Davis, and it’s incredibly relevant to this conversation. Even if you don’t listen to jazz, sit yourself down with no devices or distractions and really listen to this album.
This record is all about improvisation. You’ll hear the whole band playing off each other. Everyone is listening and supporting each other. They each have moments where they stand out front. Butit’s very much a team effort.
A lot of rock music might not be this extreme about musical exploration. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t adopt that sensitive mindset.
Listen, Listen, Listen
What’s the drummer playing? What’s the bassist playing? Is the pianist changing anything? What’s the energy of the soloist?
The answers to all of these questions will greatly change what I play. Sometimes a solo section needs more space. You don’t want to be a bull in a china shop or scream in a library. How you react is key. If you can’t respond appropriately while accompanying someone, how are you going to play appropriately in your solo?
How often do you listen to music? How do you listen to music? Do you listen to what’s happening behind some of your favorite guitar solos? I bet you know less about the accompaniment than you realize. Most likely you know the chord changes and the breaks.
It’s helpful to know if there are any slight shifts in dynamics. Does the rhythm pattern change at all? Any effects changes that alter the texture?
The Chicken or the Egg
Many have this idea that there are people who build the structure (rhythm guitarists) and people who come later to put on the roof (lead guitarists). With a few rare exceptions, the greatest guitarists know how to do both. Some believe the two rarely meet. But it’s not as clear cut as that. I don’t see a distinct border between rhythm and lead guitar.
So yeah, studying without your instrument is vital to your growth. I see a lot of students doing their thinking with their fingers. But a guitar in hand can sometimes be a distraction. I believe that private listening time, without your guitar, is key to musical growth. If you think about it, the goal is to hear something and then play it. Yet many players just want to jump in and speak a language they’ve never spoken. We’ve all had moments where we don’t know how to pronounce a word until we hear someone say it. Music is the same way. By listening, we hear pronunciation.
If you would like to get deeper into the art of soloing and improvisation, reach out to me for lessons in person or via Skype.