I see a lot of flaws in the way many of my students practice soloing for rock lead guitar. I see I guitar players simply practicing exercises and licks without playing along with chords. Seems pretty natural to most to just pick up your guitar and start practicing things.
But, there is no anchor balance the notes you’re playing. Developing great solos is as much about harmony as it is about technical ability to play the scales.
You won’t really develop a taste for what notes sound good over a chord unless you’re constantly hearing the chord play. Otherwise, you have to imagine what the chord might sound like as you’re playing the notes. This has it’s drawbacks.
Learning the Sound of Notes
With music, you can’t develop the full taste of sound unless you’re playing the notes against the chord. A lot of guitar players practice without any accompaniment and then are partly surprised when they play certain notes against a chord.
The idea is to not be surprised by a note over a chord. We want to train our ears to be able to anticipate what a pitch is going to soundalike over a chord. That way when we hear a melody in our ear, we can anticipate either what the chords are below it, or what the intervals are over the chord.
When I’m playing a chord progression for rock lead guitar, I want to get the sound of the chord progression in my brain. I’m going to be able to select better notes on top of it if I can “hear” the changes.
Breaking Out Of Playing In Boxes
Some guitar players choose a paint by numbers method. This will never be the most flattering way to create. The secret of a lot of well-known guitarists developing memorable solos is to know what chord sound like and what harmony will work on top of it.
It’s for this reason that I highly recommend students use a looper. A looper pedal allows you to record a chord progression and repeat it infinitely. This should always be in your signal chain when you’re practicing so that you can constantly be making music. Not going through repeated physical motions.
There is not a lot of time I’m practicing that I want to be playing and not making music. The more you make actual music, rather than exercises, the easier it will be and sound better when you solo.
Tips For Practicing Acoustic Guitar
What happens when you play acoustic guitar though? You might not have a pick up to run acoustic through a looper. I also find that sometimes plugging in a bunch of cables is a little bit demotivating when you only have a few minutes to practice. There are a few options I use for these circumstances.
There are two apps I really like for practicing rock lead guitar. One is Jam Looper. This is an app that allows you to record your playing and loop. This works great on your iPhone or iPad. You can even record several tracks to create layers or listen back to solos.
There is also a new app called Ultimate Circle Of Fifths that I’ve been using to generate chord progressions. This app isn’t a looper. It has pre recorded sounds or should I say long sustained chords. There is not groove or drum/percussion track. This is great for testing the flavors of sounds over chords.
You can input your own chord progressions (as long as they are diatonic) or choose from some suggestions. Circle of 5ths is also great at practicing your transposition skills. With a quick adjustment you could be playing a chord progression in a different key.
This is really helpful as a lot of times rock lead guitar players get a stuck playing in the same two or three key signatures.
I’ll use both of these apps to try different approaches or plays to soloing over it. I may choose to play a major pentatonic scale over the progression. I may choose to play the minor pentatonic scale over the progression. I may choose to mix and match scales of the progression. Each time, I’ll listen to the flavor it adds and what melodies it inspires.
Making Guitar Solos Less Mechanical Sounding
The idea is not to just have a bunch of technical methods that I can use to solo. The goal is to associate my ear to each one of these choices. Over time your ear will associate intervals and scales with taste. Just like you do with flavors. It’s likely you know the flavor of banana, so if you get a dish with banana in it you’re going to be able to recognize that test. Or you might wish there was banana in a dish.
Music is no different. Guitar Chords, guitar scales… all these things are the equivalent to a flavor like a banana. But you won’t be able to recognize this full flavor and less it’s connected to a chord.
It’s really hard to resist playing boxes with rock lead guitar. Playing fast and only working on the technical aspects of playing when rehearsing is common for many. Believe it or not, some of this could actually be somewhat detrimental to guitar playing. Say what? How can practicing speed hold you back?
I have noticed from my own experience that the more I play against chord progressions, the better my solos get. Whereas, when I wasn’t playing against chords, my playing tended to be more mathematical and more about painting by numbers.
I never really found this to be the sound I strived for when I was on sessions or gigs. Myself and the artists/producers hiring me always wanted a strong melodic component.
Playing Safe Notes In Guitar Solos
In a pinch you could play a G note over a a C chord and know it will sound “safe”. But, even though G (the 5th of the chord works) It may not the most favorable note.
Top deal with this, there are times where I will isolate a chord and start find notes that I might like flavor of. This gives me a basic idea. But, I won’t fully know if I’ve chosen the right flavors until I put that note look into context pf the chord progression.
The best rock lead guitar solos are about the sum of parts. There’s a misconception that soloing means alone. A singular act. But it really isn’t. It really is just as much much about matching the rest of the band as when you’re playing a part in the song.
The missing link for a lot of soloists is melody. I think of a solo as creating a new instrumental section of the song that has well a defined melody in it.
Think of some of your favorite solos. Whether it’s Eddie Van Halen or Joe Walsh, I bet you’ll find a similar through point. Melody.
Try to reform your practice routine with regular looping or practice over chord progressions.
Related article: More Tips on Practicing Guitar