What Makes a Solo Great?

Part 1 – overview

Elements of Great Guitar Improvisation

I asked Artificial Intelligence “What are the elements of great guitar improvisation?” and here’s how it responded, with my comments below each item.

AI: Technical skill: To play great guitar improvisation, you must have a strong technical foundation. This includes proficiency in scales, arpeggios, chords, and various techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato, and more.

dw: This is actually 2 separate elements: music theory (knowing what scales to play over what chords) and expressive elements such as hammer-ons & pull-offs, slides, bends, vibrato.

AI: Creativity: Great improvisation requires creativity and the ability to think outside the box. You should be able to come up with unique and interesting melodies, riffs, and solos that complement the music and express your individuality.

dw: you can teach creativity, and we have a whole classes dedicated to the subject. There are many ways to practice creativity and some of them are a) explore new harmonic concepts such as exotic modes b) explore rhythmic concepts such as groupings, polyrhtyhms etc. c) force creativity by imposing restrictions (such as playing on one string only, never starting on the 1 beat, etc.)

AI: Musicality: While technical skill and creativity are important, they are not enough on their own. Great improvisation also requires a strong sense of musicality, including a good ear for melody, rhythm, and harmony, and an ability to listen and interact with the other musicians in the band.

dw: See my article on your student page under “articles by Dennis Winge” called ‘What is Musicality?’

AI: Emotion: Great improvisation should evoke emotion and connect with the audience. You should be able to express yourself through your playing, conveying a wide range of emotions, from joy and excitement to sadness and longing.

dw: How can you practice this? Record yourself improvising and listen back a different day. Does it move you? If not, what else can you do that’s within your current skill set to make more emotive? What else would you like to learn beyond your current skill set that you could incoporate into your improvisation?

AI: Dynamics: Great improvisation should be dynamic, with a variety of textures, tones, and dynamics. You should be able to vary your playing to create tension, release, and other effects, and to build and release energy throughout your performance.

dw: The 4 elements of music besides the big 3 (melody, harmony & rhythm) are texture, timbre, dynamics and form. Form is knowing where you are in the tune while soloing. The others are as follows.

Texture is varying how thick or thin the music may sound based on how many notes are present. An example of varying the texture in a solo is adding a double-stop which makes it go from a one-note-at-a-time texture to two notes.

Timbre is the tone quality. Can you flip your tone switch and/or adjust tone knobs and/or enable certain effects at key moments in a solo like Hendrix was a master at?

Dynamics is so often overlooked in live music (except classical music where it is pre-written) because everything is so over-compressed these days. Listen to Larry Carlton’s The Paris Concert Live for amazing dynamic control.

Beyond all these, being in control of tension and release is a big topic that shouldn’t necessarily be slumped under the category of ‘dynamics.’ Ask for the post “Soloing, How to Build a Solo” to be enabled on your student page.

AI: Confidence: Finally, great improvisation requires confidence. You should be comfortable taking risks and trying new things, and you should have the confidence to let your playing speak for itself, without worrying about what others might think.

dw: One of my friends and former students likes to go wireless on gigs, and he dances on tables and is quite the theatrical performer – that’s confidence! If that’s not in your personality, though, confidence comes also simply by mastering the fundamentals. The more you master, the more the fear dissolves naturally.

Part 2 – solo on “A Clue” by Steve Lukather

if you want to dig deeper: