How to Solo on Guitar - Techniques, Tips & Tricks
Learning how to solo on guitar can be difficult for any player - from beginners to master guitarists. Discover guitar solo tips and techniques with Fender.
By Ben Nemeroff
Nothing showcases a guitarist’s style and personality of playing than a guitar solo. It bridges the riffs and melody of a song that provide its steady undercurrent with a chance for a guitarist to show off their skills. Whether a guitarist prefers simplicity -- stringing together slow, soulful notes with string bends for emphasis like B.B. King -- or opts for flash and sizzle like two-hand tapping techniques favored by Eddie Van Halen, a guitar solo is what allows that personality to shine through.
Think about what inspired you to pick up the guitar and the guitarists who made you want to learn to play. Chances are, the first thing that comes to mind is a guitar solo you heard them play. And while most beginner guitarists start by learning chords and scales, learning to play guitar solos feels like a crowning achievement.
Soloing may seem difficult or intimidating to beginner guitar players, but don’t let that stop you from trying to solo. While practicing scales can be helpful in crafting a guitar solo, the best solos often come from improvisation -- often comes from feeling -- taking the riffs and melody of a song and weaving them into something that feels like a natural extension of those notes within the framework of a song. The best and most memorable guitar solos are packed with feeling and don’t always sound like a blur of notes in a scale played up and down the neck of the guitar.
Check out these guitar tips for soloing. The skills and techniques you’ll find here will help you learn to play some of your favorite guitar solos and start creating solos of your own.
How to Play Guitar Solos - First Steps
As with anything, you have to learn to walk before you can run. Playing guitar is no different. Before you learn how to solo on the guitar, it’s important to learn the basics first. Learning to play scales and identifying where each note falls on the fretboard is one of the most important steps to take when learning to play guitar solos. Developing a familiarity with scales and the notes associated with them can help you better improvise on the guitar later on and start soloing on your own.
Even though chords don’t often appear in a guitar solo, learning chords and the notes that make up each one can also be helpful in learning how to play guitar solos and constructing your own. For instance, many solos include arpeggios. An arpeggio is a deconstructed chord in which the notes of a chord are played individually instead of being strummed together.
Start mastering the basics and build your way up to learning to play guitar solos. Need some inspiration? Check out Fender Play’s collection of Lead Guitar Riffs & Solos from some of your favorite songs. Discover some of the songs and techniques used to play them and start working backwards, learning those techniques. Build on the skills you learn to develop more speed and refining your technique and you’ll be soloing in no time!
To learn more about some of the elements that make up the perfect guitar solo, Fender Play Live host Eugene Edwards sat down with Dinesh Lekhraj and Dylan Caligiuri to play through some sweet techniques and how they’re worked into many of your favorite songs.
Start with Fundamental Music Techniques
Playing scales and learning beginner techniques and practice exercises, such as perfecting finger placement and building dexterity, can be helpful in starting down the path to playing guitar solos.
Practicing scales is one of the most important building blocks of learning to play guitar solos. Once you learn some of the most essential guitar scales for beginners, don’t just practice those guitar scales in the open position. Instead, expand your reach by playing those guitar scales at different starting points along the neck of your guitar. This can help you hear the same notes in a scale at either a higher or lower octave, training your ear to match tones and notes. This can help you to create your own guitar solos later on, using notes from different octaves of the same scale.
Need an example of impact that playing the same notes in different octaves can have on a solo? Check out Dinesh Lekhraj’s take on a riff-based solo from “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways.
Use Scales for Improvisation
As mentioned before, playing scales allows you to develop and train your musical ear to recognize the same notes at different points along the fretboard. Learning scales and their root notes -- or the starting point of each scale -- can help you glide around the fretboard with ease when playing or crafting solos of your own.
Developing an understanding of notes, frets, and where they sit within each scale can help you find notes and moveable patterns within range of each other on the fretboard. Fender Play can get you started with some scales every guitarist should know, helping you to build up your finger dexterity and training your ear to listen for similar tones and where they sit on your fretboard. This can later help you when playing solos.
Learn Guitar Solos by Ear
While learning musical theory and using tablature to learn to play guitar are invaluable tools to musicians, so is learning to play by ear. Some of the best guitar solos of all time are born out of improvisation -- which comes from knowing your instrument and what it (and you) are capable of doing. While the guitar solo you may hear on an album version of the song will sound the same every time, a solo played live may differ slightly. Although the album version of a solo may be the foundation for a live rendition, how a guitarist is feeling in a given moment during a live show may dictate some of those variations from night to night.
When learning to play your favorite guitar solo, using tablature can help you to visualize where notes are mapped on the fretboard, training your ear to listen for the timing of how those notes are played, what techniques are applied to those notes, and more. Tablature can help you with those facets of learning to play a guitar solo. However, learning to play a solo by ear can help you to “feel” the music and improvise on your own, altering an existing guitar solo and allowing you to put your own stamp on it in a way that pays homage to the original while creating something new that still feels related to the original solo.
Guitar Solo Techniques - Beginner Tips
Whether you love heavy metal or want to learn to play the blues, soloing is a major part of playing guitar. While it may seem intimidating at first, anyone can learn to play a guitar solo. It just comes down to combining different guitar techniques and a knowledge of scales, notes, and tones.
When it comes to guitar solos for beginners, a solo doesn’t have to be complicated. It can just be a few simple notes strung together based around the melody of a song. As you progress in your playing, you can add your own flourishes to those notes. For instance, even if you’re paying the same progression of notes, you can add a new element to that solo by bending the string on the final note or using pinch harmonics.
But first, start slowly. Familiarize yourself with some guitar solo tips and techniques and gradually work your way up to more complex solos. Here’s a few tips for getting started on playing solos.
For an example of simple, “new melody” style soloing that only incorporates a few notes played in different ways, watch Fender’s own Dylan Caliguiri play the solo from The Strokes’ “Reptilia.”
Warming up before playing a solo can make a big difference in improving your dexterity, speed, and accuracy when playing a guitar solo. Warm-up sessions don’t have to be long or complicated. You can warm up by playing across just two strings on your guitar, or by spanning all six strings.
It’s equally as important to exercise your pick hand as it is your fret hand. Practice down strokes and up strokes with your pick, while switching between one or two open strings and playing specific frets. Start slow and perfect the accuracy of picking the right strings, and the accurate placement of your finger on the correct frets.
For a more advanced warm-up, you can try playing a pattern across all six strings. Listen to how each fret in the pattern sounds when played on a different string. You can start by playing this pattern slowly, building up speed. This can help you to memorize patterns and improve your accuracy. You can also try playing each pattern with either just downstrokes or by using alternating picking.
No matter what stage you’re at in learning to play, Fender Play offers a complete collection of warm-up exercises that get progressively more challenging.
Have you ever had a conversation with someone and found yourself unable to get a word in edgewise? Listening to someone speak without pausing causes their words to run together and can make it difficult to truly absorb what they’re saying. The same holds true when playing a guitar solo. Adding pauses within your solo and leaving space between notes lends more depth and dimension. It also allows listeners to soak in the feeling you’re trying to convey with your playing and how it connects to and adds to a song.
When you’re building solos of your own, be sure to leave some space in between notes. While hearing a flurry of rapidly played notes can be an impressive display of accuracy and dexterity, if your entire solo consists of nothing but a blur of notes strung together, it may not be as compelling or memorable for listeners. Adding pauses, tempo changes, and using a mixture of whole, half, quarter, and eighth notes can make a solo far more dynamic.
Play With a Small Number of Notes
When learning to play a guitar solo, there is no prize given for including every single note within a scale within your solo. In many cases, choosing a small number of notes to include in your guitar solo can make it feel more cohesive.
Consider what notes are included in the chords played on the rhythm portion of a song. Or consider what key the song is in and what notes comprise the riff or notes on the verse. That can help you limit yourself to a handful of notes to create a solo that feels like it’s a part of a song and not something entirely disconnected. While you may only decide on a handful of notes to include in your solo, learning scales and root notes can help you find higher-pitched or lower-pitched versions of those notes to lend more color and depth to your solo.
For a great example of looking to the notes that make up the chords of a song woven into the fabric of a guitar solo, check out Fender Play Live’s Eugene Edwards breaking down the solo to Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So.”
Get Comfortable Using Your Pinky
Let’s face it, the pinky finger doesn’t get a lot of love. It’s typically viewed as the weakest finger on your hand and lacks the strength of more prominent fingers, such as your index and middle fingers on the fretboard. And when it comes to strumming, many guitarists also use their pinky as an anchor on the guitar body to help stabilize their hand. However, guitarists can increase their ability to span more frets and increase their speed by incorporating their pinky into their playing more often.
Training your pinky to play licks can help give you more reach. When you include your pinky in the mix as you’re playing riffs and licks across the fretboard, you won’t have to stretch your index and middle fingers too far apart in order to reach certain notes.
Master Your Guitar Solo - More Advanced Guitar Solo Techniques
Once you’ve gotten a handle on some of the basic techniques involved in soloing, it’s time to level up to some more advanced techniques that will help you solo better on guitar!
In the "Shredding Basics: Guitar Finger tapping" Fender Play LIVE, special guest Gina Gleason breaks down the unique history of finger tapping, from Bach to Van Halen. She’ll show you beginner techniques, how to create the perfect tapping tone, and how to incorporate it into your playing right away.
Alternate picking is a strumming hand technique that involves alternating between upward and downward strokes when playing notes on your guitar. Alternate picking also helps you play at a faster pace, which lends a lot more dimension and dynamics to a guitar solo.
Learn the basics of alternate picking and hear the difference between how a note sounds when played with a downstroke versus an upstroke.
While alternate picking is typically performed with a pick, fingerpicking (as its name implies) involves tossing the pick aside and playing with your fingers. Sometimes known as “fingerstyle,” fingerpicking guitar techniques allow you to make the most of all of the fingers on your strumming hand, using different fingers to play different strings for a more dexterous approach. This is particularly helpful when playing arpeggios -- like those heard on Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind,” for instance. Check out Fender Play to try your hand at this song and learn how fingerpicking can make you a better lead guitarist.
Bending a note can add a new dimension to a solo, giving it more feeling and soul. Bending a note involves pushing or pulling the string up or down. However, whether you bend the string itself up or down, bending will always raise the pitch of that string up. Typically, it’s easier to bend a note on an electric guitar than it is an acoustic. When amplified, you can really hear the difference. Bending a string can also help you to reach different notes, altering the pitch of a note higher when bending it.
When bending a note, this is where learning to pause can lend greater impact to your playing. One common technique is to place your finger on your intended fret, strike the note as you usually would. Then pause to let that note ring out before bending the string upward or downward to bend and warp the note.
To hear how this technique can change the feel of a solo, check out this lesson on how to bend strings and notes.
Sliding is a guitar technique that can make your playing more expressive, giving it an almost vocal quality. A slide involves playing a note and then shifting on the same string to another fret or note. Sliding allows you to connect notes smoothly and lends personality to your playing. You can slide between notes just using the fingers of your fretting hand, or you can place a metal slide on one of your fingers (typically the ring finger) of your fretting hand.
While many guitarists across multiple genres have included sliding in their arsenal, using a metal guitar slide can typically be heard in country or Southern rock genres, but not exclusively. For a great example of this technique, listen to Duane Allman’s (of The Allman Brothers) epic slide guitar solo at the end of Eric Clapton’s classic, “Layla.”
To hear how legendary metal guitarist Randy Rhoads incorporated sliding into his playing, try your hand at playing some of the slides in Ozzy Osbourne’s classic, “Mr. Crowley.” And to hear one of the all-time greats and guitar innovators give you a crash course in sliding on the fretboard, learn to play Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Unlock these lessons and even more with Fender Play, including a collection of lead guitar riffs and solos. Then, check out this video tutorial on how to play slides:
Vibrato is one of the more unsung techniques that can separate a good player from a great player. Vibrato enhances the sound of your lead notes and can create sustain and a fluctuating effect of a note that you might more commonly associate with vocals or even the strains of a violin.
Hand vibrato is a guitar effect that occurs when your fret hand repeatedly shifts the pitch of the notes slightly -- a slight bend of a quarter-tone. It’s not as pronounced as a string bend that more aggressively pulls and pushes a string to distort a note, but it does lend color and emotion. Vibrato raises the pitch slightly, then takes it back to its original position before raising it higher again due to the repeating shifts and slight bends with your fretting hand.
Learn how to add vibrato to your guitar soloing arsenal.
Hammer-Ons & Pull-Offs
Hammer-ons and pull-offs are two separate, yet essential guitar techniques that are often used in conjunction with one another.
A hammer-on involves using fingers of your fretting hand to strike a fret sharply (like a hammer) to create a pitch. That hard strike on the fretboard creates a slightly different, more pronounced tone.
A pull-off is a technique where your fretting hand finger pulls away and down from the string to change to a new pitch. In many cases, the hard hammer-on sound is complimented by immediately pulling off of the string for a more dynamic sound.
Hear an example of hammer-ons and pull-offs and learn to incorporate them into your playing!
Palm muting is a great way to create intentional pauses in your playing by muting the strings with your palm for a choppier, more staccato effect. It’s a great rhythm technique, as well as an essential skill to weave into your practice as a lead guitarist when playing riffs and solos.
Palm muting involves placing your palm over the stings where they connect to the bridge to stop the strings from ringing out. To learn the precise positioning and striking techniques to palm mute like a pro, check out some tips to help you ace your palm muting.
To see and hear palm muting in action, check out Firewind and former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Gus G demonstrate the basics of palm muting on an episode of Fender Play Live:
Check out Fender’s Tune Plus App
Learning to play guitar solos is part of your musical journey. Getting there is half the fun. Fender Play can help you build your skill level and learn new guitar techniques to improve your playing. Even if you don’t have other musicians to jam with, the Fender Tune Plus App and Fender Play allow you to play along with backing tracks, giving you the feel of playing with a band and working alongside bass and drums.