When improvising a solo on guitar, we are often faced with a lack of ideas: What could I play to make it sound interesting? It seems that no matter how many scales, arpeggios, chords and licks we know, it's never enough.
Damn, can this be disheartening.
What if I told you that you can craft great engaging solos even with minimal tools?
That even with just the Pentatonic scale you can sound great if you understand how melodies are built.
A great, memorable piece of music is interesting because it mixes easy, memorable, repeating melodies; with some unexpected twists and turns that create tension, suspense and make the audience go "whoa!".
The same is true for a great guitar solo. Let's dive into some motivic development techniques and exercises that will help make this way of playing second nature.
Repetition is a powerful tool in music. It transforms a random string of notes into a motif, something that we can identify with, something that sets the song or solo apart.
However, it is best paired with change: after repeating the idea, you want to play something else for contrast.
It could be a totally different idea, or a variation on the same phrase - doesn't matter.
The exercise for it is simple:
Put on a backing track
Play an idea (any idea).
Play something else.
Then you can either do it again with the same base phrase, or come up with a new idea and use that.
Bonus points if at some point within the solo, you get back to your initial phrase again.
I'm just using the G minor pentatonic scale here (the backing track is in Gm).
And here's the tab for the first phrase that I used as motif. You can try using that, or come up with your own.
Give it a try with the backing track!
Backing track by https://www.youtube.com/@JamTracksChannel
Check out our upcoming App for learning Guitar and Music Theory
2. Call and Response
This is similar to our previous idea, except the repetition comes in a different flavor.
Play an idea
Play a contrasting phrase to "respond" to it
Play the initial idea again
Play another response.
This creates a sense of dialogue, of possibly two different characters interacting with each other. It can be used as the basic idea of the solo, or later on to develop it and build more tension.
You can also reverse this by playing different "questions" and answering them with the same response, as is done in the Miles Davis tune "So What".
Your turn :) You can use the backing track above.
3. Transposition / Sequencing
There are more ways of reusing an idea than just repeating it. One way is to "move" it across a scale while keeping the note relationships the same.
In this example we'll move the phrase that we used earlier to a different set of notes in the pentatonic scale.
You can do this over any type of scale, to suit a new chord, anything really.
To exercise this ability, we'll play a pentatonic phrase, and then move it one degree up the scale and play it again. And so on, starting on every note.
Then we'll practice repeating it from different places without going through every scale, to try and make different musical variations with it..
In essence, variation is just taking an idea and changing it in some way.
If we were to go deep into it, there are many different types of variation, such as:
Expansion - adding notes in the beginning, middle or end of the original idea
Contraction - removing notes from the idea
Rhythmic variation - playing the same notes with a different rhythm
Inversion - playing an ascending motif descending and vice versa
At this point, though, I'd encourage just having fun with taking a phrase and changing it in some way, whatever you want. Without trying to adhere to any rules.
Use one of the previous exercises as the base: for example, call and response.
5. Combine them all together and improvise
A good way to finish this practice routine is, after running through the 4 exercises above, to go and play a solo over the same backing track, trying to use and combine these ideas when and how you feel like it.
For me personally, this is one of the most rewarding ways to solo. In a way, it's like talking: I'm thinking about what I want to say, rather than individual sounds or specific words to use.
I personally can play around with these techniques literally for hours over the same tune without ever getting bored.
What will you come up with?