You're playing a guitar solo over a tune. You're hitting all the right notes, scales and licks. And yet, the solo just sounds... bland.
Sounds familiar? I know that I've experienced this situation, well, a lot.
Should you learn some more music theory, another lick, or scale, or trick to make it better? Maybe. But maybe you can do better with the guitar skills that you already have.
A lot of the time, it isn't material or technique that's holding us back, but intangibles such as rhythm and phrasing.
So to get improving quickly, here are some common phrasing mistakes that make our solos sound bad, and targeted exercises to help fix them.
1. Playing all the time
As guitarists, we're always tempted to play a constant stream of notes. And even when we play a longer note, we want to sustain it, and then play some more notes. Because we can. Because we're guitarists. Because it makes us feel good. This, however, doesn't really engage our audience. They have trouble making out individual melodies and engaging with the music.
We ourselves, playing in this mode, often just run on autopilot, because we don't have time to think about what we want to play next, and, perhaps most importantly, to listen to the rest of the band and to the music that's happening.
I'll play non-stop in the first part of the video, and in the second, I'll break it up with some silence periods:
Leaving periods of silence, where we're not playing, and separating our solo into phrases, is vital.
And to help develop this healthy habit, there is one very simple exercise that's worth being included into any soloist's practice routine.
Exercise: Play for 2 bars, then stay silent for 2 bars.
This is exactly as it is stated in the name. Put on the backing track that you want to practice today, then solo over it. No matter what you're playing, alternate between playing for 2 bars, and staying silent for 2 bars.
This may sound dumb, and also it may be much harder than expected at the beginning, but I highly encourage you to try it if you haven't already. The silence is eye opening in the way it lets us appreciate the music and come up with ideas.
Let me demonstrate.
Now you give it a go with the backing track!
Having mastered that, you can come up with alternative versions of the exercise, such as:
Play for 1 bar, stay silent for 1 bar
Play for 2 bars, stay silent for 1 bar
2. Not minding the rhythm
We all, hopefully, know how to play different note durations to a metronome. Quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th triplets, 16th notes... However, to think about these things when soloing - is boring. What about cutting loose? The problem is, when we do that without first having a solid sense of the usage of different note durations and their combinations, we end up with things that are rhythmically nor here nor there. And often, that doesn't sound soulful or free, but just plain bad.
To fix that, we need to get used to using solid rhythms when improvising. Don't worry about it being boring.
There's nothing boring about a phrase composed entirely of 8th or quarter notes, as long as those notes are being played confidently and with purpose.
Exercise 1: Play phrases using different note durations.
Play some phrases with whole notes only. Then some with half notes only. Repeat that with quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th triplet notes, and 16th notes. Don't worry about the actual notes you play - play anything that you want. Any scale, arpeggio, lick or chord that you know for the backing track. Just think about the rhythm. Listen carefully to place the notes on the exact beats that they should fall on.
Now this can be a pretty boring exercise, but once you get the hang of it, you can go on to the next one.
Exercise 2: Combine several durations in one phrase.
You can start by thinking in advance. For example: start with 8th notes, then move to quarter notes. Start with 2 half notes, then move to quarter notes, then to 8th notes, etc.
Exercise 3: Play all phrases using a specific rhythm pattern.
This one's simple, but not easy. Come up with a pattern (or steal one from somewhere). Then play everything using that pattern.
I propose this one: 1, 1-and, 2-and.
This is a very useful short syncopated pattern. Start by doing it in 8th notes, then you can speed it up to 16th notes. After a while, you can start playing with it and playing things off of it. It's still the same pattern but you're adding variations.
Doing rhythm exercises will develop your sense of rhythm to a place where no matter what you play, it will make sense rhythmically. And that creates drive and interest. Solos start sounding like actual music.
Ready to give it a try?
3. Not adding accents
When we play all notes at roughly the same volume, we lose a whole dimension of dynamism and engagement. Making some notes stand out to create more drive, groove or emotion, is essential.
There are many ways to accent a note - including bends, slides, vibrato and other techniques. But the most basic and fundamental way is simply by volume. If a note is louder than the rest, it will stand out.
Playing the exact same notes, but without or with different sorts of accents makes a difference. Let me demonstrate.
To make use of accents, first we want to be able to intentionally play some notes louder than others in order to grab the attention of the listener, create a sense of drive or add a secondary rhythmic pattern.
In order to do that, we need to develop a consistent technique for both soft and hard picking, and to develop an ability to switch between them without losing timing or tone. Exercise 1: Accenting beats
Play in 8th notes and accent every 1st and 3rd beat.
Then switch to accenting every 1-and; 3-and.
Then 2; 4
Then 2-and; 4-and
You can start with playing just one note and trying to feel the difference. Later you can switch to playing scales and more complex phrases.
What we've achieved is we have grouped our notes in groups of 4 and managed to play an accent on every possible beat that a note can be played on.
Once this exercise is easy, next steps would be to group notes by 3 (this would place the accents on 1, 2-and, 4, 1-and, 4, 4-and etc), by 5, and to combine different groupings.
Exercise 2: Accenting target notes
Play phrases, and in every phrase designate a target note (can be the last note, or the one before last...), and try to play that as intentionally and loud as you can. Later you can add an articulation technique to that note, such as a bend or a slide.
I believe that working these simple exercises even for a short while can open many new doors for you, as it surely did for me.
Try it with the backing track.
Hope that this has been helpful, please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you have something to say!