STEP 1: BECOME A DETECTIVE: Get a perfect overview of the solo that you are studying
Start out by playing the role of a detective.
I would recommend watching an episode of Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes to get you motivated!
In each one of their cases, they decipher specific scenarios and use order and method to logically come to specific conclusions.
Your first job (just like Mr. Holmes) when learning how to play a guitar solo, is to get a perfect overview of the solo that you are studying.
It is vital that you learn the solo in the correct manner.
You do not want to rush the process.
Especially if you are planning to play the solo properly.
So get a perfect overview of the solo first.
Look through the tablature/score and ask yourself some specific pertinent questions.
- Where are the fast bits?
- Where are the legato bits?
- In which part will fingering prove to be difficult?
- Is the solo that I am attempting at my level? (Or a little too challenging – make sure it is not TOO challenging)
- How long will it take for me to learn the solo properly?
In this first section of learning the solo, you simply need the score and your eyes.
Your first job is to get a very clear overview.
Yes, you can rush to the guitar and try to play through it, but I would not necessarily advise that straightaway.
If you want to learn it properly it is best to take it step-by-step to get a good bird’s eye view of each section and then move on to the next section.
STEP 2: Listen to the performance of the solo
A NOTE TO CLASSICAL GUITARISTS: If you are practising a classical guitar etude/solo, I would not necessarily recommend listening to other performers. (This is due to the fact, that you need to interpret the piece with your own interpretation and not simply copy other players.)
If however you are planning to learn a guitar solo from, as an example Steve Vai, then I would definitely recommend listening to his playing to help you get a GREAT overview of his intention for the guitar solo.
During the first weeks of your study, I would recommend spending about 15 minutes a day to just listen to the solo.
I know it sounds tedious…
But trust me – it will pay off!
During this time, I would recommend listening to the solo with your score handy.
I would listen to it again and again and again!
You can even make a few notes on your score.
I would not be too picky at this stage, as you are simply trying to get a good overview.
You should pick up a lot of important nuances from their playing, and discover tips & tricks that you can apply when learning the solo yourself!
To the first step is to internalise the entire solo.
You should then have a good grasp of the solo in question!
STEP 3: Learn the solo – slowly…
Now that you’ve invested your time into listening to the solo, I would now recommend learning the solo slowly.
You want to really take time when learning to play the solo, to make sure you incorporate all the little (important) nuances that the score may present.
You would be extremely surprised to learn just how many guitarists simply skip over important nuances. (Probably 97% if not more)
Skipping nuances is simply being sloppy.
If you want to be a serious guitarist, you cannot afford being sloppy.
You need to learn how to play the solo with all the nuances within.
When there is a bend or a vibrato you need to execute that properly.
That is exactly why I recommend learning it slowly.
At this point you do not need to play it perfectly, and you do not need to play it in time or at speed.
(Yes, try to play the rhythms correct, but at a very slow pace as a first step.)
You can try to match the final tempo at the end of the learning process!
So go for it, but start out slowly and meticulously.
Remember if you are faithful you will be rewarded!
It is imperative that (especially in the early days of you learning a new guitar solo) you are extremely meticulous with your learning.
Take a lot of time and make sure you listen to the solo again and again.
STEP 4: Break the solo into logical sections
I would highly recommend having your pens & highlighter ready for this section.
You need to break the solo into logical parts.
Use coloured pens as codes to break the sections.
If we take a solo from Metallica, let’s say the solo from the song ‘One’, you could break the tapping bits in the beginning of the piece into one section, and then the tremolo picking part going up into the high bend into another section.
Breaking the song into (logical) sections is a bit of an art, but you will learn in time. (Time multiplied by effort is the biggest secret!)
If you transcribe a jazz solo, perhaps a Charlie Parker solo you could also break the solo into sections depending upon where the solo would fall in the structure of the music.
That is the beauty of music, whether you are playing jazz, classical, blues, rock or metal – each style has unique features and you will need to learn how to work with it.
So break the solo into logical parts for your perusal.
Make sure it is marked clearly your score.
Make sure you know exactly where each part starts and each part ends!
I want you to have a wonderful concept of the structure for you to have a much easier time when it comes to actually practising the solo.
STEP 5: Highlight difficult and cumbersome sections
Next up, I would highlight difficult and cumbersome parts.
I would go as far as writing out the difficult part on a separate score or tab. (Yes, it is more work – but it will pay)
By having definite clarity, it will make your life a lot easier when setting out to learn these difficult parts.
With enough planning and preparation any difficult part can eventually be learned.
Of course you should learn a solo that is at or just above your level.
MAKE SURE IT IS NOT TOO DIFFICULT FOR YOU!
There is no point in learning a Steve Vai solo if you are just starting the guitar.
I vividly remember myself picking up my first guitar magazine and trying to play Steve Vai’s ‘Bad Horsie’… It was really interesting but futile at that stage!!! (At least I had vision)
It sounded like a lot of noise to me and it sounded too difficult and I felt lost.
Of course it is wonderful that I’ve tried it, but I was simply not ready to take up that challenge just yet.
So make sure you select a solo that is at or just above your level.
Of course you can select something challenging to push you forward.
I would definitely recommend doing so from time to time.
So highlight the difficult sections, work out the fingering for the difficult sections.
Then work out the picking patterns for the difficult parts.
You need to know EXACTLY how you are going to approach each tough section.
You need to know EXACTLY with which fingers you are going to fret that section.
You need to know EXACTLY how you are going to achieve your end goal during the difficult bits.
IT IS ABSOLUTELY VITAL not to skip this part, as it is probably the most important process when learning how to play your favourite guitar solo!
Why do I say that?
I say that because the difficult sections is what can put you off from playing the solo.
That is exactly why you need to persist and learn it properly using the right technique and methodology.
So make sure you mark your score clearly and visibly preferably with coloured pens.
Highlight the difficult parts make sure you know exactly what will need the most work!
You can even incorporate the difficult sections into your daily guitar exercise if need be.
Don’t skimp on the section
Put in a lot of time and effort and you will be rewarded!
Sometimes it will take time…
I really want you to succeed and become successful in what you set out to do!
So go for it and just do it!
STEP 5: Practice bars of the solo in repetitions of 5 & 10
This is one of my all-time favourite methods.
It is quite simple.
Here’s what you do:
Start with a difficult section.
Practice one bar or one phrase and repeat that phrase 10 times.
Repeat it 10 times until you can play at without a mistake.
You may repeat each bar or each phrase very slowly.
Do not count any of the repetitions unless they are performed to perfection!
Once you’ve got the entire solo internalised, then you can proceed to practice each and every bar of the solo repeated 10 times!
PLEASE NOTE: Remember to take frequent breaks, as this can be a strenuous exercise.
BIGGER NOTE: Take a BREAK if ever you feel fatigued!
You do not ever want to overdo things and hurt yourself!
So make sure you do have breaks and rests.
I always recommend practising with good posture and good form.
Your goal is to be practising for a very long time and not to overdo things.
So try repeating phrases 5 to 10 times in a row, and you will see MASSIVE improvement.
STEP 6: Practice playing all the notes at 40 beats per minutes
Practising at a super slow speed is one of the best ways to SERIOUSLY improve your playing.
I recommend putting the metronome on at 40 bpm.
Next up you can play the entire solo at 40 bpm OR you can play each and every note in the solo at 40 bpm without worrying about any rhythmic considerations.
The idea here is to internalise the solo and get to know the difficult parts.
Practising this slowly, will give you the opportunity not to overlook important vibratos, pull-offs, hammer-ons or bends
It is wonderful when you practice very slowly.
You finally have an opportunity to really get to know the music well!
It is only when you practice at a super slow speed that you can see things from the right perspective at times.
When you play the solo at full speed it is very difficult to be able to hear all the nuances.
And that is why I recommend practising (from time to time) at a very slow speed.
You will be amazed at the results!
STEP 7: Practice the difficult bits slowly
Yes, this is similar to above, but with focus on the difficult parts!
Let’s say you are practising the awesome guitar solo ‘One’ from Metallica.
Within that solo there are parts that are quite cumbersome and difficult to play properly.
The truth is it that most of the part are actually very easy. (Once you practise enough)
They are only difficult because they are unfamiliar to your brain.
You need to slow down and really get to know each and every little section in detail. (Once again – you will be amazed at what you can achieve with this technique!)
I may for example ONLY work on four to eight bars for an entire hour at a VERY slow pace.
It may seem counterintuitive BUT that is exactly what you need to do. (If you want amazing results!)
You need to focus on getting to know the solo inside out before you try to play it at full speed.
Playing at full speed will come later when you really know what you are doing!
STEP 8: Perfect the ENTIRE solo at a very slow speed
Once you have mastered most of the notes, it is time to play for you to play the entire solo at a very slow pace.
During this phase you should not try to play at speed.
Your only goal is to play the solo slowly but fluently throughout.
Once you can do this for a week or two, getting up to speed should not be an issue.
Of course, this is provided you selected a solo that is within your reach!
This process is very important.
Perfect the solo and practise at a very slow speed and you will be glad that you have done that.
You will probably thank me for giving you this advice… if you follow through!
STEP 9: Practice the right hand alone for the fast bits
This is one of the greatest secrets of playing the guitar.
Most people will skip this just because it is so much work.
I recommend writing out the difficult parts for the right hand only.
You can then practice using your right picking hand ALONE.
You will be amazed at the progress you will make when you do this.
In the beginning it will be extremely difficult.
It will be frustrating and sometimes may even seem unnecessary
But if you practice slowly and meticulously and work your right hand out you will be very surprised at just how things come together in a short period of time.
So try and practice the right hand alone, it will be well worth the effort!
Remember to always ask yourself: “What can I do that no one else will be willing to do?”.
I go the extra mile, you often get to the top so much faster!
STEP 10: Analyse the solo as a piece of composition by itself
THIS PART IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT!
One of the primary reasons you should be learning solo is to try to understand what the artist is doing musically!
A solo is really a composition.
Especially a non-improvised solo.
Well, an improvised solo is also a type of composition really…
Let’s get back to the point.
What I want you to do here is the following:
I would like you to analyse the UNDERLYING harmony and the melody.
When you hear an amazing bend or note with a vibrato the question you should ask yourself is the following:
What degree is the guitarist bending into? (Is it a chord tone or tension??)
For example if the guitarist is bending an E to an F sharp notes and the underlying harmony is E minor then that would be the poignant Tension 9.
If the guitarist holds the bend and the underlying harmony changes to a C major chord the tension would then change to a tension #11!
The truth is – they are reasons why things work.
YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND the reasons behind the music in order to be able to manipulate your audience (in a good way!) and bring LOTS of emotions out!
Music is never created in isolation.
There is an underlying structure in harmony in music.
If you hope to become a great guitarist you absolutely need to understand the structure of music.
You need to understand why CERTAIN notes create CERTAIN effects!
There are reasons why Slash’ solo on November rain sound so beautiful against the underlying harmony.
Also why the intro solo of ‘Fade to Black’ sounds so beautiful.
The dictator (of music) is really the harmony.
The note on top is a reflection of the harmony or a tension on the harmony.
We can analyse this further and break it down.
Notes can be chord tones, tensions or passing tones.
Each category has its uses and effects!
You also need to analyse the cadential occurrences within the piece or solo in question!
Of course a lot of this may be a bit complex for you.
Don’t worry about that just take in the information and in time things will make more sense.
I simply do not have enough time in one article to explain.
It is vital that you understand harmony and theory to become the guitarist you want to be!
Harmony and theory are extremely important to your guitar playing.
You are not just playing anything, you are playing a structure.
And you need to understand the diatonic system as well as modes as well as a tonality.
You need to know which key you playing.
You need to know if you are playing in D minor or G minor.
You need to understand the nuances of the composer or the artists.
Of course there is a lot to take in a lot to learn and you cannot hope to accomplish this all by yourself.
That is why always recommend getting excellent musical training.
If you’re interested in finding out more about I offer, you can take a look at studying with me online or in my studio in central London.
(See: Studying the Guitar With Stefan Joubert)
If you prefer to study by yourself, I would recommend reading and reading a lot.
It is of course more prudent to invest your money and learn guitar from excellent musicians. (Your return on guitar investment will be SO much greater!)
So to conclude this part of the article – you need to understand the underlying harmony and you need to understand the notes on top of the underlying harmony.
You need to understand the melodic tendencies and you need to understand WHY things happen and which notes to use in which scenarios!
STEP 11: Master the solo
Finally, you are now ready to master the solo.
At this stage, I want you to start working the solo up to speed.
You want to make absolutely sure that all the little nuances are played correctly.
I would ALWAYS RECOMMEND that you do not memorise the score or tab until the VERY LAST MOMENT!
If you memorise the score, it will be very difficult for you to memorise all the nuances.
I would recommend reading the tablature or the score whilst practising!
This is vital if you want to learn the solo properly!
Every bit of time that you invest with your instrument will be repaid IN LEAPS AND BOUNDS in the future.
The question is are you building with gold or you building with straw?
If you intend to build with solid gold, then you need to do this properly.
So at this stage, you can pat yourself on the back because you are well on the way to getting your guitar solo to perfection.
But do not rest on your laurels just yet!
Make absolutely sure that everything you play is clean and make sure that you practice in a meticulous manner.
I always recommend getting help from a coach.
Even some of the world’s greatest concert musicians still go for training from time to time to get a second opinion on how they perform what they perform.
Did you know that your favourite artist probably has a few top-notch mentors to help him or her stay tip-top.
It is very difficult for anyone to do everything by themselves!
So getting someone to help you to master the solos and things that you want to play is ABSOLUTELY key!
Being self-taught is really not something to be proud… Yes, if you play grunge guitar it can make a lot of sense
However, if you want to take your guitar playing to the ultimate level (I have nothing personally against grunge – I actually love grunge guitar playing), and play with virtuosity then you are going to need support from a mentor.
You simply cannot do it all alone.
PS. – You are welcome to contact me if you are serious and want to move your guitar playing to a very proficient level!
I offer many options of study.
Follow the advice in the article meticulously and you will be glad you did!
To help you with your motivation – from time to time when you get disappointed simply imagine how great you will feel once you achieved your goal.
Imagine how you would feel if you can play the ENTIRE solo perfectly up to speed!
I will leave you with these final words from this Russian proverb: “Little drops of water wear down big stones.”