The 5 stages to play great guitar solos

The five stages of great guitar soloing

There are a lot of ways that you can play guitar solos, little hacks, bigger concepts.

I will give you a general idea on how to use them without getting lost in the jungle and ending up confused with what you should do.

I will also not get too technical in this article but rather give you a more “root level view” to work from.

The main idea here that I want you to take away from this is:

Have something to say.

That is what unites all the great guitar players. They all have something on their inside that they want to express.

It’s not just random notes that they play, they have gotten beyond that point.

Just like me writing this article, because I have something to say.

Instead of stringing random phrases together and hoping they make sense.

There are stages of expression that you will go through when starting to learn guitar soloing and I will take you through each of them.

Then you can check for yourself in which stage you are at so you know what you must do next.

It can also happen that for different concepts you find yourself in five different stages of expression.

The first stage of guitar soloing is: Scale memorization

In this stage you don’t worry about playing “right notes” or sounding good.

You just try to hit the right scale notes.

No backing tracks.

The second stage of guitar soloing is: Playing in the right key

By now you have gotten an awareness that your scale should be in the same key as the background music to match up as much as possible.

So you are mostly concerned with the questions “What is the right scale position for this key?

If you learned the pentatonic scale and you played the first position in the 5th fret you are playing it in the key of A minor.

But if the backing track uses chords of B minor, that position is not working so well anymore.

You have to move it into the right key. In that case you have to move everything up two frets because the B is now the new “root note” and it’s two frets or one whole step higher than the A note.

For more instructions about how to solo in the right key, read this article!

The third stage of guitar soloing is: Chord tone soloing

At this stage you have already figured out that some notes sound “better” than others over certain chords.

That is because they match the chord tones of the underlying chord.

Or in musical terms: The note is CONSONANT.

The opposite would be that a note sounds dissonant and there are two levels to this. More about that later.

Now the question you ask yourself is “What are the right notes to play in this moment?”

There is an intellectual level and an intuitive level to chord tone soloing.

On the intellectual level you just know what chord is playing and what note you are playing.

An example for playing a consonant note is the C note over the C major chord.

Since the C major chord contains the notes C, E and G, the C note will sound rather pleasant.

Your new mission from here is to strengthen the intellectual part by learning which notes belong to which chord.

I would not recommend getting too nerdy about this and learning ALL the notes of every key and where they are on the fretboard.

But try to get to a point where you can call out the chord names of simple triads somewhat instantly.

Especially in the most common keys. (more about that in another article)

In the early stage you may not hear the difference though. Don’t despair.

This just means you have to “train your ears” a bit more and develop the intuitive part:

One simple way to do that is to have one chord played from a backing track or from a recording you made yourself and go through your scale note by note and just listen intentful:

Try to listen for how the note you currently play embeds itself into the chord in the background.

You might experience already that some notes create a little bit of discomfort or tension.

While some notes seem to relieve that tension.

If you have trouble recognizing this tension and relieve, try this:

Go through your scale note by note but also play half steps above and below the current note.

That’s one fret higher or lower.

Usually this will make the dissonance much more obvious.

Another way to amplify the effect and the feeling is to sing the note that you are playing.

If you feel the urge to shift to another note, chances are high that you are playing a dissonant note and your ear “yearns” to resolve that tension.

The fourth stage of guitar soloing is: Make your solos sound more interesting

At this stage the question on your mind most of the time will be “How can I play something interesting?”

You begin to understand how tension and relief works and that there really are no “wrong notes”. (Sounding kinda jazzy hu?)

There are only tense notes and notes that relieve tension.

In musical terms that is called a resolution.

Some notes resolve tension and those are the chord tones.

You are now thinking about how you can use this tension to create interesting phrases that might surprise the listener and keep his attention a bit longer.

You also learned a few concepts and techniques to make your phrases more interesting, for example by applying different phrasing elements like string bends, vibrato, hammer-ons and pull-offs, and slides.

And you might already think about how you can structure your solo and think ahead a little bit.

You are thinking “I will start in the lower area first and gradually work my way up until I hit the highest note so that my solo has a climax”

But that is still superficial and more technical in nature.

Your “story” is not backed by any substance. Yet.

You are still not quite at the highest level of musical expression because just like a child that learns to talk, you don’t have anything deep to say.

The fifth stage of guitar soloing is: Expressive thinking

This is the stage that you ultimately want to reach.

While (and before you start) soloing you are asking yourself “What do I want to express?”

This question then leads you to a deeper understanding of music because you are now forcing yourself to think about how the notes you play affect the listeners mood.

You have a message that you want to bring across.

A feeling, a scenery, an experience.

Which you are trying to “paint” with notes.

Very few guitarists even get this far because they don’t even know that this stage exists.

That is great news for you because simply thinking in this way gives you a big head start.

And even better news: You don’t need to know a million scales to reach this stage.

You can get here with just ONE scale if you want.

And once you reach this stage and this level of awareness, every new scale you learn simply becomes a new tool and expressing yourself becomes easier and easier.

I estimate about half of the way to this stage is already achieved by simple awareness.

Because you are immediately thinking about answers to the question “How does this make me feel? How does my lick / my melody / my phrase impact the listener?”

The other half is getting clarity for yourself by practicing and building the experience.

The more directed to clarity your practice is, the faster you will reach this stage.

One specific way to practice Expression is to start playing single notes over a chord just like in stage three but with adding the question “How does *this* feel for me?”

And then: Writing it down. *Gasp*

Yes, this is crucial. This forces you to put your impressions into actual, concise words.

Then expand to playing 2-note-melodies, 3 notes,…

It IS a process that takes time but the more time you spend with the fundamentals (single notes over a chord) the easier the next steps will be for you to answer.

You can also add phrasing elements bit by bit.

I like to compare this to shooting an arrow to a target.

In the beginning the targets are very close and you are happy if you just hit the target.

Over time the targets stand farther away, the target starts to move, and your standard is to hit the target in the bulls-eye.

The most efficient way to hit the target is to hit the bulls-eye with just one shot.

In the same way you want to learn how to hit your expressive targets with just one phrase.

Many players fall into the trap of trying to learn how to aim by shooting many arrows instead of taking the time and thinking about how they can hit the target with just one shot.

The better you get at aiming, the more targets you can hit.

Learn how to aim here:


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