Music is poetry, poetry is music. The two go hand in hand in my view. They really are one in the same. Take limericks for example. How about this one:
Hickory dickory dock,
the mouse ran up the clock;
the clock struck one
and down he run;
hickory dickory dock
Or this one which spawned many dirty versions (lol). However, here is the original that was really quite tame (and clean):
There once was a man from Nantucket
Who kept all his cash in a bucket.
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man
And as for the bucket, Nantucket
Say them out loud. It does have that natural, sing-song, feel to it, right? There are a number of poems of various styles that do that very thing. So it should be no surprise that music follows the same type of patterns. And more specifically for the purposes of this discussion, soloing on guitar.
All of you songwriters get this. I’m sure there is much you can educate me on! Tying together the rhythm and meaning of the lyric to song is a work of art. I do wonder, however, how many lead guitar players really get it?
Every Solo Tells a Story Don’t It?
The greatest guitar solos can tell magnificent “stories”. What’s interesting about them is that they most often can be subject to interpretation by the listener. Why? Well, there are literally no words to limit your interpretation of the song. Regarding songs that you sing to, that’s a different story. There are plenty of popular songs from my past that carry specific meaning to me that have nothing to do with the lyrical content. For me, it was the music itself that conveyed a certain meaning. For example, there are some songs that remind me of the time I was dating my wife. They were of a very happy time. Literally, the words to some of the songs have nothing to do with what was going on at the time. But, the music did! Neon Tree’s Sleeping With a Friend is one such song. Now, the lyrical content really didn’t have much to do with the relationship at the time (no, really, it didn’t!) but the mood of the song felt happy and “up” to me. At the time, I was just coming out of dealing with the down times of a separation and divorce. This song was popular when my life was changing for the better. And yeah, part of the song was true: the relationship with a friend was growing into something much bigger.
For instrumental, and more specifically for this post, guitar solos, the responses and feelings are much the same as I described above. Think of some the great solos, especially pieces that are literally played as an instrumental for entire song. My goodness, there are so many! Some of my favorites are songs like Santana’s Europa, Joe Satriani’s Always With Me, Always With You, The Allman Brothers’ Jessica, and George Benson’s Breezin‘. No words, but can you hear and feel what is being played? I sure do. If you don’t like these, find your own and really listen to those songs. There is a communication that goes beyond words. I also believe, that each person can listen to the same song and each have their own interpretation of what that song means to them – oftentimes different from what the original artist intended!
Then there are the solos that are only part of songs. My goodness, there are also so many! What is interesting about these is how well they work within the song. They feel a part of it and not separate. Some will simply replay the melody that is sung. Most others will feel like they continue what is being sung. There are many, many, many like that. I have no space here to list them all. Go ahead and google greatest guitar solos of all time and you will get lists galore!
In Gibson.com‘s introduction to their Top 50 list they said this: “What makes for a great guitar solo? Is it mind-melting precision or bone-chilling soul? Is it the way it can leave you slack-jawed, wondering, “How did he do that?” Or is it something that you can sing from memory, a melodic passage that weaves itself into the DNA of the song? Or are the greatest solos ever played the ones that somehow manage to do all of the above?”
To me, it is “all of the above”.
I often tell my students who are interested in soloing (and are of course familiar with scales!) that when they create their own compositions, they should consider the “story” they want to tell. The results can be endless! The simplest, and most basic, way to talk about this is to go back to the poetry example and break a solo down into phrases, similar to stanzas in a poem. While I could give endless examples from all styles, let me use the beginning of Santana’s Europa to demonstrate what I mean. The opening verse can be broken down into 4, distinct phrases in much the same way that vocalist would sing a popular verse: find a melody and repeat it and try put in variations to it each time you go through a line. In Europa, each of the 4 lines starts with basically the same first 6-8 notes, then follows up with something different. In the next verse, it is done pretty much the same way but embellished even further. And then it goes from there.
Blues licks are awesome at this kind of thing. It is primarily why I start off my solo players with the blues. The licks can be technically simple, yet allow for so much feeling that is unique to the style of music. It’s a great way to develop into a competent player: especially in the rock world. There are countless examples from some outstanding players. Here is a song from one of my favorite blues players: check out B.B. King’s opening, and subsequent guitar solo, to The Thrill is Gone. Not only does he put his heart and soul into it, but hear how he creates a theme on the guitar throughout the song. So simple, yet so awesome!
One quick word on jamming: DO IT! Jamming is fun. The spontaneity is a blast. There might be no need to find a melody but simply express yourself where you are at in the moment. There is tremendous freedom in all of that. It is poetic art all it’s own. Not to mention, some of the best ideas for songs, melodies, solos, have come from simply jamming. Want some examples? Find live recordings from some of the great jam bands to start. I personally like the Allman Brothers as my favorite jam band but others like the Grateful Dead and Phish were/are known for that at all their live shows, it really was/is their identity. How about the Dead and Allmans in a 26 minute jam at Fillmore East in 1970? lol Or this 15 minute jam of Jessica by the Allman Brothers.
I once recall being at a party years ago that was almost entirely attended by musicians of all abilities and genres. They had a drum kit, bass amp, a couple guitar amps, and a keyboard set up for anyone who wanted to play. At one point I joined in a jam that literally lasted about an hour as I recall – I kid you not! We mostly rambled around G (major, minor, various modes, etc.), and hit all kinds of styles from rock to blues to jazz. During the jam, some would pass the baton to another person as it was going. Some brass guys even joined in then left. We literally never missed a beat! I think it was the bassist and I that sat in the whole time. Seriously, it was so much fun. And yeah, I was wiped out afterwards!
Find Your Voice
This is by no means a complete discussion! Entire books are written about this very thing. And I am by no means an expert. It is simply what I have learned over the years. You might have better insights into this topic. I would love to hear from you! As a musician, I am always learning and wanting to grow. What I simply want to encourage all you artists out there is to continually seek and develop your own voice. Make your mark in the world no matter how big or small it might be.
If you want to learn more or are in my neighborhood, you can book some lessons here or just contact me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org