How do I take a scale and make it into a solo?

Note: We’ve added a complete series of lessons on creating solos called Turning Scales into Solos. You’ll want to check them out for the guitar tab, MP3s and helpful examples. We’ll continue to add new lessons in this series over time.

Most solos are the result of (gasp!) planning. The guitarists involved know how many measures are involved or what chord changes are taking place underneath the solo. The good lead guitarists will construct a solo, giving it the same qualities of a well-written song – a beginning, a middle and an end as well as points of dynamic tension and release. Of all the guitarists I know there is maybe one or two who are capable of a quality lead at the drop of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, there are a zillion who can improvise a spur of the moment solo (usually based on scales) that will sound great and, more often than not, fit the mood of the song. With a fair degree of practice and a backlog of riffs, just about anybody can do this. I’m not kidding.

Leads generally fall into one of the following categories: “rhythmic,” “melodic,” “slashing” and “effects.” They’re pretty self-explanatory. And they can overlap – you can have “rhythmic/melodic” or “melodic/effects” and so on. A rhythmic lead usually is a rhythm guitar part brought to the fore. The start of the solo in Proud Mary is a great example of this. The second half of that solo is a melodic lead.

The difference between a melodic and a slashing lead is can be best seen (okay, heard) in the two solos in the Pink Floyd classic, Comfortably Numb. The first solo, between the verses, is truly gorgeous (and the solo on Mother from the same album would fit this description as well). The “melody” carefully follows the chord changes. You really can “sing” it, if you wanted to. The lead at the end of Comfortably Numb is more harsh – full of jarring runs of blues and rock riffs strung together. It’s the sort of thing that makes you drop everything and grab your air guitar off its air guitar stand and play along. Slashing leads are more concerned with scales and flashy guitar “tricks” which could include anything from a simple bend to a complex series of tapping. A melodic solo will follow the path laid out by the chords of the song; the slashing solo will say, “Here’s my scale!” and stick to that, letting the chords of the song fall where they will.

An effects lead is precisely that, a solo built out of an effect or multiple effects. Usually, an effects lead is combined with a melodic or slashing lead but it can stand on its own. One of the inherent problems of an effects lead is that it relies solely on the electronics to accomplish its task This is why some bands sound so much different live on stage than they do on record. Innovations in effects are rapidly changing this, however.

For the beginner, the melodic lead is the best place to start. Way too often guitarists learn to solo simply by copying other solos. You learn various riffs and “tricks” and then string them together in the appropriate key. This is a tried and tested method and while it will get you off to a fast start, it will not make you a good soloist. It will make you a good imitator. If you start out with discovering and developing your own style, it is easier to adapt other guitarists’ styles to fit yours. I’m not saying don’t learn solos note for note (more on that later), just wait a little and give yourself a chance first. Become someone else later if you want to.

Another good thing about melodic leads is that, again due to the nature of the solo, they can be studied and learned on any guitar, whether electric, acoustic or classical. Never con yourself into thinking that “solo” automatically implies “electric guitar.” Any song arranger or soloist worth his or her salt will explore not only different types of instrumentation when constructing a lead, but also the ever-growing array of devices through which to play them.

A lesson on melodic solos, with a step by step guide to constructing a lead part, can be found in the article Leading Questions. Also don’t miss our series of lessons on creating solos, starting with Choosing Colors – Turning Scales into Solos – Part 1.