So you’ve got the chords, and that riff that leads out of the verse. You’re jamming along when the second chorus comes to an end and you reach your favourite part of the entire song. The guitar solo! Unfortunately the 10 minute guitar tutorial that you watched on YouTube last week didn’t show you this part, and all of the TAB’s that you find online are confusing and inaccurate. So what do you do next? How do you jam along to that solo just like you were the rest of the song?
Ok, not all guitar TAB’s that we find online are substandard, but many are, and especially when we start learning songs that are lesser known or from the B-side of your favourite album. They are a great starting point, sure, but at some point in our journey of learning the guitar we have to start learning to use our ears. Did Hendrix learn solos from his idols by searching up the TAB on his smartphone? What he did was continuously drop the needle over and over until he learned it note for note, or at least as close as he could. And you can bet that he was throwing in his own inflections and licks to make the solo unique to his style.
When we first start diving into the subject of learning guitar solos we are probably aiming to have it sound exactly like the record though, meaning we want every bend, every hammer-on and every slide to recreate that of the original. Maybe the TAB you found online has given you a basic outline for how the solo goes but there’s still some polishing up to do. This is where we take it one bar at a time to achieve our goal of playing the entire song front to back.
It’s certainly no race, and shouldn’t be something that you try to finish in one sitting. Transcribing a guitar solo should be something that brings joy to the player, closely listening to the track one lick at a time to ensure that all intricacies are recreated accurately. There’s a few things I do when transcribing that prove to make the job easier time and time again, the main tool being a phrase trainer program. This will allow you to import the mp3 of the track you are working on to then manipulate the tempo, key and tuning, just to name a few features. Not only this but you can easily mark the start of the solo or a bar before to give yourself a lead in and instantly recall that specific part of the song simply by hitting the space bar, meaning there’s less faff trying to scroll through the iTunes playback bar trying to find the exact spot that you want. My phrase trainer of choice is Transcribe! by a company called Seventh String, and is well worth the investment in my opinion with its user friendly layout. There are other cheaper or free alternatives out there as well such as Audacity, or any Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) such as Garageband, Logic, or Pro Tools which will also give you this functionality.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of a phrase trainer program is the ability to slow down the tempo of the tune whilst keeping the sound quality high with no lagging like you may get when using the slow down feature on YouTube for example. Even at 25% of the original speed you can hear every note clearly, almost as if it was recorded at that tempo. I am a big believer in learning solos at a relatively slow tempo, as you need to be able to process what you are playing without having to struggle to change positions in time or think about what lick is coming next. I have found through experience learning solos myself and teaching students solos that you will arrive at your end goal of playing the solo at full tempo much quicker if you start the solo at a much slower speed, learn it accurately and let it digest over time, to then slowly bringing up the tempo, rather than trying to start off learning the solo at full or close to full tempo and risk the licks being messy and hard to fix once they have been practised that way.
A phrase trainer is a great tool to hearing what the guitarist is actually playing, but another crucial step to learning that solo that I have found is to not bite off more than you can chew. It should never be a rushed process, especially if this is something that you are doing for your own enjoyment. Try to enjoy learning this solo one lick at a time and really process each phrase that you are playing, thinking about the rhythm and perhaps where in the pentatonic scale the licks are falling if that is relevant for the song (more on this in a bit!). If you find yourself forgetting what comes next in the solo, perhaps leave that part for another practise session, and instead just work on the few bars or licks before and focus on playing those accurately and cleanly. We all know the fast lick in the middle of “Sweet Child ‘O Mine” that we’ve all tried to learn at some point. Recently I sat down to try and tackle this lick for an upcoming gig, and after a few sittings of practise found that it slowly but surely was sinking into my muscle memory. Short but frequent bursts of practise has always worked best for me, and I prefer to break up learning a solo over as many sittings as possible. If I am feeling overwhelmed trying to add in too much of the solo that is new to me, I’ll take it back a few bars and instead focus on executing what I know as good as I can play it for that day. I often find that when I next sit down to practise that I feel ready to learn the next few licks and I am able to memorise and internalise the new licks because the first part of the solo is now in my muscle memory and isn’t taking up too much brain power!
So once you have learned the solo front to back at a slow tempo, you can start to slowly play along and bring up the speed by 5 or 10% at a time in your phrase trainer. I would definitely recommend playing along to the track, which will allow you to hear any parts that you are playing out of time when they don’t quite sync up with the original. I can always tell if a students has practised a song with the track or just by themselves, as they will often play the rhythms incorrectly or almost in free time if they haven’t done so yet.
We of course have to practise the licks by ourselves first to get it under our fingers, but make sure you jam along with the song as soon as you feel confident.
Once you’ve been working on the solo for a few weeks or months playing along to the track at or close to full speed, you will feel a great sense of accomplishment that you have mastered the solo that once seemed impossible! Not only can you show this off to your friends and your instagram followers, but you can start incorporating these into your own improvised solos. Improvising is a whole other topic in itself, but guaranteed when Jimmy Page took that monster solo on “Stairway To Heaven” he would have most likely taken some licks from his idols solos that he transcribed somewhere along the line. In fact you will start to notice the more you transcribe that there are licks that come up time and time again in different peoples solos, which is what we call a cliche. Every style has many cliche licks, and they are a great place to start when trying to throw a few new licks into your own solo over a 12 bar blues. Let’s say you and your buddies are having a jam session, or you’re having your weekly guitar lesson with your tutor and you’re playing over a blues to get warmed up, try and pick a few of your favourite licks from that solo that you’ve worked tireless on to make your own. You can change them to suit the song that you are playing over to make them unique, and if you have visualised where they fall over the minor pentatonic pattern then it will be easier for you to transpose this lick into whatever key you are playing in. A great lick to start with would be the first lick from the “Stairway To Heaven” solo, which falls directly in the A minor pentatonic shape (with the exception of the last note, which still sounds great!), making it easy to convert to other keys. Basically learning a solo does not have to end at finishing learning all of the notes. You want to use this as inspiration to fuel your own licks and improvisations.
So all that’s left to do now is to grab your guitar and to get jamming! Do yourself a favour and install a phrase trainer on your device, import your song of choice, and start learning. Take your time and enjoy the process, it’s not a race. The more you transcribe solos and songs, the quicker the process becomes as you develop your ear. A sharp ear is a great skill to possess as a musician of any level, so make it your mission to add that to your growing list of guitar skills.
-Cameron Hayes, November 2019