Been meaning to start a thread on this for some time, and finally got off my arse to do it! This is a bit of a difficult topic to pin down, but hopefully we can all provide a bit of insight and some tips that will help us when it comes to writing solos that'll maybe help if you're a bit stuck (which happens to me a lot). When faced with the blank space for a solo, it can sometimes feel a little paralysing and difficult to know where to start. These are meant to be ideas that'll help give you a first bite, somewhere to start from; a launch pad.
So, here are a few things I've thought about this subject. Basically, a few principles you can use to construct solos. These are essentially geared towards smaller solos in more traditional songs that have vocals, but they can be scaled and used in instrumental music. I think they lend a form and structure to a solo that helps elevate it from 'cool little lick' to 'something that has musical purpose'.
1. Take an existing melody and use it.
A good 'trick' is to use a melody that's been used elsewhere in the song - usually a significant one - as the basis or a key ingredient of your solo. An example of this is John Petrucci's solo in Pull Me Under. The solo begins by taking the vocal melody from the pre-chorus ("this world is spinning around me") and playing it on guitar.
It's not exactly the same, but the nut and bolts of it are the same melody, just with a few guitar-centric ornaments. Great way to couch the solo in the song, instead of crowbarring in an excercise you've had in the tank.
2. Repeating over another octave.
Take a melody or lick, play it once through, then repeat the same thing one octave higher (or lower, but going higher tends to work better, as you usually want to build tension through your solo, not wind down). Simple as that, really. Doing exactly the same thing may be a little dull, depending on how interesting the lick is, so you may (probably) want to add in some variation to keep it interesting.
A simple way to do this without sounding too robotic about it is, if your melody or lick lasts 2 bars, to play the melody, then play another 2 bars with some sort of variation or extra line. Now jump up or down one octave, and repeat the structure - play the melody at the new octave, then do a second variation or extra line. Before you know it, your melody or lick has been multiplied by 4. If it was a 2 bar melody, this approach gives you 8 bars! I am math king!
3. Combine 1 and 2
Taking the 'play an existing melody' approach along with the 'repeat over another octave' can really fill up and add form and direction to a solo.
John Petrucci's solo in Pull Me Under is again a good example of this approach. The solo begins with the pre-chorus's vocal melody, which lasts for four bars. The first three of those are pretty faithful to the melody, but the fourth bar adds in a bit of 'guitar spice', On the fifth bar, Petrucci plays the vocal melody again, but one octave higher. As it's the final half of the solo, he is even less faithful and adds in some flair to bring it home and add climax, but the principle is the same.
4. Shock and awe!
Come right out the gate with a fast bit for a few bars. It's a great way to start, and can act like a bit of misdirection, setting you up for a bit of 'coasting time' immediately after it.
Per Nilsson's solo in Ghost Prototype I is a pretty good example of this. The solo begins with some fairly ferocious alternate picking for 6 bars, followed a really cool fragmented arpeggio for 2 bars. Immediately after that, he 'coasts' for a good few bars, just playing a simple melody. To my mind, that start does two things:
- It's got that 'shock and awe' effect, of being a blistering start, which is what you sometimes want.
- When he 'coasts' immediately after it, it feels like a great bit of breathing room, and lends a sensiblity to the solo's structure.
Useful at all? Anybody got any criticisms or thoughts to add or tips of your own?
I like making sure my melodies have a "shape," if that makes sense, with a high point and a low point both in terms of pitch and in terms of intensity. I don't have crazy chops, so I try to do more with note choice and "targeting" notes to create tension and release than shredding fireworks.
Also, starting the solo with a unison bend up to a chord tone "grabs" the listener's ear due to the initial dissonance which then resolves, and it also acts as a great "high point" in the solo to work down from and then build back to.
Mirroring the vocal melody is great, too, and I think one of the keys for the solos that really stand out to me is having interesting melodies that are, for lack of a better word, "singable."
One of my favorites is actually this Weezer track, starting around 1:55 and ending at 2:30:
Pretty much perfect pop/rock solo writing right there, albeit hidden away in a pretty awful song. Great melody, very singable and memorable with recurring motifs, excellent melodic movement with chord tones and tension and release, and awesome layering with delay.