You have two options when learning guitar solos. You can either get "close" and sorta fudge the rest, or you can learn guitar solos note for note, pursuing an identical cover.
While the value of the latter, shall we say "perfectionist" approach, is sometimes debated, learning guitar solos note for note is a prudent and necessary part of covering a piece of music.
No one ever says it's okay to fumble through bass lines, chords or dominant melodies, so why skimp on solos?
While it's not easy to nail a guitar solo perfectly, it can be done.
Take Cesar Huesca, for example:
Cesar Huesca learns his guitar solos note for note.
And Cesar is just one of many. He's fast, sure. But he's also accurate.
So, how do we do it?
I've found there are two components needed, to learn guitar solos accurately, that are often missing.
- Proper right hand picking technique
- Tab sheets that play accompanying audio with a variable tempo
We'll cover both in this article. If you want to refresh on a different topic, we have a complete how to play guitar resource where everything is ordered properly.
Read more: Broad Definition of Guitar Lessons
Why technique probably isn't your biggest problem
We need to keep this in mind:
Learning solos is not the same discipline as building chops or playing fast. When we learn a guitar solo we're applying a skill that we've (hopefully) already developed, like a familiar melody or guitar scale segment. That doesn't mean we're speed demons. Rather, that we've understood the difference between learning a solo and shredding practice.
Your primary focus should be learning how to properly engage the right kind of tablature.
They're completely different disciplines, requiring different approaches.
Thus, it stands to reason that the barrier between you and tracking a solo to perfection is not primarily your technique.
The bigger issue might be that you're not using the right tools or at least not utilizing them in the right way. It might sound too easy, but your primary focus should be learning how to properly engage the right kind of tablature.
So, to address technique, we'll briefly cover a few best practices, courtesy of Chris Zoupa, primarily focusing on the right or "picking" hand. These will serve as a broad stroke to get us all on the same page, at least technically. Once that's covered, I'll take you through six actionable steps covering the type of tablature you should be using, how to use it and how to progress through solos note for note.
Technique and Best-Practices
The following video by Chris Zoupa gives us a framework to make sure our technique is optimized for soloing and fast playing in general.
Like I said, there's no expectation that you're a speedster, just that you're not a newbie when it comes to guitar solos and that you'll choose to pursue solos that are "within reach" in terms of your skill level.
Start by watching Chris's video all the way through.
Chris Zoupa lays out a five-part technique-related "checklist" for playing fast and learning solos.
I won't beleaguer each point, but here's a quick summary:
- Picking Radius (right hand): Keep it short
- Chromatics and Pentatonics: Start with these before practicing triplets
- Economy Picking: Avoid it at first
- Metronome: Use it to find the pulse of what you're playing (quaver, semi-quaver, etc.)
- Choosing a Pick: Comfort matters, so experiment with a few different options (thickness, material, etc.)
If you watched Chris's video, you'll be able to apply all these points as you practice through the six steps below.
Remember, our goal isn't simply to practice building speed but to learn actual solos.
Now that we've established some technique, we can get into the solo studying process with a specific song, bringing us to our first actionable step.
Step #1: Pick a Song
You cannot learn how to learn solos, in a broad sense.
A far more effective approach is to pick a solo from a specific song and actually learn it. Moreover, you'll need to focus on just that solo until you've learned the entire thing. Avoid the temptation to jump to other songs.
You can stick with Cesar's venture, the Spin Doctor's piece, or something different. Just make sure the solo you attempt to learn meets the following prerequisites:
- Within the reach of your skill level (challenging, but not impossible)
- Clearly-defined by the artist (don't try to track improvised solos)
Once you've selected a song you can begin the process of learning the solo and applying the tactics we'll outline.
If you need some suggestions, checkout our list of songs with easy guitar solos.
Remember, we need tabs and audio playback, together.
Step #2: Find a Tab with Audio Playback
Most of the time we look for a tab sheet, it goes something like this:
We go to Google and type in a query, perhaps "Kenny Wayne Shepherd Blue on Black Solo Tab."
This usually lands us at Ultimate Guitar or some site with a text version of the tab. Now, I've got nothing against Ultimate Guitar or any other tab site, but many of them don't have any kind of audio to go with their tabs. Moreover, plain-text tab sheets are not properly broken up by measures, which makes them notoriously difficult to read.
I would strongly advise finding a tab that has an accompanying audio playback and proper musical notation. That means that you can play the tab through with an audio file and actually hear the notes in real time.
It'll also allow you to break the solo up into measures that are easier to learn.
There are a couple of different tools I'd recommend for this.
The (sort of) Free Option: Songsterr
The first is a website called Songsterr.
Songsterr has a massive library of music and provides a playback option for most of it.
Additionally, most of their tabs are given in proper notation with measures and the correct tempo.
Once you've found your song on Songsterr, there are usually multiple instrument tracks to select from a single song. Click on the guitar headstock icon (on the right side of the tab) and find the guitar track that displays the solo.
If you want to slow the solo down, you'll need a premium (paid) account to do so, which is a monthly subscription.
Assuming you're willing to pay for this feature, I'd recommend going with Guitar Pro, which is a far more robust solution and a one-time cost, as opposed to a monthly membership.
The Free/Paid Option: Guitar Pro Software
Guitar Pro can be downloaded for free and used for 30 days before an upgrade is required. Song files, that can be opened in the software, can be downloaded from third-party sites like GTPTabs, also for free.
The full software is a one-time cost of $75.
This software will play any of the Guitar Pro files that you might download online, while also allowing you to create music from scratch. The songs you'll download will play audio along with the tab sheet in Guitar Pro and, more importantly, will allow you to slow down the tempo of the music.
Being able to slow things down is a critical aspect of learning guitar solos note for note, especially when you're dealing with fast or ambiguous-sounding patterns.
At least get an audio-equipped tab from Songsterr, for free. If you find that slowing it down is necessary, you can upgrade to Guitar Pro then.
Once you have your tab sheet, we can start employing a learning approach.
Step #3: Break the Tab up by Measures
The first thing to do is break the song up into sections, based on measures.
For those who don't know, a "measure" is a term used to indicate a particular section of music. For example, you can see from the Songsterr tab that the solo for "Blue on Black" starts at measure 57.
Note that this further emphasizes our need for a premium tab sheet with proper measure lines, like the ones generated by Songsterr and Guitar Pro. A simple text-based tab sheet won't give us this info.
This might sound time consuming, but keep in mind that in most guitar solos every measure is different, thus the time allotted to each one will vary.
Take the first measure of the "Two Princes" solo that Cesar did, for example.
And now measure 65.
Clearly you won't need to spend the same amount of time on each measure. The point of taking one measure at a time is to help you isolate difficult areas and improve how much of the solo you retain as you learn it.
Once you break a solo up and start learning it one measure at a time, the entire process will be quicker and much easier, particularly with an audio-equipped tab sheet assisting you.
Step #4: Apply Chris Zoupa's Picking Technique to Each Measure
This is where we get to apply what we learned in Chris's video.
I would first emphasize the value in simply picking every note.
That means, as Chris pointed out, no economy picking and, I would add, no hammer-ons or pull-offs, at least not at first.
- No economy picking
- No hammer-ons or pull-offs
If the goal is to de-complicate the guitar solo, deciding when and where to use these techniques is counter-productive, at least in the early stages of the learning process.
When you've learned the solo and you can pick every note, you can then fall back to economy picking and hammer-ons or pull-offs if and when you need to.
The idea is to prepare in such a way that if you must play every note with a traditional alternate picking pattern, you'll be able to.
Step #5: Start Playing through the first Few Measures Slowly
Once you've gotten through an alternate picking pattern on the first few measures, play through them all at once at a slower speed.
I'll shift gears here back to the solo from "Blue on Black" by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, since it does a better job of illustrating some of these ideas, and is a little more challenging.
Here's what the tab looks like for the first few measures.
Here's how it sounds on Guitar Pro at full speed (78 bpm):
And the same segment, cut to 60 bpm:
Using Guitar Pro to slow down tabs
Since I don't have a premium Songsterr account, I used Guitar Pro to slow down the track.
If you want to follow along, here are the download links for the software and the "Blue on Black" song file.
You'll need to install the software (once downloaded), then double-click the song file to open it in Guitar Pro.
Once you do, you'll have to find the solo, and perhaps sift through multiple instrument tracks, as seen here for "Blue on Black."
When you've identified where the solo starts, focus on the first four measures or so, which is the image I posted earlier, before the above audio samples. As you work through it, you can change the tempo of the song to be as fast or slow as you want using the BPM number right beneath the player at the top of the screen.
The default tempo for "Blue on Black" is 78 bpm, though I found that cutting it back to 60 bpm makes learning each note much easier.
Step #6: Play from the Beginning Every Time You Add a Measure
You shouldn't consider a measure "learned" until you can play through it with the track at the default speed. Once you're able to do that consistently, it's time to add more measures in the same manner as the first few.
However, the process should include "rehearsing" from the beginning of the solo, every time.
Here's what I mean:
- Learn a few measures and get comfortable with the cadence of the solo
- Learn the next measure or two by themselves
- In order to "play through" the new measures you've learned, start from the beginning of the solo and play everything you know up to that point.
For example, let's say you've learned measures one through four of a solo. If you add the fifth measure, go back and rehearse measures 1 through 5. If you then add 6 and 7, rehearse 1 through 7 and so on.
Other Tools and Resources for Learning Guitar Solos
Aside from Songsterr and Guitar Pro, there are some other helpful places you can go for soloing help.
I'll highlight a couple and then provide a quick bullet list.
YouTube Lessons and Tutorials
Learning guitar solos note for note is much easier than it used to be, thanks largely to the presence of YouTube.
Not only are there tons of tutorials and how-to videos, but there's also a feature in YouTube that allows you to slow videos down while maintaining a song's pitch.
Take this run of "Blue on Black" by Paul Audia.
Paul Audia performing the "Blue on Black" guitar solo.
To slow the video down, click the play button, then the little gear icon.
From that menu select "Speed" then set it to 0.75.
This will play the video and audio at 75% of the actual speed, which I've found is a great spot for learning most guitar solos. If the track you're working on is faster than 90-100bpm, try setting the speed to 0.5.
Guitar Tricks Song Lessons
YouTube is free, easy to access and there are plenty of lessons on there (good ones) that show you how to play solos note for note.
However, a more structured and professional-level option would be the Guitar Tricks song lesson database. They have a ton of song tutorials with professional instructors, all of which cover each guitar track in their entirety, including the solos.
Here are just a few examples of the songs with difficult guitar solos you can learn:
- Still Got the Blues by Gary Moore
- Alive by Pearl Jam
- Sharp Dressed Man by ZZ Top
- Crossroads by Eric Clapton
- Cult of Personality by Living Colour
In each tutorial section, you'll have the song broken up into several different components. If there's a solo, the solo itself will often be parsed into individual sections for easy learning.
Each section is its own video, with a navigation pane to the right and multiple angles for better demonstration.
This is truly one of the most optimal and professional ways to learn a guitar solo note by note. If you aren't sure you want to pay just yet, they'll let you try a full access membership free for 14 days, and then give you 60 days after that to cancel for a full refund.
Last I checked, their database had around 600 total song lessons, and I'm sure they've added more since.
If you want a more full look at what a membership is like, you can checkout our Guitar Tricks review for more info. I've been recommending (and using) them for a long time as they're the best in terms of online guitar courses and specific lessons.
- Chris Zoupa's YouTube Channel
- Ben Eller's YouTube Channel
- Karl Golden's YouTube Channel
- Ultimate Guitar Tab Collections
- Guitar Tutorialsdotit YouTube Channel
- 25 Best Slow Guitar Solos (Ultimate Guitar)
- Top 30 Easy Guitar Solos (Guitar Habits)
- 54 Songs with Easy Guitar Solos You Can Learn Quickly
What about improvising?
When is it okay to bail on tracking a solo and just improvise?
To be fair, you can improvise whenever you want. If that's something that's easier for you and fits with the song you're playing, there's nothing saying it won't work or you can't do it.
What I wouldn't concede is that improvising a solo is the equivalent of tracking it note for note.
Those two disciplines are not at all the same.
I tend to have far more respect for someone who has taken the time to learn a solo perfectly, then I would if they were to just make something up on the fly.
In a lot of cases "improvising" is just a mask used to avoid the hard work of actually figuring out what someone else is playing. As we've seen with Cesar and Paul's videos, taking the time to learn and master a solo properly goes much further in terms of displaying and indicating talent.
Improvising is fine, but it's not the real thing.
What should the beginner focus on?
So, if you're just starting out, where should your focus be?
Should you learn to improvise or track solos?
In an ideal world, you would be able to do both. Though I'm of the persuasion that learning to track solos makes improvising a lot easier. The reason is that tracking solos forces you to tackle patterns and movements that your fingers don't naturally tend to.
Tracking solos forces you to tackle patterns and movements that your fingers don't naturally tend to.
If you've been playing guitar for awhile, you might know what I mean. The muscles in your hands and fingers get comfortable with certain movements and stubbornly gravitate toward them.
When I start soloing, here's a simple pattern that I typically "fall into."
If I improvise all the time, I gravitate towards certain pre-memorized patterns like this one and I tend to play them a lot. That's not good, since it narrows my abilities and makes my lead play sound one-dimensional.
Now, if I take the time to track the "Blue on Black" solo, I run into numerous instances where I'm playing a variation of that pattern which challenges my muscle memory and diversifies my playing tendencies.
Take a look:
Even if I only look in the first few measures, there are plenty of areas where my ingrained pentatonic pattern is challenged and drawn out into something different.
If I didn't take time and get these right, in favor of just improvising all the time, I would be far less likely to challenge my own muscle memory. This means that tracking a solo actually makes me better at improvising because it helps expose my hands and mind to different shapes, runs and patterns that I wouldn't have thought up on my own.
If you're trying to decide between improvising and tracking a solo, I would say track first, improvise later.
Questions, Comments and Continuing Education
I know that this hasn't been heavy on technique.
That was never the goal of this piece.
My goal was instead to give you an approach and a method that gives you the best chance of properly applying the technique you already know.
If you have questions about this process, leave them in the comments section below and I'll respond.
Flickr Commons Image Courtesy of Kmeron