Learning to play other people’s guitar solos is a great way to begin learning to write your own! Guitar teacher Nils B. shares his tips to learning four classic rock solos so you can develop your technique…
An essential part of every musician’s development is to imitate those who have already mastered their instrument. After settling on a song, give it a couple of close listens (preferably on headphones or a decent stereo), pick up a good transcription, then learn the rhythm parts, while analyzing the chord progressions and any distinctive rhythmical features.
Then start learning the solo, phrase by phrase, while determining the relationship of each note with the chord that’s being played, as well as the key of the song. Also try listening carefully to the guitar tones, and be conservative with the amount of gain or overdrive when trying to copy these. Among other drawbacks, too much overdrive tends to hide your mistakes.
Once you are able to play along with the original (or a backing track if you can find one), try recording yourself, and pay close attention to the details, such as timing, and bending accuracy. And as a final step, once you’re fairly comfortable, try to improvise using the same concepts, simply start by making small variations to the original solo. And of course, if you haven’t already, seek out an experienced instructor who can give you essential feedback about how to play guitar solos like these listed below and keep you from making fundamental mistakes.
Four Guitar Solos You Should Study
The Eagles – Hotel California
This is my personal favorite of the four. Since the progression doesn’t stay in the same key, you are forced to take a more chord based approach. And although there are still plenty of great B minor blues licks to be found, there is also a healthy dose of major pentatonics, played using fairly tricky compound bending techniques commonly used by country guitarists.
On top of this, the F#7 chord adds a darker flavor, which is nicely addressed in the solo with some harmonic minor licks. Last but not least, there’s the harmonized arpeggio outro, which is great to expand your fretboard knowledge, so be sure to learn both parts! In terms of guitar tone, it’s a pretty straight forward approach. Most guitars played into a somewhat overdriven amp will sound great.
Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
Jimmy Page was heavily influenced by American blues and rock and roll guitarists, which can be heard in the many great blues licks demonstrated here. Be sure to pay close attention to the dynamic build up, his vibrato, and timing. Page was known for using Gibson Les Pauls, SG doublenecks, and Fender Telecasters into either big Marshall stacks or low wattage combo amplifiers, so any tube overdriven lead sound will do. Try to add some delay to help with the sustain.
Guns & Roses – Sweet Child O’ Mine
First off, it should be noted that this was originally recorded with the guitar tuned down a half step (Eb Ab Db Gb Bb Eb). Even though it is in the key of Eb minor technically, it feels like E because of the tuning.
This guitar solo actually consists of two shorter solos and a long outro. The slower, more melodic middle solos in Eb minor are a great opportunity to venture out of the familiar ‘box’ at the 12th fret, and explore the area around the 7th. The outro solo is a series of well executed pentatonic blues ideas via a tricky harmonic minor lick in the buildup- all while using a wah pedal.
On the recording, Slash used a custom built Les Paul copy into a modified 70’s Marshall amplifier, but any dual humbucker equipped guitar into a Marshall-esque sounding amp will work. Try using the neck pickup for the melodic parts, and switch to the bridge pickup for the more aggressive sounding climax, together with the wah wah.
Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb
This solo is a great way to develop your sustain and vibrato because of the slower tempo, which really works well with David Gilmour’s melodic lead playing. Although his playing is largely pentatonic based there are some tasteful notes from the minor scale thrown in, together with some great bends and tremolo arm tricks. David Gilmour is known for using fairly elaborate setups, but the essentials to get his sound for this song would be a Stratocaster-style guitar with a tremolo into a relatively saturated/compressed fuzz or distortion pedal (he often used an Electro Harmonix Big Muff), into a clean amp via some delay.
There are obviously plenty of other solos out there which would make good examples, but it is essential that they consist of memorable and coherent phrases. Some other suggestions would include Ozzy Osbourne’s “No More Tears”, Thin Lizzy’s “Dancing in the Moonlight”, Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”, Deep Purple’s “Highway Star”, and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”.
Learning how to play guitar solos can be tricky, so whichever solo you choose, be sure to learn it inside-out (any capable guitar teacher should be able to assist you), and be open to critique from the people around you. Most importantly, use your ears and don’t simply rely on effects to make sure it sounds its best!
Nils B. teaches guitar, ear training, and music theory in Los Angeles, CA. He attended various schools for his training, including the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood. Nils has been teaching students since 2002. Learn more about Nils here!
Photo by Rick McQuinlan