Solo Shaping

After hearing literally thousands of guitar players play solos of
varying levels of quality in my years teaching at GIT my ear has
focused in on several things that make a solo a memorable event. Good
time, feel, note choice and tone are all important, but one thing I've
left out.


A topic left out of so many guitar related discussions, how-to books,
seminars and programs is how to craft a solo with a "shape". To
clarify "Solo Shape" the following analogy sometimes works. Stories of
all kinds (books, movies, T.V. shows) all share the common elements
of a beginning, middle, and end. A solo is really a story you are
telling on your guitar to a listener. We certainly wouldn't want to
hear a storyteller spew forth a bunch of unrelated sentences and
paragraphs. Instead we expect to be introduced to the theme of the
story, then taken through some interesting twists and turns and then
brought to a satisfying conclusion that is clear and definite.

Too many times guitarists (I'm guilty) play solos that are
collections of unrelated licks and noodlings that for a brief minute
could be ear-catching because of their speed, complexity or volume.
A second listening might leave you less than satisfied. When I think
of all the truly great solos played on guitar (on any instrument for
that matter) the one element always present is shape.

There are many shapes or contours you can mold a solo to. Here are a
few common shapes.

  • Start at low intensity and build to peak at the very end
  • Start at low intensity and build to peak near the end then float
    the listener down in the last few measures
  • Come out swinging, drop it down and then gradually build to the end

These are just a few, but the possibilities are endless. A couple of
factors sometimes predetermine the shape of a solo.

  • Length - If you've only got 8 measures you better get it done now.
    At the other extreme an "open ended solo" allows you the luxury
    of really developing ideas gradually over a long period of time.
    This is really "slow cooking". Long solos could also allow you to
    bring the listener up and down several times if you've got enough
    intreresting themes to develop. Remember, you're playing for a
    listener. Don't wear them out like that guy at the party
    that stays too long (I'm guilty).
  • Setting (what is the solo preceded by and what comes after it) -
    If you have a solo that follows a vocal section that ends slammin'
    you'd better start off at the same intensity level the singer ended
    with. Likewise you'd better deliver the listener back to the level
    of intensity of the vocal entrance at the end of your solo. Think
    of it as receiving the baton in a relay race and passing it to the
    next runner after your lap. If the singer gives it to you at a low
    level it often is best to match that level for starters and know
    at what level he or she will be returning.

None of these things are rules but they should make you start thinking
about your solos in a different way. I like leaning back and firing
just like the next guy but solos that are well crafted (either
consiously or by fate) are far more satisfying than a jumbled mess of

Here's an experiment for the "Classic" solo shape. The solo starts at
a low intensity and ends slammin'. Think of these next things as ways
to contrast and build your solo from beginning to end. Start low,
slow, sparse, simple, and soft. End your solo high, fast, with lots of
notes, complicated and loud. If you contrast any two or more of these
elements you will have a solo with shape.

The Experiment...

Use this simple 4-measure progression that you can solo on in one key
(using one scale ). Record the progression playing rhythm guitar into
your 4-track or program it into your sequencer.

The progression is   Ami  G    F    G
                     //// //// //// ////

Play it 4 times in a row:

Ami  G    F    G      Ami  G    F    G
//// //// //// ////   //// //// //// ////   

Ami  G    F    G      Ami  G    F    G
//// //// //// ////   //// //// //// ////

Think of your solo as having "four quarters" like a football game.
In the first quarter (the first time through Ami-G-F-G ) play a
simple 3 or 4 note idea in a middle register of your guitar. Don't be
afraid to leave lots of space. In the second quarter repeat the first
idea almost note for note. You've now played a "theme" that the
listener can relate to since they've heard it twice. In the third
quarter move up to a higher register and play either a brand new idea
or a more complicated version of the original idea. In the forth
quarter play something even higher with more notes that resembles your
third quarter idea. Stop tape, rewind and listen. You should hear a
solo with some logic and good compositional elemnts. Repeat this
process over and over.

There are many ways to shape a solo but getting started thinking about
it is easier if your use the example above as a template. Go back and
listen to some of your favorite solos and look for the shape in them.
Mimic these other shapes from different solos. The hardest thing
about this is actually remembering to think about it when you're
playing. I've found it relatively easy to get people to do it, but
harder than hell to get people to remember it in the heat of a

Good luck and happy soloing.

Joe Elliott, department head at the Guitar Institute of Technology in Hollywood, is a killer fusion guitarist in his own right.

His tunes are a result of his brain mixing up the gazillion songs he's played gigging for many years.

His latest project is Joe's Place, a seven track instrumental offering of melodic rock fusion.

Joe Elliott