Why most guitar solos suck

The guitar world has been plagued with mediocre and ear-bleeding solos since at least the 1980s. For many guitarists, a solo is the perfect moment to show off their technique (or in some cases, lack of technique) and how fast they can hit notes. Certain kinds of metalheads seem to be trapped in the mindset that a good guitar solo has to be faster than the rate of fire of a Minigun. That is not to say that all fast solos are bad and no one knows how to play a good solo, but that in many cases it screams narcissism, arrogance and lack of musical awareness. Although I never was a fan of ultra-fast Dragonforce-style solos, I was obviously no exception to this when I was younger and more naïve, but growing up I realized that this kind of soulless techincal wankery serves no other purpose than feeding the egos of guitarists.

I'm by no means a musical expert, but I think we can easily summarize the problem into the following points:

Cargo cult mentality: There's a tendency to not think outside of the box and just keep repeating the same recipe over and over. Solo over power chords, sweep picking, pinch harmonics, whammy bar. All that a solo needs, right? Music is all about self-expression and exploring new sounds and possibilities. Simply redoing what others have done is an easy way to make something sound bearable, but that doesn't exhibit character and personal style. Instead, practice new scales, techniques, listen to other genres, and most importantly, improvise.

No emotion: Can you tell the difference between this and this? Don't get me wrong, Malmsteen has got incredible skills, but he's also the perfect example of how speed and technique doesn't equal good soloing. The former shows how a simple solo, with a few nice jazzy phrases can make every note sound meaningful, while the latter is quite literally a Harmonic Minor scale up and down at speed and essentially a prime example of what I said in the beginning: narcissism.

No point: Many view solos as something obligatory, something that has to exist in a song. Before going on to write a solo for your song, ask yourself: Is it really needed? Does it have something to say or is it just a bunch of notes put together for the sake of having a solo? Believe it or not, not all songs gotta have a solo.

The solo doesn't fit with the rest of the song: A solo has to compliment the rest of the song and be one with it. This means that the notes, scales and modes have to be selected according to what fits in that particular song you're working on. There are many cases where a song needs a subtle, simple solo instead of a full-blown one with all sorts of crazy sweep picking patterns. No matter how tempted you are to use your favorite techniques, learn when and how to use your weapons properly [1].

"Jimi Hendrix didn't learn theory!": I'm also a supporter of the "free spirit" and expressing yourself without thinking too much about theory. BUT, the harsh truth is that guitar legends like Jimi Hendrix had a natural ability [2] to play solos without learning theory and even then, they did follow the "rules" of music theory. I think it's important to NOT get too caught up with music theory and end up being a robot, but it's also good to remind yourself that you probably are not Jimi Hendrix. After all, we should strive to get better and have something to offer to the world (i.e good solos in this case), and simply denying to learn something won't help you in any way. Music theory is a tool that can help you write a better solo and music in general, not something you should follow religiously.

Theory goes out the window:

When shredding
For some reason Thrash Metal players are especially guilty of this one. As if unecessary speed wasn't enough, many guitarists tend to forget that music theory also applies to soloing. The reason however is not really that they "forget" about music theory when soloing, but rather they have not practiced enough to be able to think about what to play next while also trying to be Formula 1 racers on the guitar, so they end up accidentally playing random notes in many cases. People expect themselves to sound like Jeff Loomis and Ritchie Blackmore without putting in the same effort they did into mastering the instrument. Start slow, master the basics and then increase speed. And use a metronome!
When it's actually needed
I seem to focus a lot on people who don't practice enough, but it's also those that do practice but don't put that practice into action. A scale, a mode, a phrase or a technique has to be internalized in order to be applied in a solo. For example, mindlessly practicing scales up and down is pointless. If you're learning a new scale, find a nice backing track and improvise over it until a solo can come out naturally when you need it. Otherwise, you confine yourself to the things you already know, which means boring solos and no real progress.

Lack of experience: By "experience" I don't mean playing experience only, but also analyzing experience. This is something music theory CANNOT replace. Playing experience is self explanatory; practice more and you'll become better. Analyzing experience means listening to lots of music and figuring out the pieces it's made out of. Having an intuitive understanding of how each phrase in a solo is constructed and how the player connects all the phrases together is the key to developing a good ear and the ability to write solos that make sense. In essence, pay close attention when you listen to music.

Lack of variety in influences: As we all know, music is not created from thin air. Everything has been influenced by something, so the less influences you have the more generic and uncreative your solo is going to sound. Many guitarists in the rock/metal sphere only listen to other rock/metal bands and their solos automatically reflect this lack of variety. Instead of sticking to just one genre, explore new ones, try to combine them and form your own style. Artistically bringing in some more exotic licks and scales can make a solo stand out. Observe how Jazz players do things and learn from them since they usually are the best at soloing [3].

  1. Again, think whether you need a solo at all. [return]
  2. Apart from natural ability you also need to have listened to LOTS of music, and one can argue which of the two is more important. [return]
  3. The point is not to convince to you start listening to Jazz, but to give you an incentive to search. Players such as Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt have lots to offer even to someone who isn't into Jazz. [return]