What would rock and roll be without the guitar solo? While it’s true that some bands have dispensed with solos altogether—The Ramones spring to mind, right away—most guitar-based rock songs feature a singular moment where the lead guitarist steps up and cuts loose in his own unique fashion. Approaches to crafting a great solo vary, but one common theme holds forth: the solo must serve the song at-hand. Below, 10 guitar greats share their thoughts.
Peter Frampton (as told to Gibson.com, 2010)
Maybe I’m lazy, but I don’t like to work solos out. When I’m recording, my usual method is to do three solos, all the way through, and then stop, have a cup of tea or coffee, make a phone call, and go back and do another three. Then I go through them all, and choose bits. Usually one of the solos done at the beginning sounds right, nearly all the way through. But I don’t grade them as I’m going along. I’m not thinking, “Oh, we need another bit here, or something.” I just do them. That said, though, I would have already played around with the songs, getting used to the chords, and playing along, and jamming along with myself. It’s not as if I haven’t practiced the solos, or messed with them before I actually blast away.
Kirk Hammett (as told to Guitar World , 2013)
You sometimes need an objective opinion [about solos], and it's good to ask the guys. They'll make suggestions, but they never tell me what to play. It's more like, “I'm going to play what I think feels good, and if you don't like it, you tell me, and maybe I'll change it.” [I have final say], but it's good to have an objective opinion around, because it can lead to other areas and directions you didn't consider in the first place.”
John Frusciante (as told to Billboard, 2013)
Any guitar solo should reflect the music that it’s soloing over and not just exist in its own little world. When Frank Zappa [did] an extended solo, he would depart from the song and have a very simple section that he could easily solo over without having to think too much about anything except his own playing. I’ve studied his solos my whole life, and I love them, but I see the difference between them and a song. I think a solo moves forward the way a song does.
Ace Frehley (as told to Fuzz Magazine, 1997)
Years ago, in Kiss, when the rhythm tracks were done, the vocals were done, and I had to do my guitar solo, I used to sit home and spend hours trying to get the best solo for the song. Nine times out of 10, I would walk into the studio thinking I have this great solo, and the [other guys] would go, "We don't like it!" So I'd have to scrub it and start from scratch. Today, I just go in and I don't think about what I'm playing. I figure out what key I'm in and I kind of empty my head.
Brian May (as told to Guitar for the Practicing Musician, 1993)
Freddie [Mercury] had a way of painting a picture that I always felt I had something to contribute to. Playing the solo was just a matter of reproducing what was in my head. I could hear it as part of the song all along. I'd always know that when the time came to do my bit I knew what it was going to be like. In that sense it was worked out, but I wouldn't normally sit down and write things out. I think you can get a little sterile and you start doing the expected thing, whereas if you allow yourself to be intuitive a lot better things come out. It's very seldom that I approached a solo with no idea and came up with something good. I know before I start playing whether I have something to say or not. If I don't have something to say, the best thing is not to do it and come back on another day.
Mark Tremonti (as told to Ultimate Guitar , 2008)
I first listen to the chord progression and then try and come up with a bit of melody to it. I’ll play around with it until something cool happens, and then fill in the gaps. If something inspiring happens while I'm improvising, then I'll keep that part. And I keep building upon that until the whole thing is inspiring. It’s important to come up with some kind of melody in the solo, but a lot of time, it’s purely hit or miss.
Joe Bonamassa (as told to M Music & Musicians, 2011)
My solos are nearly always improvised, even in the studio. Solos are a reaction to what’s going on around me. Having a solid framework—melody and songwriting structure--can help power a solo. I have great players [around me], and I often react to what they’re doing. They take me to a good place.
Steve Lukather (as told to Gibson.com, 2010)
I generally don’t work things out, unless it’s clearly obvious that it’s something I wrote specifically for a particular song. An example is “Don’t Say It’s Over,” from the album All’s Well That Ends Well. There’s a middle section that sounds like a cross between Jeff Beck and Weather Report, and that section leads into a solo. It keeps modulating until the listener is thinking, “Where is this going?” And then I explode into a solo. I spent time working on that, because I wanted to make a statement. But other solos come from just jamming around.
Mick Ralphs (as told to Gibson.com, 2013)
I never planned anything as far as the solos went. I would just play whatever came to mind, that fit the song. I suppose being a writer, and starting off basically as a rhythm player, were the main reasons lead guitar was always secondary to me. I always figured that whatever I played should fit the song, and take it to another level, rather than be a showcase for my guitar. It was like, “What can I do that will add something to this song, that will take it up a notch?” People used to ask me, “Do you play rhythm, or do you play lead?” My answer always was, “I just play guitar.” Some of the songs I write don’t need solos. They’re in there only if they’re warranted.
John Petrucci (as told to Music Radar, 2013)
I always want [a solo] to be a musical moment--it should contribute to the song. You're really feeding off the feel of the music and working off the melody and reacting to what's going on. I think if you plan it out too much it gets too sterile. You surprise yourself sometimes and that's great. But then sometimes you have a definite thing that you’re trying to do. Maybe you want to play these arpeggios through the chord changes and you tried it but it was kind of sloppy, so you don't want to leave that. Then you go back, work it out, and do a clean take so that it's happening. For the most part I build the solos piece by piece, just like writing any piece of music really.
Mick Ralphs photo: Carl Dunn