The guitar solo

I can’t remember if I’ve talked about this before, so if I have, then maybe take a pass on this post.  But I was thinking about guitar solos today- we did a show and I was watching some of the other bands.  Lotta solos.  Some good, some not so good.  I have some thoughts.

A lot of my insights are borrowed from other people and I’ll share one here.  My friend was watching a local singer/songwriter do an acoustic set.  I wasn’t there for the set, so this is all second-hand.  Anyway, said guy was doing his set and singing songs, doing some solos in his songs.  Which is brave when it’s just you and a guitar, and you’re sitting down.  No way to draw attention from your mistakes.

But maybe that’s wrong, because my friend’s observation was that the audience was paying attention while he was singing, but once he started soloing, everyone was looking the other direction.  Only the guitar players in the audience (this was a small scene, in a small bar, so my friend, could tell, I guess) were paying any attention to the guy’s solo.

Another time I was talking to a guy from some band, can’t remember the guy or the band, but he was the rhythm guitar player.  A cool rhythm guitar player.  He was good, but not doing anything flashy.  Just looking cool.  The band had a lead player, but everyone would go out of their way to compliment his guitar playing.  Even though he was doing the easy stuff.

All of this is hearsay, obviously.  But they kind of fit into my theory that there is a kind of valley in people’s perception of guitar player skills.  Beyond a certain point, there’s really no reason to try to get better, unless you’re going to be a GUITAR GOD.

I made a chart.  Here’s how much attention the audience pays a guitar player’s skill.

Audience Interest

So why show off when no one cares?  Well, this is supposed to be fun, and most guitar players like to noodle.  We like to imagine we are Jimi Hendrix or Jack White or Slash or whoever.  It’s just a hobby, so why not.  YOLO.

But since I’m trying to figure out the formulas for maximum audience pleasure, I’ve come up with some rules for self on when and how to play solos.  They’re roughly this:

Do a good solo.  One that takes the listener on a sonic journey of suspense, wonder and, ultimately, triumph.

Sure, no one but a guitar player cares about Noodles McGhee but if you can write something like the solo in Hotel California or All Along the Watchtower or Mr Crowley, people will enjoy that.  This, sadly, is far beyond my ability, so this has never once come into play for me.

Do a short good solo.

I have occasionally done this.  What’s a short good one?   I love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett has a nice, tight one.  The Go-Go’s usually had good ones.  The two that Steve Jones plays in Anarchy in the UK are good.  Just short, sweet, something to remind people that they are listening to a rock song and that if you had to you could bust out some killer licks.

Do an anti-solo.

This is more the Robert Quine school of punk rock guitar- blast out a bunch of notes very quickly, somewhat discordantly and make a joke of the whole thing.  Basically, de-construct the solo.  This is funny once or twice in a set, but I’m always nervous that if I do too much of it, the audience will either think I can’t play, that I’m just a weirdo, or that I am some sort of self-indulgent noodler.

Not do a solo at all.

I only very rarely even bother on my own songs anymore.   Enough solos have been played already.  The world won’t miss another of mine.


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