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Learning to Play Solo Guitar

Today I’d like to share some thoughts regarding solo guitar. And by that, I don’t mean “guitar solos,” or so-called “lead guitar”. I mean playing the guitar by yourself, in a way similar to how a pianist might play. Most of us guitarists are accustomed to playing music that is incomplete unless part of a group arrangement. Today’s topic regards music that is only for guitar, with no accompaniment, wherein the guitarist himself plays melody and accompaniment simultaneously.

Getting out of the “Rhythm vs. Lead” Mode of Thinking

It seems that many people, if not most people, including guitarists, are under the impression that one either plays rhythm or lead guitar.

We may have been conditioned to think of guitar music this way because of the way our instrument is used in popular music. You’re playing rhythm when you’re fulfilling the role of the accompanist, and you’re playing lead when you take a solo. In some bands, guitarists are defined by these roles. For example, people commonly refer to Malcolm Young as a rhythm guitarist and Angus Young as a lead guitarist.

I believe that this way of thinking is limiting. Guitarists willfully impose restraints upon their growth as musicians when practicing exclusively for one role or the other.

I will grant the approach of learning rhythm and lead separately an advantage in that it lowers the barrier to playing in a group. With music wherein one is either playing rhythm or lead, neither part presenting a complete musical work without additional parts, a guitarist can enjoy playing with others with far less practice than is required of music that is rendered entirely by a single guitarist.

Why would you want to learn to play solo? We are all aware of the existence of solo guitarists: Classical guitarists, certainly, as well as acoustic guitarists like the internet sensation Andy McKee (and his stylistic predecessor Michael Hedges), and jazz guitarists like Joe Pass who are almost exclusively known for their solo performances. But learning those styles of playing requires enough discipline and time that one might ask, of what value is learning to play solo?

Honestly, I won’t claim there is a lot of intrinsic value in learning to play solo, unless you are specifically interested in sounding like Joe Pass, or Michael Hedges, or Tommy Emmanuel, or if you want to play classical music. Most guitarists are part of a group; in those situations, the guitar is one of a number of voices that altogether contribute to the group sound, like a single instrument in an orchestra. It is expected that the guitar will not stand on its own. There’s no reason to criticize that approach to making music with the guitar.

Yet there are reasons that you may wish to work on your solo chops, especially if you seek work as a freelance performer.

Why Learn to Play Solo?

First of all, being able to play solo makes you more marketable. I would be offered fewer gigs if I couldn’t play solo. Sometimes they’re wedding ceremonies, in which I am playing acoustic fingerstyle — romantic ballads, tunes from movies and musicals, etc. Other times, I am asked to play a solo set during a dinner, before the full band, of which I am also a part, takes the stage for their dance set. I might sometimes perform at a charity fundraiser or other gathering where lounge music is desired but a piano is not logistically feasible. In these cases, I perform solo arrangements of jazz standards.  How did I get into this? Through sheer necessity. It starts with my manager asking if I am able to play a few tunes for a ceremony, or provide an hour of cocktail music, and me saying yes, knowing that I will have to focus all my practice efforts on preparing a small amount of repertoire — enough to get through the gig. Little by little, my list of repertoire has grown to a point at which I can now confidently accept a three-hour gig.
Martin Taylor, a UK-based jazz guitarist who has become known primarily for his solo playing, describes having gone through a similar process in his biography, Kiss and Tell. It was his bandleader who put him on stage by himself, even though he doesn’t seem to have originally intended for his reputation to become that of a soloist. Now his solo recordings are regarded as masterpieces.

If you’re a teacher, solo playing also makes you more effective in your lessons. When I demonstrate a simple melody for a young student, I often play it with the chords so they can hear the harmonic context. This, by the way, is probably a good way to get started with solo playing: Go back into your method books and play some simple melodies, but add chord tones underneath the melody notes. If a melody note is too low for you to include all chord tones, how might you maintain the texture? Solving these problems is a good exercise in developing solo arrangements. Try doing the same thing again, but only with moveable chord shapes. After you get those two skills worked up, the rest is a matter of style and texture. When do you arpeggiate chords? Should you work out a rhythmic pattern (like the famous Travis Picking pattern)? How about a walking bass line? How do you strike a balance between detail and ease of performance? What shortcuts might exist if you had to work out an arrangement with little notice?

If you’re a jazz guitarist and learning from a fake book, you might first learn a song’s melody, then its chords, then practice improvising over the changes. I add another step: Work out a chord-melody arrangement. When you see first-hand how the notes of a melody interact with the underlying chords, without having to create a backing track or rely on “band in a box”-style software, you’re mastering the tune on a deeper level.
Solo playing even gives you an extra option when you are playing the role of accompanist. Have you noticed how piano and vocal arrangements often have the piano doubling the vocal melody? Having learned to play in a chord/melody style, I sometimes I find myself doubling key phrases with a singer when it seems right to do so. Maybe even harmonizing with them.

For me, learning to play solo represents overcoming a personal weakness. I have always revered John Scofield, and when I was young, I thought, Here’s a great jazz guitarist who doesn’t perform solo arrangements. If he can get away with not playing solo, then so can I. But that was a cop-out. I was intimidated by the prospect of devoting time to a different style of playing. Later, I adopted the philosophy that my inability to do something is the best reason to learn how to do it.. Students, think about that: If you ever find yourself asking, “Why should I learn this?” Then answer yourself with the question, “Can I do it already?” If not, then that’s why.

I have found that working out solo arrangements is a highly fulfilling task; it’s almost meditative. It challenges me in a way that practicing single-note leads does not. There are fewer models to directly emulate; what I create is much more my own. The personal psychological reward is enough reason for me to always keep solo playing a part of my practice routine.

As I said earlier, I don’t think playing solo is important for everyone. But if you take on the challenge of doing so, there is no downside. And if you play for hire, there’s a real practical reason to expand your skill set.

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