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.
Why Learn to Play Solo?
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.