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Four Hacks for Building Better Guitar Solos

Ever find yourself pouring on more gain thinking you’ll be heard only to drop off the sonic radar when it’s your time to shine? Nailing the perfect solo tone isn’t as easy as it seems. Thankfully there are simple yet impacting strategies for sculpting better lead tones. And most of them don’t take any new gear at all.

This week on TPS, Dan & Mick tackled the topic of what to do when your solo sounds fail to impress. Some of the hacks were philosophical (how should you approach the idea of soloing?), others practical (what can you do to play more by playing less), and still others gear-based (what simple pedal solutions can solve a world of problems?).

If you’re struggling with busting out of the mix for lead or solo sounds, try some of these hacks to make a bigger impact.

Think about Your Playing as a Conversation

It’s easy to overdo it when it comes to soloing. You’ve got a few bars in the song and the natural inclination is to cram as much in there as possible. Fight the urge. Simplify. Streamline. Go for quality.

Mick’s recommendation was to “play half as many notes as you might want” to give your creation some space, dynamics, and room to breathe. Dan recommended thinking about your solo riffs as if in a conversation: one short line asks a question, the next gives a pause, and the rest in the series talk back. By playing less you’re automatically giving the audience something intentional and focused to zero in on. Already this gets you on the way to a more discernable and memorable tone.

Outline Your Solos over Underlying Chords

Here is where knowing some basic chord positions and triad shapes up the neck can go a long way. As Dan noted, “it’s about playing in outlines of the chords—all the notes are there.” Not only does this help enhance the overall flow and cohesion of your solo with what the rest of the group is playing, it can help you get out of a bind. “If you’re ever stuck,” continued Dan, “just play the notes around the outline of the main chords, bend them around a bit, and it will always sound good.”

Never Start on the First Beat of the Solo

Here Dan & Mick cited the authoritative advice of Pete Thorn: if you’re going to play a guitar solo, never rush in and play on the first beat of the bar. Give yourself some time. Build a little suspense. This will help both provide a sense of dynamics and transition in the song as well as put you in the driver’s seat of how and when the lead guitar builds that bridge or interlude. If you rush in, it’ll sound forced and overly rigid. So take a moment and step into the mix when you’re ready to start the conversation.

Find Ways of Separating Your Tone Out from the Mix

Here is where gear can come into play. As Mick commented, there are really two things you need to achieve a good guitar solo tone. “First, you need audibility because you need to be heard. Second, you need a sound that’s appropriate.” These two issues are related, but they might require different solutions. Spending some time solving the first issue will set you on your way to resolving the second.

So what are some go-to gear solutions to enhance audibility?

The easiest and most economical way is to establish your ideal solo sound and then scale it back to a rhythm sound using the tone or volume control on your guitar. When the solo comes and you need to enhance the tone, roll them back up to ten and you’re in instant audible territory.

Use an EQ pedal, boost stompbox, or overdrive effect that has a distinct frequency shape to help sculpt your overdrive sound so it stands out. Generally, this will mean cutting out low-end frequency and pushing the upper-mids. Whatever solution you go for, the idea is to both shape and stack another gain source to get more out of an already exceptional sound.

Finally, if you’re looking to boost and poke through in a low-gain setting, Dan recommended opting for a compressor. As he’s advised countless times, “compressors are the overdrive for your clean tone.” When it comes to soloing clean, a compressor can help refine your playing so it is more direct and punchy.

So what is the secret to better solo tones?

Essentially, be open to experimenting and don’t rush into an overly complex solution. Sometimes the best hack is the one right under your nose. Think differently. Toy around with your guitar pots. Stack strategically. If you’re open to some trial and error with some combination of these, you’ll be heard and remembered!

TPS Episode Rig Rundown:

Guitars: Fender American Vintage ’62 Stratocaster, Fender Custom Shop 1963 Telecaster, Gibson Memphis 1958 ES-335.

Pedals: Fulltone OCD, Suhr Riot, J Rocket Touch OD, Boss GE-7, Fender Engager Boost, RYRA Klone, Wampler Mini Ego Compressor, MXR Carbon Copy, TC Electronic Flashback Mini.

Amps: Vox AC15C1 with Celestion G12M Greenback, Fender Hot Rod Deluxe III with Celestion G12P-80.

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