I’ve occasionally stumbled unto the advice that a guitar solo should tell a story. But what is really meant by that?
Let’s take a look a great story: Star Wars. What happens in that movie? Well, Luke Skywalker stumbles across some lost droids belonging to the old nomad, Ben Kenobi. Upon receiving the droids, Ben tells Luke that he’s destined to fight the evil empire. Luke at first shies from this destiny but, after his adopted parents are killed, he agrees to the mission. From there various ups and downs occur, ultimately leading Luke towards the assault on the Death Star. With a well aimed laser blast from Luke’s X-wing, the deadly space station explodes in a fiery crescendo.
We can see how Star Wars varies its story elements, balancing moments of excitement (Luke and Ben being assaulted in the space bar at Mos Eisley, for example) with moments of relative calm (like Ben explaining how the Force works.) What Star Wars doesn’t do is simply present an endless series of dramatic moments, nor does it present two hours of Luke walking around a desert (BORING.) It balances excitement and calm. But the first half of the story has more calm than excitement, while the last half has more excitement than calm. A diagram of the story elements of Star Wars (and most fiction) might look something like:
Excitement, Calm, Calm, Excitement, Calm, Calm, Calm, Excitement, Excitement, Calm, Excitement, Calm, Excitement, Excitement, EXCITEMENT, Calm. The end.
As you might guess, this basic story template is a good model for a guitar solo. You want to balance moments of excitement with moments of calm.
So how to you do this? Well, most guitar players are familiar with generating excitement. You use your “show offy” licks: cascades of fast notes, loud notes, pounding doublestops, screaming high bends etc. But what Star Wars (and every good story) shows us is that we need to balance those exciting elements with more restrained periods. Restrained playing means holding back, playing simply and leaving out elements. Let the mystery fester in the listener’s mind: where is this solo going? Slowly build your solo towards your version of the Death Star exploding.
(I offer more detail on the art of building solos dynamically here.)