composing · guitar · practice · soloing

Creating dynamics in guitar solos

In a previous post, I pointed to my “Star Wars” theory of guitar solos. This is the idea that solos should be like stories; they should offer a variety of dynamic levels, from mellow to exciting. To build the solo effectively, the first half should have more mellow sections and the last half should have more excitement.

But how do we actually create “excitement” in a guitar solo? Or, for that matter, “mellow”? Let’s investigate.

High Dynamics
Here are some general tools/approaches towards raising the dynamics of a solo and thus creating excitement.

  • Applying Speed
    A well timed, speedy lick always gets people’s attention. And there are many techniques that can be used towards this end, including:

    • Hammer ons, pull offs
    • Speed picking
    • Two-hand tapping
    • Sweep picking
  • Raising Volume
    Pure loudness generates heat (metaphorically.) This can be accomplished by stomping on a volume pedal or by raising the volume level in a recorded track. (I sometimes slowly raise the volume levels of recorded sections when I want to subtly increase excitement.)
  • Raising Pitch
    Higher notes command more attention than low ones. As a result, guitar players often “climb the fretboard” to build their dynamics.
  • Increasing Density
    You can thicken up the sound of your solo by harmonizing it (Thin Lizzy used to do this all the time) or by applying an Octave of Harmonizer pedal. Or you can play melodic double-stops (à la every Chuck Berry solo ever) or chord shapes made of three notes or more.
  • Changing the Timbre of the Guitar
    An obvious way to do this is by switching from an acoustic/clean tone to a more distorted tone (Metallica does this to great effect in many songs.) The application of any number of effects (delay, echo, etc.) can also beef up the dynamics.
  • Using Complex motifs and sequences
    Motifs and sequences are little melodic units that can be used to derive longer melodic ideas. Often motifs/sequences are short and simple. The use of longer or more complex motifs/sequences lets the listener know you are getting serious.
  • Using complex rhythms
    By changing the rhythm of the melodies you are using (for example, switching to triplets from 8th notes), you increase the excitement of your solo. This is especially true when you use complex or “weird” rhythms focused on offbeats.
  • Applying Dissonance
    Dissonant harmonies or melodic intervals create tension and raise excitement. (Horror soundtracks often make use of this idea.)

Keep in mind that a lot of these high dynamics techniques don’t require virtuosity. Even if you are starting out as a player, you can still add dynamics to your solos.

Low Dynamics
Of course, the ideas listed above for high dynamics only work when contrasted against the rest of your solo which should have a lower dynamic level. So how do you achieve lower dynamics? By doing the opposite of the ideas listed above. Play slower, keep the volume lower, use a clean tone etc.

It’s also good to be aware of the value of repetition in keeping dynamics low. Play a lick or idea, then play it again with perhaps slight variation, and repeat that once more. By doing this, you are allowing the listener to get familiar with the music. This is good, especially in the early stages of your solo. You can blow their heads off with more complex or novel material later.

By using these ideas, you can start a solo off with low dynamics and then build to an explosive crescendo.

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