A Guitar Solo is a melodic passage, instrumental section, or entire piece of music written for a classical guitar, electric guitar or an acoustic guitar. In 20th and 21st century traditional music and popular music such as Blues, Swing, Jazz, Jazz Fusion, Rock and Metal guitar solos often contain virtuoso techniques and varying degrees of improvisation. Guitar solos on Classical guitar, which are typically written in musical notation, are also used in classical music forms such as Chamber music and Concertos.
Guitar solos range from unaccompanied works for a single guitar to compositions with accompaniment from a few other instruments or a large ensemble. The accompaniment musicians for a guitar solo can range from a small ensemble such as a Jazz quartet or a Rock band, to a large ensemble such as an orchestra or big band. Unaccompanied acoustic guitar music is found in Folk and Classical music dating as far back as the instrument has existed, and the use of an acoustic guitar as a solo voice within an ensemble dates back at least to the Baroque concerto.
Traditional and Popular Music
Blues, R&B and Rock ‘N Roll
Even though guitar solos are used in a wide range of genres, the term “guitar solo” often refers to electric guitar solos played in blues and in rock. Unlike the classical guitar and the acoustic guitar, the electric guitar is always played through a guitar amplifier which makes the instrument louder. Guitar amplifiers also have preamplifier and tone controls, and in some cases, overdrive controls which can modify the tone and sound of the instrument.
The use of a guitar solo instrumental interlude was developed by blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker. Ernest Tubb’s 1940 honky tonk classic, “Walking the Floor over You” was the first “hit” recording to feature and highlight a solo by a standard electric guitar–though earlier hits featured electric lap steel guitars. Blues master Lonnie Johnson had also recorded at least one on electric guitar, but his innovation was neither much noted nor influential.
Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Jimmy Reed played in Chicago in a style characterized by the use of electric guitar, sometimes slide guitar, harmonica, and a rhythm section of bass and drums. In the late 1950s, a new blues style emerged on Chicago’s West Side pioneered by Magic Sam, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush on Cobra Records. The ‘West Side Sound’ had strong rhythmic support from a rhythm guitar, bass guitar and drums and as perfected by Guy, Freddie King, Magic Slim and Luther Allison was dominated by amplified electric lead guitar. Other blues artists, such as John Lee Hooker had influences not directly related to the Chicago style. John Lee Hooker’s blues is more “personal,” based on Hooker’s deep rough voice accompanied by a single electric guitar.
The blues musicians of the early 1960s inspired a number of American blues rock fusion performers. One blues rock performer, Jimi Hendrix, was a rarity in his field at the time : a black man who played psychedelic rock. Hendrix was a skilled guitarist and a pioneer in the innovative use of distortion and audio feedback in his music. Through these artists and others, blues music influenced the development of rock music. Another important blues rock guitar soloist in the 1960s and 1970s was Eric Clapton, a white performer. In the early 1970s, the Texas rock-blues style emerged, which used guitars in both solo and rhythm roles (e.g., Stevie Ray Vaughan, a white performer).
Rock and Heavy Metal
The dramatic, amplified electric guitar solo has become a characteristic part of rock music. Guitar solos are a defining feature of the rock genre of heavy metal, in which most songs feature a solo. Metal solos often showcase the virtuosity of the guitarists, especially in metal styles that use shred guitar techniques for rapid playing of scales and arpeggios. Since the 1960s, electric guitarists have often altered the timbre of their guitar adding electronic guitar effects such as reverb, distortion, delay, and chorus to make the sound fuller and add harmonic overtones. Other effects used in solos include the wah pedal and the talk box.
Rock bands often have two guitarists, designated “lead” and “rhythm”, with the “lead” player performing the solos and instrumental melody lines while the “rhythm” player accompanies with chords or riffs (there are some cases where the two guitarists will share the lead role). Most examples of rock music are based around songs in traditional forms. The main formal features are verses, choruses, and bridges. The guitar solo is usually the most significant instrumental section of a mainstream rock song. In other rock-related genres, such as pop and dance music, the synthesizer usually plays this role.
In the classic verse-chorus form, it often falls between the second chorus and third verse. Extended guitar solos are sometimes used as a song’s outro, such as Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird”, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”, Guns N’ Roses’ “November Rain”, Metallica’s “Fade to Black”, Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, Journey’s “Who’s Crying Now”, The Cult’s “Love Removal Machine”, The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, .38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely”, The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, Pearl Jam’s “Alive”, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California”, Cream’s “White Room”, AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock”, Outlaws’ “Green Grass and High Tides”, The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” and Eagles’ “Hotel California”.
The use of guitar solos in hard rock and heavy metal was notable during the 1980s, when rapid-fire “shredding” solos were common; a virtuosic lead guitarist of a band might be more well-known than the singer. During this time the use of advanced harmonics techniques became more widely used. Later, guitarists who had developed considerable technical facility began to release albums which consisted only of instrumental guitar compositions. Guitar solos in popular music went out of fashion in the middle 1990s, coinciding with the rise in popularity of nu metal and grunge.
Nu metal differed significantly from previous subgenres of metal and abandoned guitar solos altogether, except for a few rare lead fills here and there, whilst grunge did not wholly abandon solos and included them from time to time. Guitar solos likewise became less prominent in many pop and popular rock music styles; either being trimmed down to a short four-bar transition or omitted entirely, in a vast departure from the heavy usage of solos in classic rock music from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. Classic rock revival music heavily features soloing, along with classic rock bands that are still active, as of now.
Occasionally, there will be a two-part guitar solo with both rhythm and lead guitar taking solos: (e.g. “Master of Puppets” by Metallica), or dual solos with both lead and rhythm playing complementary solos such as with Twisted Sister’s “30”, Iron Maiden’s “Hallowed Be Thy Name”, “The Trooper” or Megadeth’s “Mechanix”. For some rock bands harmonised dual lead guitar solos are part of their signature sound, such as Wishbone Ash. This was first introduced by the Allman Brothers Band and made popular in their album At Fillmore East.
Bass Guitar Solos
Like the electric guitar, the bass guitar is played through a specialized amplifier which makes the instrument louder and permits the performer to change the tone. The bass began being used in popular music in the 1950s. While bass guitar solos are not common in popular music, some bands also include bass solos in some songs, particularly heavy metal, funk and progressive rock bands. Some genres use bass guitar solos in most songs, such as jazz bands or jazz fusion groups. Bass solos are also common in certain styles of punk music.
In a rock context, bass guitar solos are structured and performed in a similar fashion as rock guitar solos, often with the musical accompaniment from the verse or chorus sections. While bass guitar solos appear on few studio albums from rock or pop bands, genres such as progressive rock, fusion-influenced rock and some types of heavy metal are more likely to include bass solos, both in studio albums and in live performances.
Bass solos are performed using a range of different techniques, such as plucking or fingerpicking. In the 1960s, The Who’s bassist, John Entwistle, performed a bass break on the song “My Generation” using a plectrum, though he intended to use his fingers—he just wasn’t able to drop the plectrum quickly enough. This is considered by many as one of the first bass solos in rock music, and also one of the most recognizable. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, on “Good Times Bad Times”, the first song on their first album, uses two bass solos in an influentially dynamic way, as a bridge (when the band drops out after the choruses) to the next verse (after the first chorus) and the guitar solo-driven coda (after the third chorus).
Queen’s bassist, John Deacon, occasionally played bass solos, notably in “Under Pressure” or “Liar”. In the 1970s, Aerosmith’s bassist, Tom Hamilton, played a bass intro on the song “Sweet Emotion” from their album Toys in the Attic. On thrash metal group Metallica’s 1983 debut Kill Em All, bassist Cliff Burton’s well known solo “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” is featured, and is considered his greatest work by many. John McVie of Fleetwood Mac performed a notable bass solo on “The Chain” from the record-setting 1977 album Rumours.
Manowar’s bassist Joey DeMaio uses special piccolo bass for his extremely fast bass solos like “Sting of the Bumblebee” and “William’s Tale”. Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt played a bass solo on the song “No One Knows” from the 1992 album Kerplunk! and on the song “Makeout Party” from the 2012 album ¡Dos!. U2 includes a bass solo most notably on “Gloria”, in which Adam Clayton utilizes several playing techniques. Bassist Matt Freeman of Rancid has a very speedy, guitar-like bass solo in the song “Maxwell Murder”. Blink-182’s “Voyeur” has a bass solo, which is featured on both their studio album Dude Ranch & their live album The Mark, Tom and Travis Show (The Enema Strikes Back!), in which they must “prepare for the bass solo”.
Heavy metal bass players such as Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Alex Webster (Cannibal Corpse), Cliff Burton (Metallica), jazz fusion bassist Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report), and Les Claypool (Primus, Blind Illusion) used chime-like harmonics and rapid plucking techniques in their bass solos. Geddy Lee of Rush performed a number of solos, most notably in “YYZ”. Also, in both published Van Halen concert videos, Michael Anthony performs unique maneuvers and actions during his solos.
Funk bassists such as Larry Graham began using slapping and popping techniques for their bass solos, which coupled a percussive thumb-slapping technique of the lower strings with an aggressive finger-snap of the higher strings, often in rhythmic alternation. The slapping and popping technique incorporates a large number of muted (or ‘ghost’ tones) to normal notes to add to the rhythmic effect. Slapping and popping solos were prominent in 1980s pop and R&B, and they are still used by some 2000s-era funk and Latin bands.
When playing bass solos, hard rock and heavy metal bassists sometimes use bass effects such as fuzz bass or wah-wah pedals to produce a more pronounced sound. Notably, Cliff Burton of Metallica used both distortion and wah-wah. Due to the lower range of the bass, bass guitar solos usually have a much lighter accompaniment than solos for other instruments. In some cases, the bass guitar solo is unaccompanied, or accompanied only by the drums.