Are Your Guitar Solos Too Long?

Are your guitar solos too long?

Short answer, “Yes.” Long answer, “Maybe. It depends.”

More important than coming up with a conclusive answer though is the question itself. My guess is most players haven’t asked themselves such a question. Or if they have, the matter was filled with doubt, misgivings and insecurities about their playing, rather than a desire to express themselves more succinctly. My reasons for asking aren’t ones of accusation but rather contemplation. So let’s explore this introspective world of “what we have to say” and see if we can’t come up with some reasons why your solos should be shorter or longer depending on your circumstances. And therein lies our first consideration:

What are your soloing circumstances?

Context is everything. Quite frankly we can easily put our solos into categories and see how long it’s appropriate to solo.

  • Rock: 8-16 measures. (One unwritten exception in Rock is the “live guitar solo,” which for some reason seduces many players to keep soloing long after they are finished.)
  • Jazz: 32-192 measures
  • Blues: 12-24 measures
  • Jam Band: 32-192 measures
  • Country: 12-24 measures
  • Guitar Instrumental: 8-32 measures
  • Bluegrass: 32 measures

So where did I get these numbers from? Research! I have learned and played literally hundreds of solos by other guitarists from the genres listed above. From the obvious and acclaimed – Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, B.B. King, Jerry Garcia, Brad Paisley, Eric Johnson, Tony Rice – to the little known and underrated. And while I’m not saying that you should be formulaic regarding guitar solo length, I am suggesting there are practical precedents that sound great, work for audience attention spans, fulfill artistic integrity, and most importantly serve the music. Which brings us to our second consideration:

Are you serving the music?

Genres of music are funny things. They want to do certain things, sound certain ways, and when you stray too far from their essence they can make the best playing, with the worst intentions (trying too hard to be different), sound inferior to just playing it straight. For example, as much as I’ve tried to fit the harmonic minor scale into a 12-bar blues it just sounds bad (Roy Buchanan is one of the few player I’ve heard pull this off, though it was over a static blues riff, “Pete’s Blues,” not a strict 12-bar. Yngwie Malmsteen seems to manage this combination, though, with all due respect, it always sounds more Yngwie than blues to my ear).

Conversely, try playing fuzzed out, one-and-half-step bends over a jazz standard and you just come across as either naïve or ignorant (again, a few players such as Sonny Sharrock and Tisziji Munoz have managed this hybrid but they are exceptions to the rule.). While these are stylistic examples we must also accept that there are genre guidelines for length of solos as well. So again we examine the precedents:

Do you realize that the average Eddie Van Halen solo (not counting “Eruption”) is only 16 measures long! Angus Young? 16 measures. Even in Eric Johnson’s “Cliff of Dover” the solo is actually only 32 measures long. Now some of you might be asking, “What do you mean? That whole song is a solo!” No it isn’t. The whole song is an instrumental but that doesn’t mean it’s all solo. Most of “Cliff of Dover,” (as with most songs) is melody driven. Which brings us to our third consideration:

Where’s the Melody?

I’m no longer surprised when a student asks me, “What’s the difference between a melody and a solo?” Whether it’s a lack of public music education, wide spread misinformation on the Internet or a casual dismissal of seemingly trivial semantics (“I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I hear it.”), the word “melody” is one that is difficult for people to define.

Personally my favorite definition is along these lines: “A sequence of notes you can sing, hum or play instrumentally as a distinct, repeatable phrase.” To me that word “repeatable” is key to what most people think of as melody. Most melodies are repeated, whether it’s the verse of a Beatles song, the head of a Charlie Parker bebop blues or the theme of a Tchaikovsky symphony. Also, most melodies tend to be relatively short, 4-16 measures in length, but they can say so much in so little time. Shouldn’t your solos do the same?

So now we have three essential considerations from which to build our solos, paraphrased as: 1) Genre, 2) Serve the Music, 3) Melody. And our big question becomes: Are your solos a series of genre defining, melodically inspired lines that your virtuosity allows you to showcase or are they just a bunch of rambling, disconnected licks that showcase your virtuosity?

Finally, allow me to step off my soapbox (it’s so high I needed a ladder) and offer some practical advice. I recommend practicing soloing in two ways. First do practice longer solos, four to eight times through any given progression (for a 12-bar blues that’s 48-96 measures). Then go back and play through the progression only one or, at most, two times. I do believe you’ll find your solos not only sound better when the time frame is constricted, they’ll also make more musical sense. Then when it’s time to perform for an audience make these short solos the norm, with perhaps one or two longer solos thrown in during the course of the show for contrast. And then follow this rule of thumb: Leave them wanting more…and don’t finish your solos long after they are over.

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