Soloing is one of the hardest things to do in music – and it is one the best ways to separate the good ukulele player from the great one. A solo is an instrumental break in a song that features one or more of the people playing. It is either planned or improvised – composed entirely on the spot. For this lesson we’ll focus on improvising.
To solo in a song you need to know a few things: what key the song is in, a scale that works with that key, how to emphasize the right notes, and a decent sense of “what comes next”.
Most of the time you will use the root scale or a variant for the key you are in (C = C major scale, Am = A minor scale, etc…). If you are playing a chord that has notes outside of the scale (lets use C as an example key – C major scale) like A7 (A7 has a C# in it) you need to use C# in place of C, then you change back when you stop playing A7. For example, the “Sir Duke” progression:
Normal scale --------------> b6 (Ab) -----> Normal ------>
C > > > > > > Am > > > > > > Fm > > > > > > G7 > > > > > >
Another example (in A minor using the Am scale):
Normal Scale ---------------> #7 (G#) -----> Normal ------>
Am > > > > > > Dm > > > > > > E7 > > > > > > Am > > > > > >
There are many different scales that you can use for getting different sounds. Major scales sound good over Major chords (go figure). The Major Pentatonic sounds best over Major and Major 6 chords. The Minor Pentatonic sounds good over Major, Minor, Minor 7, Minor 9, Minor 11, Minor 6, Minor 6/9, Minor 13, and Dominant Seventh chords. The Minor Pentatonic is great for soloing in blues and rock songs. There are many others that you can learn. If you would like to learn them I would suggest getting a chord and scale table that shows how to write scales and what genre and chords they work well with (this is a fairly standard music store item). I have put the notes of some of the scales up on a scales page.
To make a scale work for soloing you need to emphasize some of the notes. In his lessons, Herb Ohta Jr. suggests starting and stopping riffs on the notes of the chord that is being played (if you are soloing over a C chord, start and stop on the notes: C-E-G). This is important to making your solos sound smooth, so practice starting on the chord notes, and stopping on the chord notes. If you were to end a line on an off note, you probably will hear an unresolved sound. This can be a good thing and used to push the next phrase along. A way to think of it is:
- Ending phrase on a non-chord note: question – unresolved
- Ending phrase on chord note: answer – resolved
The sense of “what comes next” is something that you develop as you log more and more hours of practicing. It’s not just playing a note and hoping that it sounds good, but hearing somewhere off in your head or heart what should be played next – “hey, this would be cool!” Listen to Carlos Santana; the guy is the most phenomenal soloist you will ever hear.
Good solos all have a beginning, middle, and end. Kind of like a book, you need to introduce the main ideas, build up the story until the climax, and then bring the whole thing back down to wrap things up without leaving anything left to be desired.
Repeating ideas is okay too. If you play a really sweat phrase, play it again in the next measure, maybe you can build other ideas on it.
Don’t play up and down scales. A scale is not a solo. Just because you use a scale in a solo doesn’t mean you should play up and down that exact scale. We can all sing “do re mi fa sol la ti do”, so do something different. Interval jumps make for very interesting and beautiful sounds. A great example of a soloist that jumps to the good notes without playing something up the scale is Eric Johnson. He is a very underrated guitarist who plays consistent melodic solos with big intervals (“Bristol Shore” and “Trail of Tears” have great solos).
Practice is the only way to learn this, so jam with your buddies or along with a recorded song as often as you can. This will teach you what sounds good and what doesn’t.
This article is far from complete. Soloing is such an “experience” type of thing that it is almost impossible to teach. I’m sure as I improve and learn the whys and hows of soloing I can add to this, but for now here are some more pages that have to do with soloing: