Every guitar student eventually learns there are 3 roles a guitarist can play when it comes to making music:
1.) Rhythm Guitar
2.) Lead Guitar
3.) Guitar Soloist
Most people are familiar with the Rhythm and Lead guitar roles as they are well illustrated in popular rock bands that often feature two guitarists. In a band situation one guitarist plays rhythm guitar (using chords or some repetitive riff), while the other guitarist plays a melody or adds other embellishments (or crowd surfs).
In this new series of blog posts I want to focus on the 3rd role: the Solo Guitarist. Not to be confused with the ever-popular “guitar solo” portion of song, I am talking about a guitarist’s ability to perform outside of a band (without any other musicians or backing tracks), as a SOLOIST.
Many guitarists who only play pop and rock music often find that, although they play really well in a band, most of the riffs, chord changes and even advanced ‘soloing’ doesn’t really hold up when they try playing alone (without the band). This is because playing in a band (or what is called “ensemble playing”) is really very different from generating a solo performance.
Solo guitar playing seamlessly blends melody and harmony (lead and rhythm). Even for the simplest songs such solo playing is both intellectually complex and technically demanding. Given such high technical hurdles, it can be very difficult for advanced ensemble guitarists to graduate to guitar soloist.
Learning to function as a proper soloist is a bit like learning to juggle. You have to do more than one thing simultaneously. Specifically, you have to hold down a series of chord changes while also stringing together a single-note melody or tune. Some advanced soloists can even play more than one contrasting melody at a time making their guitar sound like a choir. Famous guitarist from Andres Segovia to Chet Atkins have often said that the guitar is a small orchestra; melodic and polyphonic all at the same time.
A piece of guitar music that includes this juggling of chords and melody is called a “CHORD MELODY”. Many of the most famous chord melody players come from the world of jazz guitar. Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass, Johnny Smith are some of the all-time greatest guitar soloists. And let’s not forget that nearly all the material for the classical guitar is essentially chord melody which is usually played without accompaniment.
You can find many books that contain sheet music and TAB of famous tunes arranged as fully fleshed-out chord melodies for the solo guitarist. But I think greatest the difficulty in becoming a skilled soloist is finding the right material to work on at the beginning.
When I first started to learn to play as a soloist, I quickly came to the realization that many of the chord melody books I was trying to learn from were really geared toward highly advanced jazz players. The chord melodies in these books were filled with very sophisticated chord substitutions and layered with melodic decoration and technical nuances. All of that is wonderful if you have been playing jazz for 30 years and you want to expand your harmonic horizons into outer space, but if you are just starting out all that complexity will make it impossible for you to see the basic underlying patterns that make this chord melody magic possible.
In order to approach more complex and sophisticated solo pieces, you have to first get a few very basic, very un-decorated tunes under you fingers. Since choosing the right ones (in the right order) is the real hard part, I’m going to do you a real solid.
In subsequent blog posts entitled: “Soloist Lessons”. I’m going to present you with some of the easiest chord melodies I have found. Many of these songs I have arranged myself to be simple and playable for guitarists with limited experience in chord melody. If you learn these chord melodies in the order in which they are presented you’ll go a long way toward becoming a capable soloist yourself. Not to mention that you’ll have a few very recognizable songs that you can throw down anytime anywhere.
The first of these Soloist Lessons focuses on the classic song “Autumn Leaves”.