World’s most useless soloing advice – Part 1

Quite often you will see newbie players posting questions on the online guitar forums such as:

“Help – how do i construct a solo?” or “How do I play a solo over Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door?”.

You’ll see some sensible suggestions from older players along the lines of “work out what the chords are in the progression, find a matching scale and maybe try to target some of the chord tones” or “associate a pentatonic with a particular chord and when that chord comes up, play that scale” and other stuff which while it may not be the most sophisticated approach in the world does state clear steps that the player can apply immediately to achieve some usable results. You might possibly also see some major overkill answer from some hardcore Jazzer that involves complex substitutions and polychordal harmony that use every scale and mode known to man which is years beyond the capability of the original poster, but the point of this post is that you will also see many, many more one-liner replies which will all be variations of:

“Just play by ear.”

“Just play with feeling – don’t worry about chords and scales and stuff.”

“Just play what you feel is right. Don’t worry about theory.”

and my personal favourite:

“…just play from the heart.”

These replies aptly qualify as completely useless advice and there is always a common thread that links the posters of these pointless gems, the two most prominent being:

  1. They generally eschew/reject music theory for a number of reasons (actually it isn’t difficult it just requires a bit of study) and are therefore afraid of it in the same way that a baby chimpanzee is afraid of fire. Theory is consequently categorized in their minds as useless and scary. Even worse, they will occasionally take a firm stance that music theory is bad and actually knowing some will harm your creativity. This is the worst stance to take by far.
  2. They never explain how to ‘play from the heart’ or ‘play with feeling’ or ‘just play’. This is the part that troubles me the most. When you challenge them on this and ask how this is achieved with clear applicable steps instead of some vague divine interventional guidance they are completely incapable of expressing it – instead they cite all kinds of examples of musicians with no training or musical knowledge and argue that if they could do it so could anybody else.

Of course, none of this is useful to the original poster who just wants some practical and usable advice to get his or her first solo off the ground. The thread subsequently degenerates into an ego-boosted pissing match and nobody ends up better off than before. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is subsequently abandoned and the original poster joins a punk band or takes up the triangle or bongo drums – worse, they may abandon music altogether and take up Performance Dance – “The World’s Most Pointless Artform”.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling someone to play with feeling or from the heart (by ear is actually something else which we will go into another time) – this is actually well-intentioned and pseudo noble counsel, but without any foundation, it’s far too high level advice to give to the beginner. The guitar has six strings with a range of 12 to 24 frets (36 for the Uli John’s of this world). There are 12 musical keys, dozens if not hundreds of scales with a myriad of applications – majors, minors, pentatonics, harmonics, melodics, modes, arpeggios, inversions, chords, chords on chords, chord progressions etc. etc. etc. all with different sounds“Ok Mr Teacher – you told me to play with feeling – where do I start?”  “Oh, just follow your heart.”  “Umm…. how?”.

Ultimately the solo should be some kind of musical statement (unless you are some avant garde weirdo deliberately trying not to make a statement [which is also some kind of statement in itself]) and the theory and knowledge of chords and scales and stuff is only a tool to getting you to a point where you can build this statement. Theory in and of itself is not worth knowing if it isn’t applied somewhere down the line to making music and this unfortunately, is where a lot of the arguing lies. Knowing some theory is never bad and will never harm your creativity. Theory is a framework and a jumping-off point which one can use as a safe and trusted ground for constructing lines and also provides known boundaries from which one can veer should one feel the need to break the rules. Once you know at least a little bit of theory you have started on a road where you can start to transcend it and will soon get insights and glimpses into this intangible feeling/heart thing.

There are of course a great many unschooled players out there who are immensely talented. I’m an advocate of learning theory but I don’t count it as an absolute necessity. Training of the ear is as (if not more) important, and we will go into ways to do this in future. The part I have trouble with is the manner in which this information on how to play is transmitted. By saying “play from the heart” you’re not giving anything usable.

In the next part, I’ll answer ‘How do I solo over Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’? – but in the meantime someone convincingly tell me how to ‘play from the heart’ with clear applicable steps and I’ll send them a packet of peanut M&Ms*.


* partially eaten.


8 Responses to “World’s most useless soloing advice – Part 1”

  1. I began the guitar in middle age and wanted to make up for lost time. Luckily I started taking lessons early on and my instructor focused on learning theory from day one. Prior to that, I always thought improvisation did come from the heart and thus figured I could never do it as I had no idea what that meant.

    He indoctrinated me on pentatonic scales, diatonic scales, and the various improvisational techniques to apply based on the style of music. He then set me up with a CD of backing tracks in various keys and styles and recommended approaches to work on with each track.

    No “play from the heart” steps from me!

  2. Cheers Pete. Nice to hear someone back it up that it’s worth learning some of this stuff. 🙂 You got a great blog btw

  3. […] that all the aforesaid ‘feel’ players read this: World’s most useless soloing advice – Part 1 Gitbuddy’s Guitar Blog Read carefully though (if you can be bothered). The key point is that there’s nothing wrong with […]

  4. steveyy999 Says:

    this is so true, i totally agree. (not to say I’m professional or anything) I believe that you definitely need to have some knowledge of theory in order to create some great solos, but you you don’t need to understand every little thing.

  5. Doug Marks, teaching guitar for over 25years. Think he can teach you something? You bet!

  6. Heyyy Dougie Baby!

    How’s it hangin’? I see your hair hasn’t changed since 1985 from the advert I just saw for Metal Method! Rock on dude!

    So, teach me something in your next comment.


  7. This is great advice for the aspiring soloist.

  8. I’ve stumbled across this blog entry a number of times over the past several years. Spot on. Your description of “anti-theory guy” always leaves me rolling, not just because it’s funny, but also because it’s true. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a novice guitarist tell me that he refuses to learn theory because it will destroy his creativity or because it’s all useless music nerd babble, all the while failing to realize just how pattern-based his playing is and how theory would allow him to identify and alter those patterns quickly and easily.

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