by Bobby Steel

The Components of a Solo? 

Lately I’ve been putting some philosophical thinking into playing guitar solos. 

When I was a younger lad, I played for the excitement of the speed.  How fast can I play?  How loud?  How wild could I be with that whammy bar?  It was a great time of learning, playing, and experiencing all the thrills that go along with it.

But since I’ve been part of this wonderful project called Elm Treason with my best friend, Andy Roman,  I’ve instead been thinking…. “What does the SONG need?  And how could I best deliver that?”

Since each song is a unique entity, I can’t use the same approach. I can’t employ a one-size-fits-all perspective.  It just doesn’t work to take a  “use boxed-shape pentatonics here” or “play fast scales there” game plan into a session. It has to be something more now.  The music we create demands it.

A solo should tell a story. If possible, it should be something that people could walk away singing or humming in their head. I’ve come to realize that it’s better to bring chills, goosebumps or tears to the listener with one perfectly placed note than to deliver an onslaught of a thousand hellfire notes and risk them zoning out.

And yet the solo should be demanding to play in some way,  musically satisfying , challenging and unpredictable.  It should be something that takes a strange turn here and there – not with the intent to disorient, but to lead the listener down a new pathway.  It should be something to fire the imagination,  a happy accident, perhaps.  It needs to be something that peels the wig back on the listener’s head in a good way.  

So what are the components that go into a Bobby Steel solo? 

I’ve come up with:








Now these components may be in a different order of priorities depending on the type of guitarist.  I certainly didn’t intend to list them in any particular order of importance.  I’ve had these components at different levels of priority at various stages of my musical life.  When I was younger,  maybe speed and accuracy were more important.  Then as I matured as a player in my 30s, it may have been melody and contour.   (Contour meaning the direction of the notes – up down,  zig zag, etc),

But as a mature (not old, mind you) guitarist in Elm Treason, the music just seems to demands more; not just something good, but my very best – that WOW factor.

So for me, while fully understanding that all these components are a worthy pursuit, I would say FEEL and MEMORABILITY mean more to me than anything else.  

A solo like the one I play in our tune “I like it There” is so SINGABLE,  and I love that.  It also oozes with emotion, with a longing that just grips your soul as well as your ears.  Plus, one can walk away humming it —God knows I’ve done it myself.   

I also like the excitement of a solo like the one in “Just Like Rock N Roll”   – exuberant,  difficult, satisfying.  To this day, I have to be on my toes when I play that one.  It’s a solo that I never tire of playing.  Each time, it’s as fresh to me as the first time.  

A solo like the one in “Mood” really has to have me on top of my game.  It goes back to those days of boyhood enthusiasm when I was trying to emulate my guitar heroes.

I’ve actually taken all these components of the solo, and I’ve put it under one umbrella term…..ARCHITECTURE.   

It’s as if I’m actually SCULPTING something.  

What I mean to say is that I need to pay attention to the subject (the song itself).  To the negative space, the shape, contour….the material….

Is it smooth, rough,  round, sharp?  

Sometimes I specifically focus on the ARCHITECTURE of a story…..the buildup, the suspense and (at the right time) the climax of the story and the wind down, the epilogue.  These are things I think about when fashioning a solo.  

The solo of “Still Around” was built this way. 

There’s also the level of being spontaneous that comes into play (pardon pun).  You can’t be too mechanical.

But when it is time to record a solo, I keep telling myself that it’s going on wax, so to speak. It’s kind of forever, so it’s got to COUNT.  

Guitarists that look to put their own personalities into these components will eventually find their signature style.  And that, to me, is priority number one.  Will the listener be able to tell who’s playing the solo from just hearing the first few notes?  All of this takes time, of course. 

Frankly, it’s a process that never ends, getting to know who you are as a musician.  

(Perhaps that can be a whole article in of itself).

But for now,  I just wanted to share with my fellow Treasonites a glimpse into the thought process of a lead guitarist.

Well, this lead guitarist, anyway..  

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