Solos. Every guitarist takes ’em, and every other guitarist thinks he or she can wax your pitiful little numb-fingered note seizures like a Sherman tank pulverizing a butter sculpture. In my case, such assessments are usually right on the money. But while I may not be able to humble other players with my fleet digits, I always try to concoct a solo that sounds unique, musically empathetic, and, most important of all, ferociously beguiling. It’s all about catching a listener’s ear, and if you can’t conquer someone’s auditory senses with technique, then you’d better grab their attention with sound design. And even if you are an accomplished soloist, it certainly doesn’t hurt to sweat the tonal details to further enhance the impact of a brilliant guitar lead. Here are some ways to inject bits of wonder into your solo excursions.
On John 5’s latest musical shredfest, The Devil Knows My Name, he double-tracked every single one of his 500 mile-per-hour solos. This is high insanity, but it really sounds amazing when two nearly identical note flurries explode simultaneously from the right and left speaker channels. John wanted most of these doubles to sound fairly similar, so he typically used his custom Telecasters and switched amps or pickups to expand the tonal spectrum a tad. I get a kick out of devising completely different colors for the doubles, mating a Strat with a Les Paul, a Marshall half-stack with a tiny Pignose amp, or a saturated tone with a clean sound. I’ve also mixed a dry, direct tone in one channel, and an Edge-style delay-washed signal in the other to really animate a solo’s stereo perspective. The options are practically endless.
FUN WITH FILTERS
Mick Ronson’s steely, soaring, and beautifully aggro leads on albums by David Bowie and Ian Hunter (as well as his own solo projects) were often crafted by plugging into a wah-wah, working the treadle to get a desired midrange timbre, and then parking the pedal in that one position. Ronson was also a master at producing exciting solo crescendos by snapping the wah to a bass or treble position to punctuate specific notes. This is a different approach than simply wagging the pedal throughout a performance; the wah becomes a major part of the performance.
Adventurous players can expand Mick’s method using an expression pedal to change the parameters of virtually any effect to punch up the intensity of a solo. Ramp up the speed of a rotary-speaker simulator, or increase the depth of a tremolo, or lengthen the decay of a reverb. When you match the effect to the emotional impact you’re trying to achieve with your note choices and attack, the result can drop the jaws of even the most jaded 6-stringers.
Dare you bail on your amp tone? Can you abandon that amp-modeling plug-in? Then plug a common distortion, overdrive, or fuzz stompbox directly into your recording rig and dig the one-dimensional fizzy fury of transistorized saturation sans speaker coloration and ambience. Sometimes, a dry, bizarre timbre is just what you need to spike a solo out of the band mix and command attention. Also, playing to the direct, boxy tone can inspire some interesting solo ideas.
FADE AWAY & RADIATE
For a film-esque, sound-design-style mood, run a massive echo, reverb, or modulation effect pre-fader (full wetness), assign the effect to a separate mix channel, and blend the madness almost imperceptibly in the background of the track. You get all the impact of a relatively dry solo, but there’s all this “stuff” swirling around deep in your mix like a distant tornado. This approach won’t be very evident when your song is played on a conventional stereo system, but the iPod gang (and other headphone listeners) will love it.
Garbage guitarists/sonic wizards Duke Erikson, Steve Marker, and Butch Vig are masters at the time-honored tactic of comping a single solo or riff from various performances. But unlike ’60s and ’70s tape cutters who spliced the best bits from several attempts at a specific solo, those guys often employ digital workstations to mix-and-match note snippets from entirely different songs. This approach inspired me to save a collection of recorded ideas from months of disparate sessions. Occasionally, I dig into this “riff box” and just start chopping licks together — regardless of the guitar tone or key. Sometimes, this is a waste of time, but, other times, I discover totally wild combinations of notes, tones, and effects that can be pieced together into lead-guitar coolness.
GO FOR BROKE
The reason for writing this isn’t just to fill up a page in a magazine. Let’s just say I have a hidden agenda: Many of the recordings I hear these days are pretty safe and conventional. Nothing pops. Nothing surprises. Nothing astounds. And, hey, if you’re going to shock and amaze anyone with anything, it should be a song’s solo section. So if any of these techniques trigger your iconoclast neurons, then I’ll consider the blather well spent — especially if you go and make some recordings that cause my brain to release a flood of endorphins.