An often overlooked aspect of guitar playing is that the instrument can stand on its own in front of an audience without the need for accompaniment. I’m not talking about classical guitar music, even though it is a wonderful style to play; rather, I’m talking about solo guitar.
Solo guitar is the process of taking pop, jazz, or blues songs and performing them without the need for singing or being accompanied by other musicians.
A question I’ll be addressing in this blog is, Why approach guitar this way?
Before I answer the above question, let’s look at a typical scenario. When people are first learning guitar, it is common to want to play something for a friend or family member. They whip out a few popular guitar riffs to everyone’s amazement and then they are asked to play a song–not a part of a song, but one in its entirety. When they are not able to do this, it is then suggested that they learn to sing and play.
It might come as a shock to some people, but most guitar players do not want to sing. I know that there are always exceptions to the rule, but most individuals pick up the instrument for the purpose of learning guitar, not to sing. Vocalists, on the other hand, often take up guitar or piano to accompany their instrument–which is their voice–guitar being one of the more popular choices because it is easy to travel with.
By looking at the above scenario, you probably can surmise that the answer to the question is: to play songs in their entirety without having to rely on other instruments. The guitar, like piano, has everything you need to perform unaccompanied.
You don’t need to be a seasoned musician to play solo guitar. To prove it, I’m going to approach this lesson as if you are someone who is just starting out on the instrument. If you are a more advanced player, don’t let the previous sentence deter you. The ideas and steps that are presented are easily adaptable to any difficulty level you wish to apply it to. By the end of the lesson, you will know how to create musical pieces that won’t require coordinating or orchestrating with other musicians.
Let’s get started.
Below is the music that we will be using. It is a rudimentary song that I teach new students who are learning to read music. Tablature has been added for those who approach guitar in this manner. The goal when trying to turn a song into a solo piece is to find a common ground between the chords and notes, i.e., what notes are used to make a particular chord. This is an easy process because the chords and the melody need to work together to produce a song that is pleasing to the ears. The difficult decisions happen when selecting which fingering or notes/chords to remove. There are no hard and fast rules, only what you believe sounds best.
Let’s break the song down line by line. In the first four measures, notice that the C chord is circled with the E note. Since E is part of this chord (C-E-G), as you strum, the melody is already included. I then would pick the second E note within the measure. Remember to let the harmony ring out as you play. Notice that, like a pianist, you are playing chords (the harmony) and the notes (the melody) simultaneously.
I also labeled how long I want the chord to be played. In the case of the first measure, I would play the last two notes by themselves. As you switch from chords to single notes, you may find that some open strings will ring out. This is OK if it doesn’t clash with the melody. If you decide to mute the strings, try and do it as your pick plays the note. This may be difficult to do at first, but it will keep the song from sounding choppy. I also suggest that you label the chords like I have done here to help you know when to play a chord, note, or both. In the second and third measures, I play the first note with the fourth finger while making the Am chord with the other fingers. This is where solo guitar can get difficult for those just learning. Work it out slowly until the transition becomes natural. The last measure is easy because the chord and note work together. Depending on the style of music, you could either place a finger or strum pattern in the last measure to give it some variety.
The second line is much simpler. The first measure is played the same as the previous line, but instead of adding a chord in the second measure, I’ve decided to put emphasis on the melody. No particular reason, I just wanted to add some diversity here. Again, the choice is yours.
The third measure is less challenging because I do not have to change the fingering of the chord to hit the melody notes. It’s possible to let the chord ring out and play the G note on the third beat with my fourth finger. Like the previous line, in the last measure of the song, you could add a finger or strum pattern to add some variety.
Now on to the last line. Looking at the first measure, you can strum G and pick the following two notes while letting the chord ring out. Remember, since the first note is within the chord, do not pick it after you strum. This will add an extra beat to the measure and throw the song off.
Like the previous line, I opted to play just the melody in the second measure. Next, I play the F note in the G7 chord throughout the third measure, and then end the song by ringing out the C chord until it fades.
That’s it. Simple, yet an effective way of creating solo guitar pieces. The more you do this, the easier it will become and you will not need to label the parts of the song as I’ve done here. You will eventually be able to sight read the chords and notes at the same time.
So the next time someone asks you to play a song, show them what you and your guitar can really do!