Are Guitar Solos Improvised?

“Guitar Solo!” the lead singer yells as the band finishes the chorus…

And what comes next?

A fantastic guitar solo full of feeling, spectacular note choice, and exquisite tone.

The solo fits the song perfectly and often touches listeners on an emotional level.

Many guitar players are left wondering, “How did that guitarist do that?”

Did they just make that up on the spot? Was it improvised?

Improvisation has been a major part of the modern history of the guitar. Countless players across almost all genres have improvised their guitar solos on recordings and when playing live. However, not all guitar solos are improvised. It’s based on the player’s preference, and many compose solos note by note.

Each approach has its own benefits and listeners might prefer to hear one type of soloing over another depending on the context.

Let’s clear up some commonly asked questions about improvised solos.

Are all guitar solos improvised?

All guitar solos are certainly not improvised.

Each guitarists’ individual style and ability influences how they go about soloing

The setting, genre, time period, and band dynamic also play a role.

For many guitarists, the joy of improvising a new solo on the spot brings joy and excitement unequal to anything else.

Others prefer to take some time and work out exactly how they want the solo to go and stick to these exact notes every time.

Are guitar solos improvised in the studio?

There are several different approaches to creating a solo in a studio setting.

With limited early recording technology musicians were often limited to one take and would have to improvise a solo and stick with it.

As time went on many bands used studios as a place to compose their solos, trying out dozens of takes and bouncing ideas between each other and record producers or composers.

Eventually, guitarists would be able to improvise several versions of solos and mix and match parts they wanted to keep in the song.

Many records throughout history have relied on session musicians playing an artist’s music for the first time and guitar solos on these tracks were certainly improvised.

Today many guitarists like to have their solos fully planned out before going into the studio in order to save time and money in the recording process.

Are guitar solos improvised when played live?

Guitarists will certainly improvise solos when playing certain genres

In fact, for certain artists who are known for their improvising ability, the solos are a large part of the reason the audience goes to see the show. 

Other players might stick to a few composed melodic phrases heard on the record and then add in a few improvised parts based on what they feel in the moment.

There really are no rules and each guitarist has their own approach that works best for their songs. 

Some popular guitar solos that were improvised

Often regarded as one of the greatest guitar solos of all time, legendary session musician Larry Carlton’s solo on Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” was actually improvised as he played the song for the first time.

This iconic Stevie Ray Vaugn performance of “Voodoo Child” contains countless improvised licks and fills. Neither he nor Jimi Hendrix would ever play the song exactly the same way twice

Peter Frampton solos extensively on his hit song “Do you Feel Like We Do”. The live recordings contained tons of improvised sections and organic feeling and were so good they used them as the material for the famous Frampton Comes Alive album

Genres where solos are more likely to be improvised

Blues music traditionally incorporates a lot of improvisation. 

As a result the genres that stem from blues or were largely influenced by it, including jazz, rock, and RnB, continued the practice of having a lead player improvise a solo.

Early forms of Blues and Jazz music were also structurally designed to incorporate improvisation from all members of the band.

Jazz standards often had a 16 bar form split into repeating chord sections of 4 bars.

This meant that after the primary melody had been played, the rhythm section could continue to play the same form and players could easily take turns soloing over it.

Similarly, the 12 bar blues was and still is one of the most common music structures for improvisation. 

A simple progression of 3 chords (although more could be added) which always loops back to the beginning. 

This makes it easy for lead players to know when to start and finish their solos and have lots of freedom in terms of their note choice.

The 12 bar blues in particular became extremely prevalent in popular music and new types of songs took on this inherently improvisational structure. 

Not everything has to be improvised

As with all elements of music, knowing the right place for things is key.

Many players will improvise small fills between the vocals or a specific phrase within a solo.

Within a solo section, players will often have some specific licks or ideas that they know for a fact they want to incorporate. 

Great players are able to incorporate these ideas along with parts of the song’s melody and add some improvised parts to tie everything together.

Improvising is usually not 100% improvised. 

Practice, knowledge of the song, and approaching a solo with some specific licks in mind will help most guitarists create a stronger improvised solo in the end.

The case for composing solos beforehand

There are still certainly some benefits to composing a solo before performing it, and always playing it the same way.

A guitarist can compose a very melodic solo that becomes very memorable for listeners.

This then means that audiences will know what to expect during the solo section and have excitement build up to hear what they are used to hearing on the record.

Solo composition also allows guitarists to use more advanced techniques as well.

A band with multiple guitarists can work out harmonies for a solo and create interesting sounds to add to their record or live show.

Why do many players prefer improvising their solos?

For many players, improvising guitar solos just feels more natural and fun.

In these moments a guitarist can feel extra in tune with the band, forget everything else and just let out whatever comes naturally to them.

It is an opportunity to get in tune with their own emotions and the feeling of the song and really express who they are.

Music at its core is about expressing ourselves, and for countless guitarists, there is no better way to do this than an improvised guitar solo.