IF WE ARE being honest, it is the reason most guitarists picked up the instrument in the first place.

It might have been Slash, Jimmy Page or Nancy Wilson. Then again, it could have been Kirk Hammet, Dimebag or Randy Rhoads. At some point, they all watched on in awe as a legendary string-slinger performed outlandish feats of musicianship with skill so beguiling that it felt detached from reality.

Guitar solos are just cool – there really is no other way to put it. They are iconic and have provided some of the best moments in rock ‘n’ roll history. When they are done correctly, they enhance the songs around them and deliver something a little more crisp, expressive and encapsulating. That is, when they are done correctly.

With all things great and wonderful, there is a limit. A threshold beyond which the sugar becomes sickly. It can be very easy to overdo lead guitar; to cheapen or even poison a piece of music with verbose self-gratification.

In the words of Marty Friedman: “Let’s try to make it melodic, here, and not just play a chord to triad up and down on. Any monkey can learn a technique and get great at it – playing a technique is not playing music. This is very important.”

And, so, there is a balance. By all means bring that technical proficiency to the fore, but expression is paramount. No one ever felt a drop of passion from the frenetic sweep-picking; nor is there any real artistry in incessant double tapping. These techniques, while impressive, provide no insight into the soul of the musician. Without that vulnerability, the solo will fall flat.

Of course, that is what it’s all about: emotion. A guitar solo must have a piece of the musician in each note. It has to be more than what they are simply capable of. Those incredible landmark solos are all born of the best musicians – those who consider the context around it; those who helped shape it in the first place. They all understood that skill and knowledge is deployed in service of the song, not the other way around.

When discussing guitar solos, it is important to understand the guitarist and to appreciate who they are and how they approach the craft. Those with a mature philosophy on songwriting are well aware of overusing that particular ace in the hole.


Lawrence OBrien, guitarist for Anchor Lane

Lawrence O'Brien, guitarist for Anchor Lane


Lawrence O’Brien, lead guitarist for Anchor Lane, has been thinking about it a lot recently. He and his bandmates have been working on their second album and the new approach they would be taking. Not all songs need one – it’s perhaps not what his 17-year-old might think, but as a musician in a band with other musicians, he tends to think about the pic picture.

“There needs to be an urgency for a solo to make it impactful,” he reflects. “Some bands overuse them and quite a few guitarists certainly can be over-indulgent. You want a short, sweet, effective affair.

“For solos in general, the important thing is that it complements the song. I think of [Alter Bridge’s] Blackbird and Myles Kennedy has this incredible soaring solo – it works because it’s in the middle of a fantastic song. Solos are iconic because of the context; it’s not the notes themselves but everything underneath them and around them.”

O’Brien has always been drawn to the finer details and exactness of lead guitar – all things neat and calibrated for a purpose. Indeed, that attention to detail blossomed into something more therapeutic as time marched on.

He says: “The precision and technicality side of things is something I like – and when I started to hear that I latched on it. It’s a world that makes sense to me. You don’t have to please anybody; you just please yourself. You get into a zone where you’re not thinking about the small details.

“It’s a bit of therapy,” he adds. “It’s gone from being a thing that I did because I was interested in it and because it was cool, to something that helps me every day; something that helps keep my mental health in a better situation. It’s not the twist I was expecting.”

But learning how best to use that technical prowess is a tricky exercise. Anchor Lane’s first album Casino, as well as the two more recent singles released from the Casino sessions, showcase O’Brien’s capabilities, but he wants more. Solo work can be just that – solo. Anchor Lane is about how he and his bandmates work together.

He continues: “You learn how to play fast when you are young; you learn the sweep picking, the alternate picking, and the legato, but then you realise that this is not the end of the road. You actually want to focus on making something melodic and cohesive that resonates with people on a more emotional level.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love solos, I’ll always love it. But it has its moments. It’s always good to have it in the bank, but there’s a certain power in using solos sparingly.

“Our next album, Call this a Reality?, won’t have as many solos on it. When we’d finished most of the songs, we just felt they didn’t need solos – they felt like unnecessary fat.”


Nazareno Scanferlato, of She Burns Red

Nazareno Scanferlato, of She Burns Red


That 'less is more' ethos is a common theme among mature songwriters. Sometimes the struggle will draw battlegrounds around ego. Lead guitarists – especially skilled lead guitarists – can be guilty of over-indulging. Quelling that desire is half the battle.

“It’s not always needed,” says Nazareno Scanferlato, lead guitarist in She Burns Red. “A solo should not necessarily be in every song – that can be a bit of an unpopular opinion among solo guitarists.

“Solos have to enhance the song; it has to add to it. You don’t make space for a solo in a song just because you want to play one or you want your moment to shine every five minutes. It must be a section in the song where it changes the mood and makes the song better as a whole.”

Scanferlato feels that an emphasis on technique is harmful to artistic development. Too much time learning cool tricks and not enough focus on songwriting becomes style over substance. He looks around social media and sees this very imbalance on a daily basis.

Of course, he can’t help himself, he applauds the skill involved – it is something he will always appreciate. But then he’ll wonder how good those technicians could be if they devoted the same effort to music more generally. Could they have found something truly artistic then?

Scanferlato reflects: “As a guitarist, I am looking for expression. I have been through all the technical stuff – but I am more focused on finding the best way to express myself. There’s a lot of guitarists, especially the ‘Instagram guitarist’ types, they are just following styles that impress people on social media. And there’s nothing wrong with that; I would rather see that on social media than see no guitar at all.

“But you have to find your own purpose, your own meaning. You have to find what you are offering and whether it is something of yours or are you re-visiting someone’s else work and making it more contemporary. You need to know what you want to be. It’s about trying to be yourself, within a relatable culture.”

He continues: “Technique should always be in service of the music. You learn techniques so that you know what you’re doing. And if you practice your techniques then, sure, you’re going to be great at that. But you need to be able to write songs. And if you don’t learn songwriting and just spend your time noodling on the guitar… man, no one cares about that. Nobody is interested.”


Mason Hill guitarist James Bird

Mason Hill guitarist James Bird


Of course, it’s not just audiences that can lose interest, guitarists can too. Even those who will have devoted hours, weeks or a significant proportion of their teenage years to learning the finer detail of lead guitar, can eventually see the love for the shred fade away.

The realisation usually goes along the lines of ‘there is more to music than guitar, and there is more to the guitar than soloing’ or sentiments to that effect. Guitarists will move on from the high neck and will find new challenges and new interests.

James Bird was prodigious in his youth and long before he was a part of Mason Hill he was determined to be one of the greats. He spent his formative years shredding with a metronome; he had his technique down cold. There was no way he was going to do anything else… until metal.

“I used to be obsessed with the technical side,” he confesses. “When I was younger, I would spend hours shredding; I would put on the metronome and wizard through things like legato and tapping, all of that.

“But when I was around 14, I remember getting really into heavy metal and it was only ever about the real heavy stuff from then on. I lost interest in playing Photograph by Def Leppard and it became more about Lamb of God. I just even wasn’t that interested in solos much anymore, or the guitar effects and equipment side, I wanted to really nail the rhythm aspect from the likes of Lamb of God.

“It then became all about songwriting and all I wanted to do was make a band where I could write songs. I still have that lead guitar aspect in me; in fact, almost every song on our last album has a guitar solo, but I don’t spend hours on end with a metronome anyone. I’d much rather be writing songs.”

Like many others, Bird has embraced the bigger picture. Song over solo. He considers the idea of certain high-profile guitarists over-indulging in the middle of a set, playing on their own while the rest of the band takes a break – it’s not something he has any interest in seeing, never mind doing himself.

He suggests future Mason Hill songs could call upon heavier riff-lead breakdowns, leaving a little less space for solos, but soloing is not something he would ever turn his back on completely. The love for lead guitar remains strong, just in the right doses.

Bird continues: “If we were to play a two-hour set, sometime down the line, I would have absolutely no desire to stand out there myself for a couple of minutes playing a solo and basically being a ‘fret-w***er’. As much as I like lead guitar, I am a music fan. I don’t want to see a band I like and have to stand there watching a guitarist play by themselves when the band could be playing another song.

“I’m sure I sound like a hate guitar, but I really don’t. I love it. I just really want the guitar to be a part of something more – something tasteful and melodic. There is a time and place for it.”


Gill Montgomery, of The Hot Damn! and The Amorettes

Gill Montgomery, of The Hot Damn! and The Amorettes


It is not only those internal battles that help forge the style and direction of the modern solo, there are external pressures to consider also. Trying to gauge what the increasingly-hard-to-please public has now become part and parcel of the writing process for many artists and the parameters have narrowed to fit the Spotify-enforced, three-minute, ultra-exciting, radio-banger world. Fitting a guitar solo of any real merit into the new criteria is near impossible.

Gill Montgomery has fronted two very different bands in the form of The Amorettes and now The Hot Damn! The first was angst-ridden and gritty and with that came the temptation, if not the obligation, to churn out a series of mind-blowing solos. With the latter, however, the focus is more on the song itself and whether a solo is needed or not.

“Knowing when to play one is a balance,” Montgomery adds. “A solo is not just a time to ‘show off' – you are always playing for the song. You need to know when to hold back sometimes as well, which can be quite difficult for a guitarist.

“I think The Amorettes had one in almost every song, but that was the style. With our later stuff, it’s really just whatever feels right. Sort of: ‘Do we need a solo here?’

“We are also a lot more conscious about keeping songs under three minutes so we can get it on the radio – you have to put that commercial hat on. It’s a bit of ‘scrolly’ culture thing; you can’t have people getting bored or anything. There is so much music going on, so you have to keep people interested.

“These days,” she concludes, “soloing is a luxury.”

Even as the landscape shifts around them, there is one divide, of sorts, that persists among guitarists. Is it better to feel the solo as you go, by improvising and letting the music guide it; or is it better to carefully construct it all, by planning the entire solo down to each and every note?

Montgomery reflects on those earlier solos with The Amorettes – such as, say, Bulls by the Horns – and she found the best approach was to just feel it. Indeed, for the sound she and her bandmates were going for, it might have sounded wildly out of place to have planned an intricate, pinpoint section.

She continues: “I don’t remember putting much emphasis on what I wanted to say or what I wanted to create – I was just really ‘in the moment’. I don’t put too much thought into it, more just what I wanted to do.

“It’s just the epitome of fun; you want to have something energetic and fast. It’ll always be the cherry on the cake… a bit of a special moment.”


Nic Holson, guitarist for Stay for Tomorrow and The Passing Sages

Nic Holson, guitarist for Stay for Tomorrow and The Passing Sages


For others, the prospect of relying on improvisation skills brings its own negatives. Most guitarists will use their ‘go-to’ licks and the more familiar shapes when it comes to it – and can often miss opportunities to take the solo out of their comfort zone and fashion something new or unexpected.

Nic Holson, of Stay for Tomorrow and The Passing Sages, is an advocate of planning. He will often go to the extent of notating his solos as he looks to explore new options that would not have come to him otherwise.

He says: “I’ve started to realise that I am not an off-the-cuff sort of person. I like to plan, I need to plan. It’s how I am in most aspects of my life, so it comes through in my music. For solos, I need to plan them and notate them out.

“When you improvise, I think you go straight to what you are most comfortable with. For a lot of guitarists, it’s the pentatonic. And I am guilty of that. Improvising is not for me, so I end up going where I am safe. But if you take a step back and think about where you could move it to, you’ll find something you didn’t see before.”

Like most guitarists, Holson treads the line between perfecting technique and learning the best place to use it. More often than not he falls on the songwriting side, but that is not to say he does not appreciate the skill. Far from it.

He adds: “I want to be able to sweep, but I can’t sweep. I could either dedicate a lot of time learning how to sweep for no one to really care about, in all seriousness, or I could dedicate my time to writing songs, teaching guitar and enjoying it all. I’m at the stage now where I can say I’m happy with not being a shredding guitarist.

“It might sound a bit pretentious, but, in a weird way, I don’t really regard myself as a guitarist. I see myself as a musician that simply has a guitar. Even when I am with my students, I am not just teaching guitar, I am teaching music – theory, structure, everything.

“I’m always going to love lead, but it’s melody that I strive for. The solos I love the most are the melodic solos. It’s the melody and the feel.”

If there is a common theme among guitarists in regard to solos, then it’s really not too dissimilar from Marty Friedman in that “…playing a technique is not playing music.”

The love of an instrument and what it can do is one of the main reasons guitarists took up the axe in the first place – but almost all of them will tell you they love music more than the guitar. None would ever give up their favourite albums to hear one person shred for 40-50 minutes – not for all the pinched harmonics in the world.

Still, while they appreciate that solos should be used sparingly and appropriately, the love for the craft is palpable. That fire remains and will continue to produce incredible moments in music. Rock ‘n’ roll, metal – all guitar-based music – would not be the same without it.

As Holson concludes: “A lot of people say the guitar solo is dead. I don’t think it is. Guitarists have maybe just become so obsessed with being the fastest, or trying to play more notes than the next person, that they have lost sight of the music side of it.”