Teaching Guitar Solos From Books

Modern lead guitar contains elements which can’t be notated in detail. Neither staff nor tablature can describe vibrato or string bends, except in very general terms. You can’t read a transcribed Santana solo and make it sound like Santana unless you have heard Santana.

Here’s an example of book-learning gone wrong. At a school I worked for years ago, there was this teacher who taught everything from a book, when he wasn’t lecturing his students. He loaded his students down with books as soon as they signed up. The offices in this school had glass walls, so you saw what everyone else was doing.

This teacher was one of the top players in Houston, in a well-known local band. So he always had a lot of students, but he usually didn’t retain them for very long. He stressed reading music, and this really stressed his students. The school’s owner thought this was great, though he was worried about the high student turnover.

He taught his lead guitar students to read from tab books while they played. He apparently didn’t teach his students to memorize their solos. He told his students that since all of the top studio musicians are excellent sight-readers, they should practice reading their solos. He would point to videos of guitarist Walter Becker reading music as he was recording tracks in the studio. This is a prime example of confusion over the roles of improvisation and memory in music, and confusion about the working methods of studio musicians. We know for a fact that Larry Carlton and Jeff Baxter didn’t write out their solos in advance, nor did they read their solos as they recorded them.

This teacher was using a book to teach Eric Clapton solos to one of his students. I used to see him practicing in the lobby. The sight of this guy’s forlorn attempts to play Clapton-style lead-lines was depressing.

The lesson books his teacher dragged him through did nothing to prepare him for all the slides and bends in Clapton’s solos. He obviously didn’t have the basic handconditioning to recreate the hand postures you need in order to get Clapton’s tone. Even so, his teacher convinced him that if he just fumbled with his fingers long enough, if he just kept his nose in that book long enough, if he just followed the written music faithfully enough, then he would eventually discover the sounds he was looking for.

This is wrong on several levels. All he really needed was a few weeks of conditioning exercises. Instead, he struggled with fragments of solos the whole time he was there. I’ve seen dozens of other cases like this, where students just can’t turn sights into sounds, for whatever reason.

As a teacher, this was frustrating to watch. I wasn’t going to move in on someone else’s student, or give advice nobody asked for. I don’t think it occurred to them that our pioneer ancestors crossed the untamed American frontier in wagon trains drawn by 40-mule teams in less time than they spent struggling with just one Clapton solo.

If you want to sound like Clapton, try learning the way Clapton did – by playing with recordings of famous lead players. You get a completely different perspective than learning from books. If you’re not reading Clapton by ear, then you probably don’t understand how he plays guitar. For that matter, you probably don’t understand the fundamentals of lead guitar as it applies to scales and shapes.

You can’t capture a Clapton solo, with all of its complex micro-tonalities, within the paltry few bars, beams and ties of an official-looking, glossy-covered book. You cant learn a complete guitar solo through symbols. You have to break down and imitate what you hear.

The whole book-based approach to teaching recorded solos reverses cause and effect. Musicians who aren’t ear-trained often believe they can learn a bending, flowing guitar solo through a tile-grid of symbols, whether dots or numbers. It turns into a case of following the music exactly, and missing the point entirely.

If you are (1) ear-trained, and (2) you have the right hand conditioning, and if (3) you’ve learned just four basic rock guitar techniques – sliding, string bends, hammers and pulls – if you (4) have practiced a few scale positions common in rock guitar, then you can glean a great deal of information about exactly how a part was played just from listening to it. That’s especially true if you can listen to it slowed-down without it effecting the pitch. (You can do that with the Amazing Slow Downer app from Roni Music.)

The book-based, pixelated dots approach to guitar solos results in simplified versions of solos, minus those nuances which musical symbols can’t accommodate. As I pointed out earlier, MIDI can recreate anything that can be written in staff notation, but trying to recreate all of the pitch characteristics of a real guitar solo in MIDI is impossible.

The difference between the real recorded solo and the simplified version described by tablature or sheet music is obvious to any casual listener. I’ve used guitar as an  example, but the same thing applies to many other instruments as well – though not keyboards. Detailed keyboard parts can be accurately recorded in MIDI. Keyboards aren’t microtonal, and MIDI can record and reproduce them with perfect accuracy.

The problems on keyboards present differently than on guitar, but the same principles apply, especially with regard to rhythmic phrasing. There is a lot of rubato, off-time playing in modern music which standard notation can’t capture. Books can tell you a great deal about a solo. But to truly walk in the tracks of the original explorers before you, you have to relate to the music directly through sound.

My opinion of the standard graded method books for piano and guitar from the major publishers is they do a good job of showing how common techniques are expressed in staff notation. They all cover a lot of ground in a short space.

They are fine as a framework for further study. In the popular guitar methods, “Book One” covers reading notes on all six strings, accidentals and key signatures, note values, chords, picking and strumming techniques. You can’t cover all of that effectively in only 60 pages, without supplementing by using other materials.

© 2019, 2020 Greg Varhaug