The solo: for many of us, it’s one of the best things about playing guitar. For others, it’s a terrifying prospect. This article is for those of us brave enough to step up and take the lead for a while, and it deals with a problem as old as the guitar solo itself: how to stand out in the mix when it’s your turn for the spotlight.
As with most aspects of guitar playing, there are many ways to solve this one. I’ve boiled it all down to a few basic approaches, ranging from simple and cheap to complex and/or costly. Each has its pros and cons, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes the best approach is to do multiple changes at the same time, or choose your method based on the specific situation.
In the first part of this article we’ll discuss the most basic, tried-and-true methods for bringing solos out of the mix. Let’s begin with the simplest method, shall we?
Use the guitar’s volume control. This one might seem a bit too obvious, but it does take a bit of finesse and the right rig to make it work. The idea is to turn that volume control down until you take a solo, then crank it up to 10 and let ‘er rip. Guitarists like Jeff Beck and Yngwie Malmsteen have mastered the use of the volume control, and others like them have been using it as a solo boost for decades. The definite upside to this approach is that you’re using something that’s already built into the guitar, and it’s a control that’s close at hand, especially on a Strat or Strat-like instrument. It also provides a nice tonal change that you can’t really get from the other methods. Changing the volume right at the guitar affects everything else further down your signal chain, and depending on your perspective and the gear involved, the resulting change in tone can be amazing … or disappointing.
On that note, there are a few downsides to spinning the volume control. For one, if you’re trying to maintain a consistent tone and distortion level between the solo and the rest of the song, this probably won’t work for you. Even if you are ok with the tone change (typically you’ll notice a fatter and more present tone with the volume dimed) there’s the issue that with most amp rigs, turning up the volume on the guitar will not, ironically, have a lot of effect on the actual volume. It will often wind up working more like a gain control. If you need a big, noticeable volume boost when you take a solo, this is probably not going to give you that.
Switch pickups. Along the same lines as the volume knob, this technique lets you use a control that’s already right there on your guitar. There are as many ways to do this as there are pickups and guitars to put them in. The more traditional method is to play mostly on the neck pickup, then switch to the bridge pickup for the solo (heck, the Les Paul even says “Rhythm” on the neck side of the pickup switch). However, if you want a punchy and bright tone for riffing and a smooth, singing tone for your solo, switching from bridge to neck for the solo makes the most sense. Some guitars give you the ability to dial in a different volume and tone for each pickup, which can go a long way to making this method work well.
The downsides to switching pickups are very much the same as those for the guitar’s volume control. If you don’t want a tone change when solo-ing, you won’t like this method. You also may not notice a major jump in actual volume when switching pickups, though this varies a lot depending on what pickups you’re using and how your amp is dialed in.
Use an Overdrive, Distortion, or Compressor Pedal. This is the first solo boost method I ever used, and it’s a popular one with good reason. Overdrive, distortion, and compressor pedals are all basically tiny amplifiers on a fundamental level, and as such they have a lot more ability to raise the volume of your playing than any control on your guitar. In the case of an overdrive or distortion, you can also dial in a gain boost to fatten up your lead lines, and with a compressor you can add sustain and, you guessed it: compression. All of this can be quite desirable when solo-ing, not to mention the great benefit of being able to click the boost on and off instantly with your toes.
The main downside to this method is that you are pretty much stuck with whatever the pedal does to your tone when you solo. If you just want a volume boost without adding distortion or compression, this method will of course disappoint you. Speaking of volume, these pedals are not typically designed for this purpose, and you will often find that they simply can’t give you enough decibels to stand out in the mix. Some are better at raising the level than others, but by and large these pedals are designed to enhance your tone and keep it at the same level, not boost it.
That’s it for part one. In part two of this article we’ll discuss some methods that are a bit more refined, but also potentially more complex and costly: clean boost and EQ pedals, amps with solo boost modes, and relying on the good ol’ sound tech. Until then, let me know in the comments what methods you use to boost for solos, and what approaches do and do not work for you.