Making Your Solos Stand Out, part 1

Posted on by Matt Perkins
Yngwie Malmsteen

Okay, so not everyone can (or wants to) solo like this guy, but there's no harm in trying!

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.

Hitting that pickup switch is the solo tone trick that's been used by countless players.

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.

A pedal like the Seymour Duncan Double Back Compressor can be used as a solo boost.

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.

Written on August 13, 2012, by Matt Perkins

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  • Lperez7564

    How about modding tour amp and adding a 2nd master volume in paralel?

    • yomamma

      and put a string in your butt and walk forward to turn it up?

      • The Shredder

        I think the adage is: If you don’t have anything nice to say, then shut the h*** up!

  • Orofea

    usually i use the bridge pickup for the rhythm and the neck pickup for the solo, adding some delay and reverb.

  • Williamlong1

    I use some of the above methods but I add things like dynamic picking & on my humbuckers guitars I have push pull volumes to split the coils for lower volume. But my favorite method is using an simple tube screamer & turning the drive all the way down & the volume all the way up. When it’s solo time I step on it & gives a great boost.

    • Matt Perkins

      Yep, that’s very similar to how I boosted solos in the past, but with a Blues Driver instead of a Tube Screamer: volume up, drive down. It’s very effective.

  • Tonymacch

    Depending on your amp set up, the volume knob, once mastered can give you the best of both worlds. Crunchier rhythms, and powerful leads.

    I use a booster pedal in the effects loop of my amp. Works great in that it doesn’t overdrive the pre-amp, and gives a nice clean boost. Only downside is it has to be set differently for all amp settings. Therefore, I tend to set it for my favorite dirty channel and use it there.

    • Matt Perkins

      Yep, things start to get complicated when you have a multi-channel amp. It can be done though!

  • The_Metalist

    Mesa Triple Rec Solo heads have a built in solo channel that works great for me.  I use it along with the above methods to say what I want with a solo.  The down side to that is of course not standing out with my own unique sound.

  • Keep my amp clean and use a modeling pedal to enhance the tone.For blues I can use a tweed or Twin model and switch to a bassman or boutique amp for the solo.Also I have chorus, wah, auto wah and I make every odd number arhythm and every even number a louder solo channel.I always have two good choices wherever I am on the pedal.None of these pedals are ready out of the have to spend a lot of time diakling them in and programming your own sounds.If you know what a good high end amp really sounds like you can get great sounds out of your modeling pedal.Also program two of them and take a spare to the gig.(Other problem is they can be a bit hard to see pin a gig outside in daylight.) I use a tele or strat with Seymour Duncan Humbuckers.I keep both on and they are SH-1s.

  • William F

    I use a different amp, with a an a/b box to switch to my other for solos

  • PhilJamesGuitar

    As this is the Seymour Duncan website, let me share an experience regarding the Pearly Gates humbucker: wire it up so you can switch from coil split to series (full humbucking), use the coil split for clean rhythm tones, then flip to series for scorching lead. The gain jump from split to series is huge; it’s like kicking in a distortion pedal, only cheaper. 🙂

    • yomomma

      I hope your playing clean or country…’cause the PEARLY sounds thin and horrible…lol

  • yomamma

    OMG…this is the most obvious article I’ve EVER read on any subject!!! lmao !

    • Ian Ashworth

      Agreed! More volume? Hit the bloody strings harder Dudes!!!

  • Julio

    I use a Low output DiMarzio Area ’67 in the neck for most parts, and switch to a (super high output) Evo in the bridge when I want to boost the signal into total overdrive mayhem!

  • pablosamurai

    when u r in a band with 2 guitar players, none of the above works. there 2 ways to achieve this. one, is using a booster, or eq with volume control connected thru the fx loop. the other, and the best one, by having a sound guy working with the band, and knowing the songs, so he cant turn the volume up in the solos. the “ac/dc” way.

  • Big Jake

    I have always felt the more that everyone in the band is in sync, the greater the impact of the solo is. For example if the accent of the beat is changed up and the entire band gets into a slightly different groove during the solo it tends to stand out better. After the solo resume the groove as before the solo in the verses/chorus/bridge etc. In other words work together as a cohesive unit instead of as an ego driven guitar player just wanking/shredding.

  • Zeno

    I simply have a patch on my effects unit that’s louder with slightly more gain. Works like a charm for my solo boost. Plus I often throw some sort of effect over my solos, as well, such as a harmonizer, wah, or chorus and reverb.

  • rooster

    keeley katana. a great clean boost to bring you to the front of the mix for the solo, plus if you want to add a bit of dirt and then sweep it clean after the solo, it’s also got that ability with the push/pull volume knob. mainly, though, i use it to boost the signal cleanly to make the solo pop out (also helpful if while playing you get that “i can’t hear you well enough” look from somebody; it gives you a quick fix until the end of the song when you can figure out what the hell is going on with the mix.