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Transcribing Solos on Guitar

Blues Guitar Lessons with Keith Wyatt

One of my students here at ArtistWorks recently asked me on the Blues Guitar School forum to name some influential solos that I have transcribed over the years. It seemed like a good topic for discussion, so here’s an expanded version of what I wrote:

To paraphrase an old saying, “if you steal one idea it's plagiarism but if you steal a hundred it's research.” In my opinion, the best way to learn a style is to emulate the masters, and learning solos teaches you not only licks, but how a great player arranges ideas over time.  A classic solo will also reveal new layers as your own ear, skills, and knowledge expand, so you can keep coming back to it for new insights. In most cases I never wrote these down but instead memorized them on the guitar, which after all is where you want the ideas to “live.”

In no particular order, here’s a sample of solos that I have memorized note-for-note at some point; some I still know pretty well while others would need some dusting off, but they’re all in there somewhere.

"Crossroads" (Cream/Clapton):

This was probably my first major effort at memorizing a long solo. Clapton’s five choruses taught me a huge amount about phrasing and building solos over time, especially about physical strength, controlling intensity, and the importance of maintaining a precise touch even when walking right on the edge of chaos.

"All Along the Watchtower" (Hendrix): 

A guitar-centered song that was also a Top 40 hit - will we ever hear that again? His solos are mini-compositions, each based around a unique idea and sound - he was one of the few true originals.

"Relaxin'" (Hank Garland):

Hank was best known as a Nashville session player, but he did a straight-ahead jazz record around 1961 called "Jazz Winds From a New Direction.” I took a crack at this solo in an effort to learn more about jazz phrasing. He was a brilliant player who compiled his own diverse influences to transcend stylistic categories.

"Breakfast Feud" (Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman):

The version on the album Solo Flight spliced together four different choruses of solos over a 12-bar blues, and on each chorus Christian took a completely different but equally coherent approach. He was one of the greatest improvisers of all time on any instrument and essentially wrote the book on electric jazz guitar, but his approach is also applicable to fast blues and rock & roll.

"Crosscut Saw" (Albert King):

The one chorus intro and two-chorus solo are like a capsule overview of Albert's style - impeccable timing and touch.

"Sweet Little Angel" (B.B. King - Live at the Regal):

One of the greatest slow blues solos ever recorded from one of the greatest live albums ever made - a master class in blues phrasing.

"Frosty" (Albert Collins): 

His signature instrumental that displays most of the key elements of his approach. I have altered my fingering and technique many times in an effort to match the intensity and depth of his sound, and I’m still trying.

"Side Tracked" (Freddie King):

From the all-instrumental album Just Pickin’, this song is a crash course in Freddie’s non-stop, aggressive style and shows how much you can do within a limited range on the neck.

"The Things that I Used to Do" (Guitar Slim):

Slim had very limited technique but he made up for it with pure attitude - no string bending or flash, just raw passion.

"That’s All Right" (Jimmy Rogers):

Llke most members of Muddy Waters’ early Chicago band, Rogers was also a star in his own right. This song is a classic of the Chicago electric blues guitar style and influenced Freddie King among many others. 

"Away Down in the Alley Blues" (Lonnie Johnson): 

Arguably the greatest all-around guitarist of the pre-electric generation, Johnson was a master of accompaniment and soloing in any setting from all by himself to a jazz orchestra (Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong). Learning this unaccompanied solo is still a work in progress for me, but I’m gonna keep trying…

"Blues With a Feeling" and "My Babe" (Little Walter):

Harmonica? Yes - a completely different approach from standard guitar licks. Achieving Walter’s huge tone and dynamic range is a near-impossibility on the guitar, but well worth the attempt.

"This is the Blues" (Otis Spann):

Spann was the undisputed master of Chicago blues piano, and like the harmonica, learning from another instrument brings a whole new perspective to guitar phrasing; in this case, two or more lines moving simultaneously with consummate swing. I can’t play the whole thing, but I compiled some of his ideas into guitar-sized phrases. 

"I Want You to Be My Baby" (Louis Jordan):

One more non-guitarist: Jordan was the biggest star of jump blues, the “urban music” of the ‘40s, and a phenomenal alto sax player. His phrasing directly influenced B.B. King, who covered many Jordan tunes over the years. 

Couldn't find a video for this but still worth mentioning:

"Further Up the Road" (Bobby Bland; Pat Hare, guitar). 

bobby bland

 One of the all-time classic shuffles; both the fills and the solo are textbooks for timing and touch.

There are others, but these are all pretty high on my list and highly recommended. The choice of what to devote your time and attention to is a matter of what moves you - spend some time digging deep into the players you love, regardless of style, and you’ll be repaid many times over. 

- Keith Wyatt

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