How “Freebird” taught me everything I need to know about the rock guitar solo
• Find out how repetitive licking can increase the drama and tension in your solos.
• Develop a better understanding of the use of the pentatonic scale in different tones.
• Impress your friends with a mastery of classic rock shots.
Click here to download a printable PDF of the scoring for this lesson.
Love it or hate it, “Freebird”, the legendary opus of southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, has become a symbol of all that is good (or bad) in rock ‘n’ roll. When that person screams the title at a solo acoustic concert, it produces both scattered laughter and sighs of grief, but the music is rarely discussed for what it really is: a song about love, love, love. loss, regret and hope with a strong melody and an all time great solo that tests the physical endurance of any guitarist.
I’m not here to debate the merits or the flaws of this classic rock staple. I’m here to prove that everything you need to know about rock guitar solo can be found starting at 4:55 from the song.
The first thing to consider, but not necessarily to work on, is the physical stamina required to play the solo in its entirety. Ultimately, the four-minute solo consists mostly of short licks (patterns, phrases, whatever you like) repeated until physical exhaustion. Although playing the guitar takes endurance, developing it is not the goal of this particular lesson. What really makes “Freebird” worth investigating is the adaptable nature of the licks – you can play them on almost any chord progression, in any rock subgenre, at all times. ‘any tempo, in any key, at any time.
Let’s face it: there isn’t a single original idea in the solo. Each of the licks can be found in solos recorded since the early 1940s and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker! What makes “Freebird” special is that it brings all of those great licks together in one place.
Here are some ideas to keep in mind when working with this material.
Practice slowly. There’s not a single phrase here that’s hard to play slowly, although some bends can give beginners blisters, but you want the beats to be right, the bends precise, and the bindings crisp and strong. Believe me, speed will come with time, and precision comes with taking your time.
Practice both clean and warped. Playing with clear sound will show you how those licks work in country and pop songs. Distortion will signal any extraneous noise from poor technique.
Play the licks in different tones. It’s simple: they are all mobile, so you just have to work them from top to bottom of the neck. Although the original song was in the key of G, I transcribed the solo to E because it’s such a common guitar key.
Two keys of one scale. Almost all licks are derived from the pentatonic scale in E minor (E – G – A – B – D). But with a simple shift, the same notes can also form G major pentatonic (G – A – B – D – E), which means that all of those licks can be played in both major and minor keys.
Well, let’s get serious. Here are the licks in the order (more or less) they appear in the solo.
In Ex. 1 we’re basically playing a variation of a double-stop with the 3rd finger manipulating the elbows on the 2nd string while the 4th finger holds G on the 1st string.
A seemingly simple sentence, Ex. 2 Actually incorporates three different ideas: a turn, a release and a withdrawal.
Here is one of the most important licks in all of rock guitar! If you can’t see and hear where Ex. 3 is in the lineage of rock, you should learn more solos.
Ex. 4 is a great example of how to combine picking and slurring. Here’s the trick: Since the phrase has six notes, it takes a few repetitions of the chord progression to get everything aligned again. Each time you play the E on the 4th string, the pattern repeats. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry, just play the lick and notice how the phrase seems to move subtly as the chords progress.
In Ex. 5, we move the same pattern from Ex. 1 on the strings and vary the rhythm a bit.
Another phrase that requires a few rounds of progression to complete, Ex. 6 combines eighth notes with some sixteenth note flourishes and includes skipping strings.
We add an F # (the 9) to our pentatonic scale for Ex. 7. Here’s another one that shifts the starting point with each repetition of the phrase.
Composed of a fast recurring four-note phrase that remains melodically and rhythmically static when the harmony changes below, Ex. 8 will test your endurance by hand.
Our last lick (Ex. 9) is a three-note phrase that has a triplet feel to it. This is a difficult problem to maintain because it wants to speed up and slow down as you repeat it. Let it be! The original too.
There you have it, everything you need to know about the rock guitar solo… but not really. Yes, I sold you a freight bill. There is of course a lot more that rock guitar solos can and should contain. But these essentials are the staple – the meat and the potatoes – of rock guitar, and they’ll never let you down.