'Total Guitar' January 2004

How to avoid bum notes

Solo time. The adrenalin starts pumping (or the beer's been flowing) and the fretboard becomes a blur of lines and dots. It's too late to swot up on the theory now but you do want to impress. It's time for a bluffers guide:

Here comes the science:

If we were to assume that the backing is in some sort of friendly key without nasty changes, the maths says:
  • 7 different notes in a major or minor scale
  • A total of 11 different chromatic notes in an octave
Therefore, on selecting a random note we've got a 7 in 11 chance of getting away with it!

Not bad, but about 36% of this hit and hope solo is still likely to set the teeth on edge. How are you going to get away with that? (Only playing 64% of the time won't work I'm afraid).
  • Firstly, enjoy your bum notes! Don't pull a face - this instantly gives the game away to your audience leaving no chance to blag it.

  • Try to know where your root note is at all times. This is home. Like Mummy always said, keep it in sight and don't stray too far off the path.

  • Been unfortunate with your note selection this time? One fret up or down is likely to be a goody. Listen closely and make a quick adjustment with a slide, bend, hammer-on or pull-off.

  • If you've found one good note, the next safe one in the scale will be either one or two frets away - it's 50/50....take a chance.

  • Know what chords the rhythm is playing? Use the individual notes that they're fretting in the chord shape to make a bit of an arpeggio.

  • Trial and improvement. Make an effort to learn as you go which notes are always sounding rough - avoid these like the plague in your next lick. Likewise, notes that don't make the front row wince should be memorised - don't be scared to hang on them for a breather. As you move through the solo, the percentages should be getting better!

  • Beef up your solos with dynamics rather than hunting for fancy notes. When you've found a couple of good tones, stick with them and make them more interesting with changes in your attack, vibrato, slides and bends. Play around with octaves. Check out some blues guitar heroes like BB King - they can make just a few notes and shapes stretch to an incredible solo marathon with some phrasing and feel.

  • Your floating trem isn't just there for appearances. Try to steer yourself out of the oncoming traffic with some squeals and dive bombs.

  • Chromatic runs can often work if played with a purpose but it's best to try to start and end with a good note, particularly the root.

  • A huge array of flashing lights in your effects rack may help to distract but turn any delay units off - this could result in 2 or more bad eggs for the price of one.

  • If all else fails, make up a scale name and claim it's what you were using to anybody that gives abuse - something with a Greek sound should do the trick. Play the bad notes again and again to really ram it home that you're playing at a superior level.
Andy Ellis
January 2004

Last updated 9/8/2020