Developing Solo Guitar: Taming the “One Handed Piano Without a Sustain Pedal”
May 20, 2021

Written by Doug Perkins

I am pretty sure that I have done just as many solo guitar gigs – and I mean with no vocal where I played the melody, harmony, groove and any soloing myself – as I have done gigs with various sized bands. Non-guitarists tend to see solo guitar as no harder than what a pianist does, but it has far more challenges that most people don’t consider – the main one probably being that not only does it take two hands to play one note, but when you take your finger off the string, the note STOPS. That’s how I came up with the definition of the guitar as the “one handed piano without a sustain pedal” – because it is quite literally true.

But this is not to scare people off from learning to play by yourself, it’s very satisfying to be able to “tell the complete story” of a tune by yourself, gets easier and easier the longer that you di it, and it simply sounds great when done well. There ARE a few very important tips to use in learning how to do it, and I will briefly outline them here:

The first thing to do is obvious but maybe doesn’t seem like the first thing: you should learn to play the melody, and limit yourself (with a few exceptions) to just using mostly the top two strings. We do this to leave as many strings possible below the melody for harmony.

When I was a student at Berklee the Real Book had literally just come out – I might have bought mine on the first day of sales and I still have it – and here was what I did in my regular practice routine: I would play a tune’s melody both “as written” as well as up an octave, since the guitar is actually a transposing instrument that reads an octave lower than it sounds. Then I would learn the chord changes, and then I would start to put the melody on top of the chord changes. (I also would play the changes while walking a bass line underneath and of course learn to solo over the changes, but that’s not necessary if you are just trying to get into solo guitar.)

One of the things that just having six strings limits us to are the amount of harmony notes we can use below our melodies to be usually four or less. So what do you do to make the chord heard when your melodies might be lots of “non-chord tones” as in the 9ths, 11ths and 13ths? This is where the concept of “guide tones” come in.

The “guide tones” of a chord are the two notes that sort sound the “essence” of the chord, and for the most part consist of the particular 3rd and 7th of any chord, I have proved this to students many times by playing the chords to a tune for them and then just playing just the guide tones for the song instead, and they are always amazed at how they still heard the song go by in just the guide tones. So, what notes do you “throw out” as unnecessary when you don’t have the strings left for them?

Well, believe it or not, the first one that you dump is THE ROOT. I know when we were learning the root is all-important in that it’s how we know how to move it around, but there are a number of reasons it’s first to go: The first is that your brain when it’s listening to music automatically tries to organize what it’s hearing into a scale, and it does this by filling in the notes that it doesn’t hear as well as the ones that it hears. And yes, this happens in anyone, casual listener to trained musician – it’s just how humans are made. And the second reason is something called “the overtone series” that are a additional series of notes that are also generated by the “fundamental note” that you are playing that also fills in some notes – if you want to know about that, it’s all over the internet, have at it. The second note to omit is the 5th, and for a lot of the same reasons – and of course, the root and the 5th are the most common notes for bass players, so if you learn to avoid these notes when playing with them you won’t make any bass player enemies 😉

So what this means to you as a solo guitarist is that the 3 most important things to do is to 1) learn the melody on the top two strings 2) learn to play the chord changes in lots of chord voicings, and especially ones that use strings 2 and lower, and 3) learn the guide tones for these chords and be able to play them alone, again most importantly on strings 3 and below, since our melodies will be above that.

How do you do that? Very simply, one song at a time. What I did as a student was close my eyes and just open the Real Book and whatever tune was looking at me, that’s what I would play – and yes, some of them are pretty hairy for guitar in that way, but as you might have guessed, I have played every song in there at least once or twice doing this method of practice.

Here’s how I NEVER could have done it: Deciding that I would first learn all of each type of chord one by one in every key before I started in trying to play one song. Every great musician has done it the same way: they learned to play by learning to play actual tunes, not (just) exercises.

Yes, a tune actually BECOMES an exercise, because each tune contains it’s own series of problems that must be solved and cannot be changed “to make it easier” – the song is what it is, and you have to follow it’s lead. But here’s what will happen when you do is this: The melody will be a certain note within a scale that you will have to find a chord voicing to put under it, and maybe there are 8 noes in that measure that you have to harmonize with chord voicings, and either musicality or the range of the melody will dictate that you can’t use just one chord to put under all 8 motes. GOOD – THAT’s HOW YOU LEARN MORRE CHORDS.

All over the internet these days, I see people selling music instruction that claim to give you this “weird hack” that will magically make it so you can easily and instantly play. Well, believe it or not, I just literally gave you that “weird hack” to solo guitar playing, but it’s not “instant” or easy – except that it’s a lot easier than doing it with no guidelines, which I think that many try to do and fail.

If you want to get a little help, below is some stuff from real masters of solo guitar that I think could help you a lot – yes, you will have to do a lot of this work yourself, but there’s no substitute for really seeing it done and hearing the explanation of why it was done like that to save you a lot of time along the way.

I hope that you will really dig into this and let the song be your teacher, because they really will – each song will teach you something that you will be able to use on the next song, and eventually you’ll be able to do what I do and just be able to do it all on sight – it’s not instant, it took years, but you do it song by song.

Ron Eschete:


Tim Lerch:


Jonathan Orriols:

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