Incorporating Solos Into An Arrangement

“Any guitar solo should reflect the music that it’s soloing over and not just be existing in its own sort of little world.”

–John Frusciante



Happy Thanksgiving from The Composer’s Toolshed! As we near the holiday season, I thought I’d start off with a gift: Paquito D’Rivera’s solo over Corcovado from the 2003 Latin Grammy award winning album Brazilian Dreams, featuring the vocal quartet Manhattan Voices. For anyone out there who has never heard this album, I highly recommend it. Every track is a masterpiece, and it easily falls into my top 20 albums of all time.







In the past, I’ve accompanied each solo transcription with some type of analysis. This one, however, speaks pretty much for itself. D’Rivera creates a virtuosic solo that navigates the harmonic cycle with near perfection.


Instead, I thought I’d discuss how to use an improvised solo to our advantage in arrangements that feature soloists. I was inspired by the beautiful use of D’Rivera’s solo in Corcovado. It has a double-time feel that ties together a trumpet solo with the recapitulation of the melody.



An improvised solo can be a powerful compositional tool when used correctly. We’ll look at some famously implemented solos while talking about the ground rules of integrating solo sections into an arrangement.


One of the first decisions when inserting a solo section is how much of the solo should be spontaneous and how much should be preconceived. While the tradition in jazz is to have a completely improvised solo, rock solos often begin with a riff that is part of the overall composition.


There’s nothing wrong with writing out the first (or last) 8 bars of a solo and adding “Ad Lib.” above it. This option gives the soloist freedom to interpret your music in his or her own intimate way. Below, Carlos Santana is featured on Smooth. He begins his solo with the opening riff and then elaborates with his own voice.



This is also an excellent example of how to incorporate a featured soloist into an arrangement. Santana accompanies Rob Thomas throughout the song with ad lib. riffs inserted around vocal lines. One of the most important virtues of an arranger using improvised solos is trust. Any good soloist will navigate their part with very little instruction. In other words, don’t write out every detail –let them do their job.


That being said, if you want something very specific, don’t expect the soloist to read your mind. I once wrote an atonal jazz song (technically it was a non-repeating interval series, but who’s keeping track?). I wanted the soloist to improvise using the tone row, its inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion exclusively. With such specific instructions, I obviously needed to write the permutations out for them.


Another important decision when incorporating a soloist is deciding how to use their solo in the overall form of a piece. In traditional big band repertoire, solo sections are inserted into the middle of a score. These sections are vamped with one solo after another. This is a pretty weak use of a solo, compositionally speaking.


Wherever a vamp exists, time essential pauses (I’ll elaborate about this in a later post). The forward movement of the composition ends, and the larger arc of the score is thrown out of whack. It’s much more useful, as is the case with more modern arrangements, to use solos as a means to move the score from one part of the form into the next. Multiple solos can be sprinkled throughout to accomplish this in a more through-composed manner.



In Aretha Franklin’s famous Respect, she uses a sax solo in place of bridge. The key change creates a lot of momentum. I really wish more solos were implemented like this –there’s no reason a solo has to be over the verse changes or the chorus changes. I’ve always felt the sax solo was the highlight of that song because of its transitional force.


Another great example of a solo providing structural momentum is Soundgarden’s Spoonman from their 1994 classic album Superunknown. There are a few ways to look at the form of this one, but it basically starts with a guitar riff we’ll call A. When the rhythm drops, we get our B motif. These motifs combined create the main theme of the work, which we’ll call V (A + B = V). At one point, the themes are combined with a key change. We’ll call this a C section.



Looking at it this way, the form is pretty straightforward for the first half of the tune: A – B – A – B – A – C – A – B – A – B – C – A, or more simply:

V – C – V – C – V (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse).


While the form may not be too exciting, the content certainly is. Soundgarden must have realized that a third C section (or chorus) would have been monotonous. Instead, the A section is extended and leads into a guitar solo (section D). This solo acts as a bridge and is the dynamic high point of the song.


The texture is brought down immediately for a percussion solo. We now enter an entirely new place in the form that I’ll call V2 (a false reprise in the sense that the A section bass line persists throughout). This leads into a sort of Coda section:


V – C – V – C – V – D – V2 – C – V.


Sometimes a solo can become an actual main theme in a work. While the notes and rhythms may change, the texture of the solo can become the overriding musical idea. Take The Ventures’ classic Wipeout, for instance:



The guitar riff is theme A while the drum solo is theme B. If the guitar solo in the middle is its own section, then Wipeout follows a sort of modified repeating rondo that shortens as it goes on:


A – B – A – B – C –

A – B – A – C –

A – B – C – A.





I’ve always heard anecdotally that Freddie Mercury wrote little bits and pieces of songs and then strung the most meaningful ideas together to make an entire song. You can certainly hear this approach in Queen’s megahit Bohemian Rhapsody. But let’s take a look at one of their less famous songs, Bicycle Race.


The form for this one is all over the place, and it features two noteworthy sections: A group bicycle chime solo followed by a guitar duet. Thankfully the sections are easy to identify, so I won’t over-annotate this one:


A – B – C – A – B – D – E – A – F (bicycle chime solo) – G – C – A – B


The interesting thing about the chime solo is that it is necessary for the guitar duet. Without it, there would be nothing bridging the main themes A, B, or C to it. The duet certainly isn’t necessary, but it’s the highlight of the song. Freddie Mercury was always creative when it came to escaping traditional classical forms, and he does it with great success in this wonderfully silly example.


Sometimes a single soloist can be inserted throughout a work to create a beautiful contrast of texture. Let’s look at a non-improvised solo in this J.S. Bach classic, the first movement from his Concerto in F Major for Harpsichord And Two Recorders (adapted here for a larger chamber ensemble):



After establishing the main themes, the keyboard takes over the principle theme. When the rest of the ensemble takes the theme as their own, the keys respond with the second theme. This propels the ensemble into the minor development section (with classic Bach counterpoint and canon).


When the theme finally returns, the harpsichord takes over again as the role of embellisher. In classic Bach fashion, the return of theme is false and more elaboration ensues.


Just as with a rock or jazz band, a soloist’s interpretation of a theme can create a great contrast to any static issues in the larger form. It’s important to remember that a soloist can serve not only as an extension of the form, but that they can facilitate textural changes necessary to support a longer work. A work whose form is A – B – A – B – A – B, etc. can sustain itself just fine so long as each section has a different timbrel contrast. Soloists can easily provide that role.


Let’s keep all that in mind when we check out our final video – one of my favorites the Internet has to offer. Hocus Pocus, by the band Focus, is tedious in its form but thrilling in its execution thanks to improvised solo sections:


A – B – C –

A – B – C –

A – B – C –

A – B – C –

A – B – C –

A – B


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