Watch the Strategy 1: Consider Character online guitar lesson by Jon Herington from Ear IQ: Soloing Strategies
Now, let me say something about the character of the song that seems important. A lot of this will happen intuitively and unconsciously, but whether it's conscious or not, the song determines a lot about how I decide to play on it. This tune has a kind of slick, pop vibe, but it sounds a little suspicious to me. What I mean is that it has a surface simplicity and ease and restraint about it, but it does some unusual things that you don't often hear in a pop song, like unusual chord changes and sly little deviations from more standard section lengths. But it feels so perky and innocent that you can miss some of that sophistication. Now this kind of sneaky doubleness is Steely Dan's stock in trade, of course - you hear this kind of thing on all their records a lot of the time. Very slick and sly.
So after hearing the song and getting to know the harmony, I chose an approach that I thought would reflect the character of the track - the wah gave it a kind of quirky vocal quality which fit the song somehow, and I decided to not use too much overdrive on the amp, since the song, though it has a kind of drive to it, seems sort of clean and slick, too. I tried to play with an even attack - not too soft and not too hard - so it would match the steadiness of the track that way. I also tried not to play too much - no rhythmic subdivision greater than a triplet - since I felt that the solo should sort of float on top of the track and not be too aggressive. On a track like this that seems so strong and steady on its own, a solo can be quite simple - the solo doesn't have to carry the day on a groove like this, it just has to fit naturally over the track.
I started with the trills on the open E string, which is striking, but because it's all a left hand technique, it somehow still seems to float or be light enough. We're in A minor here, and my note choices in the first five bars are all firmly in the key, and very familiar to most guitarists used to playing in the fifth position in this key. But in the 5th bar, the ascending bends kind of emphasize the key change that arrives with the C9 chord. You might notice that I used a note that is out of the key when I was climbing up to the high A - I think that helps signal that something's up in the song at that point. And something is up, and we get the bar with the most unusual chords next. I'm sure I was just winging it there, but I like the way the notes play around the final E note, sort of teasing from both above then below before they resolve on the downbeat of the F chord.
So that's our first solo. How are you doing so far? As Donald Fagen often asks me, "Is anything okay?" Let's move on to solo number two.