Guitar Heroes: how do they create and re-play the solo?

I listen to everything from Pat Metheny to Buckethead. I am always amazed and appreciative of how an expert guitarist can pull-off a long solo piece. I always thought that a solo just sort of flowed out of the artist, but then they can do a repeat performance live and I wonder how they can remember all those notes. Using modern techniques, some guitarists can rip-out 10, 15, 20 notes per second at places in a solo that can last for 5 or 10 minutes at a time. I have a picture in my head of a performer going thru their new solo in front of a page of written notes, stopping to correct a note (scribble), then starting a few bars back and going forward once they are satisfied (clearly I am not a musician and cannot read or write music). This cannot be how modern guitar solos are created, but then how is the artist able to repeat the solo live and stay mostly true to the recorded, studio version?

I guess that is the difference between learning how to play a song and playing music. That old saying: “An amateur practices until they get it right. A professional practices until they cannot get it wrong” comes to mind.

Well there’s two main schools of thought on the subject: composed and improvised.

For composed solos, it’s simple: you memorize and play what’s been written.

For improvised, it’s not really that difficult. When I was in a recording band I could play a spontaneous solo and recreate it accurately without practice as long as I could listen to what I’d recorded a few times, and when you’re making professional recordings, you’re going to be hearing everything dozens of times.

Most solos can be thought of in sections, like words in a sentence. The “words” are just solo licks and fast arpeggio runs, tied together with standard noodling. All you need to do is remember the sentence, and muscle memory will pretty much do the rest.

Think of it as writing a poem perhaps. You might write out a couple of verses as they come to you, then later revise a word or phrase here and there. You’d remember most of what you’ve penned, and after a few readings and recitals you’d have it pretty much down, including revisions.

Same for guitar, once you’ve written a riff or solo it’s just in your head and fingers. Edits and changes that happen later in production would necessitate the artist actually listening to a final release version of the track, in order to learn what fans would expect to hear.

Also a lot of the time in solos, you as the listener might be interpreting notes as individual units where in fact they kind of belong together in a patterned group of sorts, so much in the way you read and interpret a word rather than parse individual letters, the artist just remembers the lick or scale or whatever. Understanding music theory goes a long way towards this.

Per your quoted wisdom, also consider the amount of practise time any credible Guitar Hero will have put in, on their way to reaching Hero status. It’s way, way, way more than you might suspect.

For a guitarist who has reached that level it’s not difficult. It can be more difficult composing the solo than remembering it.

When recording “Mr. Crowley” Randy Rhoads was having difficulty composing his solo. After a few hours Ozzy came into the studio and yelled, “Just play the f****** guitar!” Randy ripped out a solo, combining improvised licks with the ones he had composed. Afterwards Randy went back and listened to the recording in order to “learn” the solo. He then recorded that solo two more times—all of his solos were triple tracked (one track in the center, one left, one right). Listening to it you’d be hard pressed to tell. Randy was kind of a freak like that.

For a least a decade, Rush used to have a 30 minute or so jam session before each gig they played. They’d have that recorded so they could go over it for ideas downstream. So parts of songs or solos came from those.

It’s the oldest trick in the book, if you want to play better just play. You’ll get there eventually.

Many solos, while sounding spontaneous and improvised, are using simple standard patterns laid on defined scales. So it isn’t like memorizing random unrelated digits of pi, for example, but there are instead more easily memorized pieces related to specific chords and keys.

It allows me, as a fumbling amateur guitarist, to be able to learn the solos for Comfortably Numb note for note without much effort. Playing it well, however, is practice practice practice, and I’m not a touring musician gigging and rehearsing every day, so I’ll never sound as good as the real thing.

Slightly related in that I thought of it, Jimi Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock is obviously legendary. What it completely improvised that day? Or was it part of his repertoire?

A quick google shows everything going toward that performance, but I would be fascinated how closely he could replicate that performance on another day if there is a recording.

Thanks all! It’s interesting to understand how some things are done in an area where I have zero expertise.