While it would sound like Gilmour’s solos are literally ‘pulled down from the ether’, his process is actually one of generating ideas and refining them until he has something he likes; not true improvisation, so to speak, but a more compositional-improvisational kind of approach. Gilmour himself says the following about how he came up with the solo for Comfortably Numb:
“I banged out five or six solos. From there I just followed my usual procedure, which is to listen back to each solo and make a chart, noting which bits are good. Then, by following the chart, I create one great composite solo by whipping one fader up, then another fader, jumping from phrase to phrase until everything flows together. That’s the way we did it on ‘Comfortably Numb.’”
This approach lends itself well to putting together a great solo because first you have the improvisational element where you’re creating all those ‘best bits’ out of the five or six takes of the solo, which is a good number because you’re not going to be ‘feeling it’ or ‘in the zone’ on every take, and you never know when inspiration will hit; therefore, it’s better to cast your net as wide as possible without frustrating yourself with too many takes. When you’ve got your five or six takes you become the composer/arranger and put the piece together to create your masterpiece.
How to Create Epic-ness
One thing that’s undeniable about David Gilmour’s solos is that they are epic, and an epic solo is nothing without an epic chord progression (at around 90bpm). Check out the following backing track which features an epic chord progression for you to create your solo over. The progression isn’t based on any Pink Floyd song but is reminiscent of the style so that you can put yourself in Gilmour’s shoes and, ‘bang out five or six solos’ over it.
A quick analysis will tell you that the progression is in D minor, so your first port of call for Gilmour-esque soloing is going to be the D Minor Pentatonic scale. If you add two notes (Bb and E) to D Minor Pentatonic, you get D Natural Minor/Aeolian, which you could also use subtly to great effect.
While the majority of the progression stays in key, the last three bars feature an A major chord which is technically not in the key. Rather than panic, this is a great opportunity to land on a C# (the third of A major) instead of a C, which will clash on this particular chord. You could also land on the other chord tones: A and E, which are already in the scale, but be sure to make a mental note of where the C# is in relation to D Minor Pentatonic:
If you want to emulate Gilmour’s style and technique for this track, remember that less is definitely more, and to include those slow, heavenly bends and even those three-semi-tone or two-tone bends he does, as well as subtle pull-offs and hammer-ons.
What I also like about his approach is that it’s a good mix of analysis and creativity which includes just enough improvisation so as to avoid ending up with a stale, mechanical solo.
See what you can come up with!