Comfortably Numb – Solo II
After the second verse and chorus we get to the main solo which brings the song to a close. This is arguably David Gilmour’s most famous solo, and one which regularly appears in the top 5 spots of polls and lists of ‘The Greatest Guitar Solos Of All Time’.
It is not difficult to see why.
The solo has all of the different elements of a brilliant blues rock solo:
David Gilmour’s guitar tone is wonderful, his playing is full of soul and emotion, his phrasing is spacious and open and the energy of the solo changes to build momentum and tell a story.
I could continue to add to this list. The purpose of this lesson however, is not just to list why I feel this solo is so effective.
In fact, in this lesson I hope to achieve 3 things. I would like to:
- Provide you with the tab and backing track for the solo, should you want to learn it note for note
- Help you to identify the most challenging elements of the solo, and how you can work through them effectively
- Cover the key reasons Gilmour’s solo is so effective and how you can target the same ideas and techniques in your own improvisations
In this way, not only can you learn the original, you can also learn how to add a bit of that David Gilmour magic to your own playing.
So with that in mind, let’s get into it!
Comfortably Numb – Solo II
The tab for the main solo that I play in the video above is as follows:
At the 63 beats per minute (BPM) at which the solo is played, this is how the isolated and clean guitar part sounds:
I do make some very small changes to the original that Gilmour played.
These are all very minor stylistic alterations, like opting for a hammer on instead of playing two picked notes individually. As such, they don’t alter the flow or character of the solo.
Having said that, on the original track, the solo fades out. So the section shown from bars 25 to 30 is largely improvised.
I stuck closely to the framework of the ideas that you can hear on Gilmour’s solo, however his solo fades out much quicker on the original track than in my rendition.
Should you want to work through the ideas that I play, they are all shown on the tab above. Once you feel comfortable with the rest of the solo however, I would recommend trying to improvise your own ending to the solo.
Technical focus points
In my opinion, there are 3 different elements that are technically challenging in this solo. So when you are working through the tab above, I would recommend keeping them in mind and potentially dedicating extra focus to these elements.
This will do a lot to help you recreate the vibe of the original, and improve various elements of your technique at the same time.
The 3 points that I feel are challenging and which I would recommend focusing on are as follows:
The first element which makes the solo difficult is playing the descending pentatonic runs with rhythmic accuracy.
When I have worked on this solo with players in 1-2-1 coaching sessions, they typically treat these sections as pieces to be played as fast as possible.
Yet whilst these parts do need to be played fast, taking this approach will prevent you from really locking into the rhythm of the track and capturing the feel of these passages.
This is because David Gilmour is playing these sections using eighth note triplets.
In music, a triplet refers to a grouping of 3 notes that are played in the time of 2. So when you play an eighth note triplet, you end up playing 3 eighth notes (quavers) in the space of 2.
You can see and hear this in the following example:
Visually, you can see that the first bar contains eight notes, whilst in the second there are 12, as 3 notes are played in the place of 2.
You can also hear the way that the value of the notes decreases (they get faster) in the second bar.
This creates a specific rhythmic feel which within the context of Comfortably Numb, serves two purposes.
The first of these is that the triplets add a bluesy feel to the solo. Triplets are very widely used in the blues, and their inclusion here adds more of a bluesy element to the lead part.
Additionally, triplets work particularly well in descending pentatonic runs like those Gilmour plays. The odd note groupings create a cascading feel which makes it sound as if the notes are running into one another.
These triplets can be difficult to play at first.
If you are struggling with rhythmic accuracy more generally, then in this article here I run through 7 different points and exercises that you can use to play in time.
In that article there are also exercises for getting comfortable with different note subdivisions, including triplets. So do head over there if you want to dig into these concepts in more detail.
The key point to keep in mind here is that – as the name suggests – the triplet is defined by the fact it is a 3 note grouping. In this way, the descending licks in Comfortably Numb are broken up into smaller groups of 3 notes.
So as you are learning and working through these sections, you can think about playing the licks in groups of 3 notes. Should it be helpful, you can also think about counting through these note groupings in one of the following ways:
1 – & – a
Trip – ah – let
Pine – app – le
Beyond that and as it relates to Comfortably Numb, I would recommend working through the following four steps:
Firstly, try playing along to the actual song and look out for those moments where your timing slips.
Once you can comfortably play along to the track and you are locked in with what David Gilmour is doing, try to replicate it over this backing track here:
When you do so, use a metronome set at 63 BPM.
In this way, you have the harmonic information of the track to guide you, in addition to the click of the metronome.
After that, drop the metronome and continue to play over the backing track, whilst maintaining rhythmic accuracy.
Finally, once you can confidently solo over the backing track without the metronome to guide you, try doing the same – but now switch things up. So instead of using the backing track without the metronome, use the metronome without the backing track.
This won’t be as fun or as musical, however it will do a lot to build your sense of timing, and will help to engrain the ‘feel’ of the triplets so that you can play them confidently in the future.
Part of why I believe Comfortably Numb is such a useful solo for blues guitarists, is that it illustrates the amount of mileage you can get from a single scale (and in fact pretty much just a single scale shape!)
David Gilmour spends the majority of the solo in the first shape of the B minor pentatonic scale, and in doing so illustrates how many ideas you can create in that one section of the fretboard.
Extracting mileage from simple note groupings is a key skill to develop if you want to play the blues. This is because blues solos are typically constructed using the minor and major pentatonic scales.
As such, the challenge isn’t around which scale to use, but rather how to bring life to a simple 5 note scale.
There are a variety of different ways of achieving this, some of which I have outlined in the following lesson. However one of the ways that David Gilmour manages this, is to take very similar phrases and make slight alterations to them.
This adds a sense of coherence to the solo and prevents it from just sounding like a series of licks played one after another. It also adds a sense of continuity to the solo – without it sounding stale or repetitive.
When you are learning the solo however, it is very easy to get these similar sections mixed up. This is particularly true of the descending runs – all of which follow the same basic framework, but have slight changes to the specific note groupings and how they are played.
This is challenging for two reasons:
Firstly, it is easy to get the sections confused. They are so similar to one another that they can start to blur into one another. This makes actually learning and memorising the solo more difficult.
Additionally, it puts more pressure on you to replicate the specific note groupings in any given phrase. In each of the descending licks for example, it is important that you play the very specific note groupings that Gilmour uses.
If you don’t, you will fall out of the phrase rhythmically and won’t get to the next section of the solo in time.
There is no secret or trick to getting comfortable with these sections. It is simply a case of breaking the solo up into manageable chunks and working through them slowly.
Get comfortable with the first phrase and consolidate it to the point where you don’t have to think too much about the notes you are playing. Do the same with the next phrase, and then play them together.
Repeat the process for each of the different sections until you have worked your way through the whole solo.
This process might feel slow and long winded. However I would argue that it will actually save you time in the future. You will consolidate the solo at a deep level and won’t need to return to relearn it in the future.
Density of technique
The final element of Gilmour’s solo that I feel poses a challenge, is the density of technique contained within many of the phrases.
This is a key element of blues lead guitar, where it is important to add life to simple note groupings and scales through phrasing and technique.
As such, if you look at the tab above, you will see that every phrase is stacked with a variety of techniques. Gilmour uses bends, slides, double stops, and hammer ons and pull offs quickly and interchangeably throughout.
This transforms the simple scale shapes that he is using into music (more on this below) and adds a beautiful and expressive feel to his solo.
This is the key benefit of this approach, and why blues and blues rock solos are typically so dense with technique.
If you are earlier in your learning journey however, you might not yet feel so comfortable stacking a lot of different techniques together.
In Comfortably Numb, the challenge is amplified by the fact that many of the passages that are most dense with technique are played more quickly.
So, when you are working through these sections, do so slowly and deliberately with a focus on precision.
It is easy to try and rush through these passages, but if you do so at the expense of accuracy, you will struggle to recreate the feel of the original solo.
Instead, start slowly and make sure that you connect techniques smoothly and cleanly. You can then work the speed up over time.
One of the reasons that I love to teach this solo is that it offers so many lessons for blues guitarists.
These are ideas that you can apply directly to this track when improvising (more on this in the next lesson) and which you can also use in your blues guitar playing more generally.
When it comes to the main solo in Comfortably Numb, there are 5 key learning points that you can use to develop as a blues guitarist.
These all relate to elements of the solo which I feel define its character and make it so impactful. Some of these elements are granular and refer to specific techniques or phrases. Others relate to the broader structure and stylistic approach that Gilmour takes.
They are as follows:
In my experience, there is a real desire amongst guitarists to ‘break away from the pentatonic scale’ and move onto more complicated scales.
In fact, in many guitar playing circles and articles I have read online – the scale is almost treated with derision, as if playing it were an illustration of a lack of musical skill or knowledge.
Not only is this not the case, but these kinds of articles negatively influence the way that players try to learn. Specifically, it leads a lot of guitarists to try to ‘break away from the pentatonic’ before they have developed any kind of fluency with the scale.
This is highly problematic – firstly because the scale is rich with potential and secondly because it is widely used in the blues and blues rock music.
David Gilmour’s second solo in Comfortably Numb is illustrative of both of these points.
The solo is played almost exclusively using the B minor pentatonic scale. Not only this, but for the majority of the solo, David Gilmour sticks within just the first shape of the scale:
Gilmour’s use of the scale illustrates its potential and just how much mileage you can extract from a single shape.
It also helps to shape and define the quality of Gilmour’s solos, in two key ways:
Firstly, it gives the solo a distinctly bluesy feel. The minor pentatonic scale is fundamental in the blues and lends itself very well to bluesy phrasing. So Gilmour’s choice to focus almost solely on the scale is a stylistic one.
This choice also results in Gilmour playing a solo in which the focus is on phrasing, repetition and building momentum, instead of using lots of different scales.
Long story short, the minor pentatonic scale is a wonderful scale that is rich with potential.
Of course, there will be times when you want to move beyond the scale.
However, keeping the scale at the centre of your playing will give your solos a bluesy feel, and keep you focused on elements like phrasing and articulation – both of which are key to effective blues guitar.
Part of what makes David Gilmour’s playing so impactful is his masterful use of spacing. He lets all of his ideas breathe and his solos never feel cluttered or too busy.
Even the faster sections of this solo are punctuated with short rests that make each phrase stand out and sound distinct.
Leaving space in your solos is critical if you want to play in a vocal and expressive style. This is because the most effective and powerful blues guitar solos are those which mimic the human voice.
When you speak, you have to pause to take breath. It is a necessary survival reflex and so is natural – both when speaking and as a listener.
In fact, if you encounter someone who talks incessantly and only punctuates their speech with pauses very occasionally, it sounds unnatural.
Not only this, but the content of what they are talking about gets lost in the continual stream of speech. After a while you struggle to take everything in and any interesting anecdotes or facts contained within the conversation get lost in a sea of other words.
As noted above, taking these pauses when speaking is very natural. On the guitar however, there is no need to pause.
Hypothetically you could play for hours without pausing at all. This has a wide variety of benefits; but the huge drawback is that it makes you prone to overplaying.
Unless you are pushing your technical limit, there is no physical need to place pauses in our playing. Yet this rarely results in effective guitar solos.
Throughout this solo however, David Gilmour illustrates the importance of spacing and its role in the effectiveness of each phrase. It is one of the key elements that you can take from this solo and apply in all of your lead guitar playing.
Bending is the single most important technique in lead blues guitar. It helps you to break out of the rigid structure of your fretboard and target all of the microtones that exist between the frets on your guitar.
This adds a vocal and expressive element to your playing that is difficult to replicate (except perhaps when using a slide).
As noted earlier in the previous lesson, Gilmour uses a wide range of different bending techniques, and combines these with other techniques. In doing so, he illustrates how much mileage you can get out of bending, as well as how you can use it to enhance other techniques.
He also demonstrates – fleeting at the beginning of this solo – the effect of using a bigger bend that moves a tone and a half.
Along with Albert King, David Gilmour is the guitarist that immediately comes to mind when thinking about big bends that cover one and a half or two tones.
When Gilmour utilises these bends it gives his phrasing a certain intensity and adds a burst of spice into his licks.
So if you want to do the same, and add a David Gilmour or Albert King vibe to your solo, larger string bends make a great choice.
They can be more difficult to execute – both mechanically and theoretically, so if you don’t know where to begin, I would recommend heading over to this course here; The Ultimate Guide To Bending – Part II.
In my experience, when it comes to adding intensity to their solos, most guitarists get overly focused on speed. This is the main technique they work to develop and the mechanism they prioritise as a way of altering the energy level in their playing.
There are however a variety of techniques which have an inherently intense sound. Of these, double stops are amongst my favourite.
When combined with a more aggressive pick attack and perhaps a slight bend, double stops are one of the most effective ways of adding intensity to your solos. They are also easier to learn and execute compared with having to dramatically increase your playing speed.
Towards the second half of his solo, Gilmour repeatedly uses double stops to build intensity and momentum. They ramp up the tension in his playing before he moves to the upper registers of his guitar to an impactful conclusion.
Significantly, they create this impact without Gilmour having to play very fast. So if you struggle to play fast and are looking for ways to alter the energy of your solos, start using double stops.
In addition to double stops, David Gilmour also uses register as a way of creating energy and resolving his solo effectively.
Broadly speaking, the higher registers of your guitar (the upper frets on the treble strings) are more attention grabbing than those in the lower registers.
So if you want to create a change of energy or bring your solo to a powerful conclusion, moving from the lower to the upper registers of your guitar can be very effective.
This will help you to manage the overall flow of your playing and give your solos a more coherent feel. It is a very effective solo framework that will stop your solos from simply sounding like a series of licks played one after another.
It is also a framework that David Gilmour uses a lot in his playing. Just listen to the solos in songs like ‘Time‘, ‘Hey You‘ and ‘Money‘. They all begin in a lower register and then move up to finish towards the top of the fretboard.
This ramps up the intensity and energy of these solos in a logical and interesting way, and is a very effective way of structuring your own improvisations.
If you would like to learn more about the benefits of this approach and why I often recommend it, I cover the topic in more detail in this lesson here.
I could easily continue with these learning points, covering many more than the 5 listed above. However I have limited them for two reasons:
The first is to prevent overwhelm. I have covered a lot of material here at a granular level and I don’t want you to feel crushed by all of the different pieces we have covered so far.
Additionally, part of the joy of guitar playing is discovering what resonates with you.
I have highlighted some of the key elements of the solo that I feel make it so impactful, but these might be different for you.
As such, when you are going through the process of learning the solo, I would encourage you to actively listen to the guitar playing.
This is a very different experience to just listening to the song. You are trying to pay very close attention to the solo and the nuances of Gilmour’s playing.
When you do this, you will discover small phrases or techniques that you hadn’t noticed before. Dig into these in a bit more detail. Try to work out which techniques and ideas are being used and how you can replicate them in your own playing.
In this way, not only will you learn the solo; you will also build out your repertoire of techniques and soloing concepts.
Good luck! Let me know how you get on, and if you have any questions on anything covered in the lesson please just send me a message through your dashboard. I am always around and happy to help 😁
Otherwise when you are ready to do so, head over to the next and final lesson of this mini-course, where we will take a look at improvisational approaches over the track. See you over there!