Are You a Solo or Ensemble Player? | Hub Guitar

Are You a Solo or Ensemble Player?

We can’t be everything to everybody. Sometimes the best decision we can make is to specialize, choosing an area of focus. In doing so, we are also choosing not to focus on things that lay outside of our area of specialization.

It is not strictly necessary to specialize. This advice applies to players who are considering narrowing their focus in order to deepen their results.

One of the fundamental specialization decisions for guitar players is whether they will primarily play in a solo guitar setting or an ensemble guitar setting.

Two Paths

Consider these two videos:

The guitar duo tune, Blue Bossa, requires at least one other player. So to practice at home, you need a backing track. Thankfully, backing tracks are plentiful on the Internet, including YouTube. In an ensemble setting, the individual parts a player might be required to play are potentially smaller and simpler and easier to learn than solo guitar. Although the barrier to entry is lower than solo guitar, it is not “easier”, per se.

The guitar solo tune, Hana, is played by only one player. Naturally this might seem more difficult at first glance, but in reality it is a different format of guitar music and neither easier nor hard to learn, but different. And the miracle of hearing all of the notes of a piece pour out of your guitar at the same time can be inspiring.

All guitar players should aim to be able to play at least one solo tune and one “ensemble” or duo-type tune before deciding which area to focus on.

The Solo Guitar Player


Solo guitar players play a variety of styles, including classical, latin, jazz, funk, and “other”. Just about any style can be arranged for solo guitar.

Fingers or Pick?

Solo players tend to prefer fingerstyle to pick style. The majority play fingerstyle. There are exceptions such as Doyle Dykes, and many others who use a thumb pick, and Joe Pass, who used plectrum lines interspersed with chords. But most guitarists seek to play solo arrangements, the kind that have bass, rhythm chords and melody combined together. This lends itself well to fingerstyle, or a mixture called hybrid picking.

Areas of Focus

Solo guitar players will focus their practice around learning, creating and playing interesting arrangements of tunes—or sometimes writing their own.

A strong understanding of chords is necessary to play multiple parts.


The solo guitar player has the freedom to play an independent bass line, interesting harmonies, and intertwined melodies. This craft offers players a chance to play complete musical arrangements by themselves.

Because solo players are so independent, they can easily shine on their own when somebody asks them to “play a tune”.

The Learning Curve

On the face of it, solo guitar playing seems more challenging—after all, it requires so much coordination. But there are a number of solo guitar tunes suitable for beginners. The key is finding them. Also, solo guitar is a quicker path to discovering the entrancement of playing the guitar. If a total beginner can hear all of the parts coming from their own fingers, it’s can be hypnotizing than learning the individual parts.

The Ensemble Guitar Player

Sinisa Botas/

The ensemble guitar player may play one or several of many styles. These include most contemporary popular music, rock, blues, jazz, latin, funk, and others.

Compared to a solo setting, playing in an ensemble requires a different, though related, skillset.

Rhythm is important for any musician, but especially so for an ensemble musician. While a solo musician can bend the flow of time (while still keeping discipline), an ensemble musician risks throwing the whole group off of balance by any minor error.

Although playing with the support of a band may seem easier on the surface, that’s not for certain. Sure, you can always drop out and let the rest of the band carry the tune. But to really pull your weight you’ll need to be able to play a number of rhythm and accompaniment parts, and in some styles you’re expected to be able to play a blazing improvised guitar solo.

Pick or Fingerstyle?

Ensemble guitar players often prefer to play with a pick. It’s difficult to play fast lines on a steel string guitar without the pick.

Areas of Focus

Ensemble players develop their ability to play bass parts, accompaniment parts, rhythmic chord parts, melodies, and improvised solos. In each context, the ensemble player has more freedom to concentrate on one aspect of the music.

An exception

An interesting exception to this is if you decide to perform “solo” but make use of backing tracks or loop pedals. Even though your overall act features only one musician, your actual skill set is within the scope of the ensemble player.

In the practice room, the ensemble guitarist will practice with a metronome, or full backing tracks.

The learning curve

On the face of it, ensemble guitar playing seems easier to get started on with solo guitar. But you will need to use your imagination and play along with backing tracks to get the full musical experience. And at the pinnacle of the solo guitar player’s practice pyramid is that elusive challenge: learn to improvise and spontaneously create your own melodies from thin air.

Can You Learn Both?

You sure can. In fact, every guitar player should be able to play a solo guitar tune and an tune meant for a musical group. Only then will you know which one more suits your preferences.

And specializing doesn’t mean excluding one as much as it means focusing on the other.


Does either of these examples sound like you? If so, don’t be afraid to make the decision to focus on solo playing or ensemble playing. Ideally, every player should be able to play a little bit of both.

As the creator of Hub Guitar, Grey has compiled hundreds of guitar lessons, written several books, and filmed hundreds of video lessons. He teaches private lessons in his Boston studio, as well as via video chat through TakeLessons.

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