Top Tips for Playing Lead Guitar
Eventually, all guitarists get to the point to where they need to develop their lead guitar skills and get comfortable with soloing. Here are some things to remember.
By Mike Duffy
Eventually, all aspiring guitarists get to the point to where they need to develop their lead guitar skills and get comfortable with soloing.
Lead guitar is a combination of theory and technique, but with a solid foundation in those areas and a willing disposition, you can get to where you want to be as a lead player.
As such, here are a few tips to help you on your journey to solo-land:
Get Comfortable with the Fingerboard
Knowing where each note on the fingerboard is will come in very handy when it's time to unleash a killer guitar solo. And that doesn't just apply to notes. Learn how to play chords in different positions all over the fretboard, as well.
Chords can help you memorize the note placement. Once you get there, you can play the individual notes of the chords (otherwise known as an arpeggio) to add even more color to a solo.
"It can be very powerful to go from a single-note idea and then grab a chord and play an arpeggio of it, or play more inversions of voicings of the chord," said Fender Play Instructor Matt Lake.
Know Your Scales
Scales are necessary to becoming a lead guitarist, even if they might not be the most exciting subject.
Guitar scales are organized sequences of notes played in an ascending or descending order that help you build finger strength and dexterity. Diving deeper, a pentatonic scale is a popular five-note scale that you'll need to know for riffs, solos and melodies, especially for rock and blues.
A few good pentatonic scales to tackle for soloing are the A minor pentatonic scale (you can hear it in Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven") or the E minor pentatonic scale (check out AC/DC's "Back in Black").
"A pentatonic scale can create a nice space to move around in," said Lake. "It can be very empowering and a good way to learn how to improvise. It can also teach some legato techniques, like hammer-ons and pull-offs."
Study Your Heroes
Diving deep into the catalogs of your favorite artists is a surefire way to improve your lead technique.
First of all, it's fun to learn how to play the solos that have inspired you over the years. But more to the point, playing something you love has a built-in familiarity to it.
Fender Play offers several familiar licks that incorporate leads (complete with tablature) for you to sink your teeth into. Try the Chuck Berry's raucous Johnny B. Goode or some melodic surf from the Ventures in ”Pipeline.”
Remember the Melody and Rhythm
Lake noted that a great lead might be hiding in plain sight (or sound) with the track's vocal.
"One thing that a lot of people overlook for lead guitar is learning the melody for each song," Lake said. "Think about what the vocalist is singing? A lot of times with rock songs, they’re singing three notes from the pentatonic scale anyway.
"The lead might be there in the song already."
Don't forget to also consider the drummer, as they can provide a live metronome to your performance.
"It’s not about how many notes you play. Do they make sense rhythmically," said Lake. "Get your metronome out. A great drum solo is playing with the beat. An exciting guitar solo doesn’t always just have cool notes … they have a rhythmic pulse to them."
Think Outside the Box
If you want to really put yourself to the test with lead guitar, you could try adding flavor to something traditionally considered pedestrian.
Ask yourself if you can play the melody of "Jingle Bells" or "Happy Birthday" and make it sound cool. You may be surprised at the outcome.
"Take something cliché and challenge yourself to make them into something that you would want to hear," said Lake. "Why not add some string bends or hammer-ons to spice things up?"