The difference between the lead guitar and the rhythm guitar is the role the guitarist takes in the musical setting he’s playing in.
The rhythm guitarist provides part or all of the rhythm and the harmony of the song while the lead guitarist provides melodies over the rhythm and the harmony in the form of guitar licks and solos.
In this lesson I will show you how to play the lead guitar through a 7 step process which you can repeat over and over again, each time adding new musical components and skills until you reach the level of lead guitar playing you desire.
Step 1: Learn one scale
If I had to tell you to come up with a guitar lick or a solo, the first problem you’ll face would be finding which notes to play.
If you start playing random notes you will find that they don’t seem to fit in with each other and what you play will probably sound bad. Scales easily solve this problem since scales are simply patterns of notes that sound good together.
The first step towards learning to play the lead guitar is as simple as learning one of these scales, the minor pentatonic, in just one position on the guitar neck.
Note: The following example shows you the A minor pentatonic scale. To play any minor pentatonic scale, simply play the exact same pattern starting from a different root note. For instance, to play the B minor pentatonic, play the same pattern starting from the 7th fret instead of the 5th. If you haven’t already, I suggest that you memorize the notes on the guitar fretboard to be able to, among other things, find the root notes of scales easily.
Pentatonic scales can be played in 5 different positions to cover the whole fretboard.
There are many other scales that you can learn: major, minor, blues scales, so on and so forth.
However in order to start playing the lead guitar all you need is just this one scale in just one position.
You don’t need to learn any other scales before you start honing the other lead guitar playing skills discussed in this lesson.
Step 2: Apply scale sequences
While there will be times when you’ll be playing parts of the scale up and down in your guitar licks and solos, if you do just that your lead guitar compositions and improvisations will soon get boring.
Scale sequences help you learn the scale better as well as give you ideas on how to use it in different ways than going up and down in succession.
The following are two different scale sequences applied to the A minor pentatonic scale.
Step 3: Learn a phrasing technique
Phrasing techniques are ways we can get a different sound from the same notes.
Lead guitar players apply techniques such as string bending, vibrato, slides, hammer ons and pull offs, pinch harmonics, and rakes regularly to spice up their guitar solos.
To start playing the lead guitar I suggest starting from one of the most powerful and commonly used guitar techniques – string bending.
When you bend a string with your fingers you will increase its pitch – either by a semitone (1 fret) which is called a half bend, or a tone (2 frets) which is called a full bend.
Bends of 1 ½ and more are also used in guitar solos but I suggest you stick to the half and the full bend if you have just started to learn how to play the lead guitar.
The following example shows you how these bends are notated and how they sound:
Step 4: Learn guitar licks
Now that you have an idea of the most basic components of lead guitar playing, it’s time to start seeing them in practice.
Start building a vocabulary of guitar licks that use the techniques you’re learning.
You may not know what scale is being used at this point and that’s OK. You don’t need to understand everything that’s going on in order to learn.
In this lesson I give you a set of 15 guitar licks that start easy and gradually get harder.
And if you like blues music, you may want to give these blues guitar licks a shot.
Apart from the guitar licks suggested in the links above it’s important that you also learn licks from your favorite guitarists since these will give you a lot of ideas when writing your own.
Step 5: Integrate lead guitar elements
Now that you have the most basic elements of lead guitar playing under your belt, it’s time to start integrating them together.
To do this we’re simply going to take a snippet from the first scale sequence in step 2:
Repeat the last note of the snippet, add to it a full bend and instead of just an exercise, we have an actual guitar lick:
Step 6: Create your own lead guitar licks
The way I created a lick by connecting a snippet from the scale sequence to a phrasing technique is very mechanical and guitar players don’t actually improvise this way.
At least they’re not consciously thinking this way.
However using such a mechanical approach is a good stepping stone towards reaching the goal of improvising – creating music on the spot.
Thus, in this step you’re going to go back to the scale sequences in step 2, choose your own snippets and combine them with string bending (or other techniques) to create your own guitar licks.
Some tips for doing this right:
- When creating, be playful. The scale sequence snippet can be short, long, repeated, inverted and modified. You can also change the order of the notes as well as the rhythm.
- Don’t play notes that are not in the scale though. While this is not a rule, and many guitarists insert chromatic notes in their licks and solos, it is not suggested at this stage of your learning process.
- The best notes to bend in the A minor pentatonic scale find themselves on the 7th fret of the G string, and the 8th fret on the B and E string. Bend these notes a full bend, or else you’ll be playing notes that are not in the scale.
The following are a few examples of things you can come up with when implementing this step:
Step 7: Repeat the process and add new lead guitar elements
The previous 6 steps show you the process of learning how to play the lead guitar.
This step is simply a way to keep improving above the basics.
Go back to step 1 and either learn a new scale, or the same scale in a different position on the guitar neck.
Then apply scale sequences to this new scale pattern that you’re learning.
Also learn a new technique, or improve on an existing one.
For instance in the string bending example, we only considered the upward bend. There are other types of bends such as the bend and release and the pre-bend. I go through these types of bends in the string bending exercises in this lesson.
Finally go through steps 5 and 6 and look for ways you can use your newly acquired knowledge to create guitar licks and, eventually, whole solos.
Conclusion: Is this all there is to lead guitar playing?
If I had to tell you that repeating the above process is the only thing there is to great lead guitar playing, I would be very simplistic.
There are other lead guitar components we haven’t discussed here such as arpeggios, playing with a backing track, ear training, motif development, and consonance and dissonance among others.
Also, as you get better at playing the lead guitar, your learning needs will start becoming more genre specific.
Thus you should keep repeating the process until it gets you where you want to be. From then you should learn things that best fit your musical goals.
The one thing I always suggest, irrespective of musical genre, is learning the basics of music theory.
How intervals, scales, arpeggios, chords and chord progressions work. As well as how music rhythm is divided, among other elements of music.
Think of music theory as a guide that shows you what you need to learn, and a manual to make sense of what you learn.
And of your guitar practicing mindset as the driving force that leads you towards your goals.
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