One of the topics I get asked most frequently about how to play lead guitar is about playing solos. There is a leap that you take between playing what’s written down for you, and creating it yourself. This is especially the case if you’re creating a solo on the spur of the moment!
Actually, it is very possible to play completely “off the cuff” and still sound great…when you know how. How is this possible? Well, I’m about to share with you 7 powerful techniques that you can start using today to make any solo you play into something epic.
Start with the correct Scale
When starting out with how to play lead guitar, this should always be first on your list. I mean, if you’re not playing in the same key as the backing, nothing you try to play with that is going to sound any good! There’s no need to use a different scale for each chord (although this can be done, too!), but you must have (at least a vague) match between what you’re doing, and what the backing track (or band) is playing.
I suggest you start with the this post, and check out the major and minor pentatonic scales. It’s good to know at least one major scale and one minor scale because then you can fit in with both major and minor chords.
Phrasing is literally “how you group the notes together”, and it’s really true that a well phrased “wrong” note will sound a lot better than a badly timed “right” note. The idea is: you need to break your notes down into small groups (a bit like I’m doing right now, with sentences). This will then sound better than a random, continuous stream of notes.
Actually, a good way to start this is to think of a phrase you might say, and simply copy the rhythm of the words. This is how to play lead guitar, and sound awesome- start building musical phrases in your own solos. This technique is so important that even famous “shredders” break their playing into phrases:
Can you see how he’s grouping the notes into small chunks? Even when he playing some really lightening fast scales, he’ll do it in “chunks” broken up with slower, more melodic sections.
Use Speed Sparingly
Just as with the previous video, a little goes a long way! A short “burst” of speed every now and then will sound much more impressive- and more musical- than a constant barrage of notes. Also, you shouldn’t be afraid to show more emotions in your playing than just “Hey everyone, I’m awesome at this! Check me out!”.
Know your Targets
…by that I mean your “target notes”. Over each chord, certain notes will fit and others wont- that’s just how it works. You should be aiming for the notes that work, and avoiding (or at least not staying too long on) the notes that don’t sound so good. The notes you’ll most often want to target are the notes of each chord- which you can work out if you know your chord shapes over the whole neck.
Start out with learning the E and A shape barre chords all over the neck, and then when it becomes time to solo, aim for those notes for each chord. For example, the E shaped B major chord is barred at the 7th fret, so when you’re playing a solo over a B major chord you can target the notes from the E shaped B chord and they will fit the backing chord.
Obviously, this step requires good fretboard knowledge. If you don’t have this already, start by downloading the “fretboard notes” .pdf file in the sidebar of this website.
String-Bends and Vibrato
This is something that should be in every guitarist’s “toolbox”, and no lesson on how to play lead guitar should be without it!
As long as you’re staying in key, and bending to notes that make sense, you can really bring life to a solo with a combination of string-bends and vibrato. What do I mean by “notes that make sense”? Well, when you bend a string to increase the pitch of a note, you should be thinking- importantly- of where you’re bending that note to. Where is it going?
It should be going somewhere (to a note, not just up into space), and that place should be one of your “target notes”. Don’t fall into the trap of bending notes randomly to sound cool- it won’t work!
One of the best ways to start getting string-bends into your playing is to: first choose a target note (the note you want to end up on); then go back one or two frets and bend that note up until it reaches your target note. That way you wont be bending up into nowhere, and you’ll actually be adding something musical to the solo.
Vibrato is another story. You should be either: adding it to longer notes as a way of making them sound “smoother”, or adding it to shorter notes to add some “Zakk Wylde Style” energy and aggression into the note.
So, we’ve looked at the notes you should be targeting in a solo, what about the rest?
Surely our solo would be very boring if every note fit exactly with the chords underneath! What you should be doing is to create interest in your solos by adding what we call “passing notes”.
Passing notes are the notes that don’t fit the chord, and aren’t target notes- you’re literally just “passing them by” on your way to somewhere else. There are no rules about which notes should be targets and which are just passing notes (although its safer to use chord tones as targets…), the only rule is that you can’t stay on the passing notes for too long. If you stay too long, you’re no longer just “passing”- and that isn’t how to play lead guitar!
The great thing about passing notes is that they can literally be anything. Any note in between the ones you want is a passing note- so you could even just play chromatically between each note (i.e. going up or down fret by fret until you reach your target) and it wouldn’t matter.
…or you could just- you know- stick to the scale you’re using…
A small variation on the concept of “passing notes” is when you play outside. No, I’m not talking about children and swing-sets! What I mean by this is that, if you can have passing notes, why not extend that to passing scales or passing keys? Its simple enough in theory- take a random scale that is “outside” of the key you’re in, but- again- don’t stay there too long. You can literally play anything, provided you resolve it to somewhere that makes sense.
This is some pretty advanced stuff, and to get it right takes practise. Its just too easy to try this and sound like you’re just playing “wrong notes”. When you get it right, however, it can really grab people’s attention (hint: do it just long enough so that people go “wait, what’s he…” and then you resolve it to a target note). Actually, a great way to start this is to use the pentatonic scale, one fret above where you should be playing- just remember to return to your target note before its too late!
Also, you should almost never start a solo with this. It will sound wrong- like you just don’t know what key you should be in.
How to Play Lead Guitar
There are plenty more things you can do with a guitar solo, but these tips should point you in the right direction. So, what are you waiting for? Hopefully this lesson on how to play lead guitar has given you some new ideas, or helped you out with your own playing!
If you really want to get into playing lead guitar, my new book ‘Awesome Lead Guitar’ is out now. In it you’ll learn the most common scales and techniques that lead guitarists use with full scale diagrams and tabs!
Then, you can practise along with the 17 included full solo examples and backing tracks! Click here now for more.