There is a lot of advice going around on internet forums and guitar websites that says in order to start playing lead guitar you should ‘learn theory’ or ‘learn scales’. While this can be true, it is very generic and general advice.
Yes, scales will help you to play solos, and having the theory to know what’s going on in a song is invaluable…but it isn’t the full picture.
I mean, you can learn your theory until it’s coming out of your ears…but does that mean you’re now a good lead guitarist? Does it even mean that you can improvise a basic solo? Probably not.
The same with learning scales. It’s all well and good knowing your patterns for the C sharp phrygian dominant scale, but does that really mean you know how it fits over a chord progression? Nope, not really.
So how do you even start to become good at lead guitar?! Well, having taught many students who start off with no clue about playing lead, who then progress on to become good lead guitarists, here are my top 10 tips on how to get good at playing solos.
1) Learn the Pentatonic Scales
I know I said that just ‘learning your scales’ wasn’t enough, and I’m not about to go against that. It all comes down to which scales you know and which scales you understand. If you don’t understand how to use a scale, it’s pretty useless as far as lead playing goes!
The pentatonic scales are probably the easiest to understand and use. There are only five notes (hence ‘pentatonic- 5 tones), and there are two types: major and minor.
Now, unless you’re playing along to an extreme jazz or prog. rock song (hint: not recommended for beginners!), you’ll have major and minor chords, and probably be in either a major or minor key. This means you’ll probably want to use either the minor pentatonic scale for minor chords, and the major pentatonic scale for major chords.
In fact, one of these two types of scales will fit almost any song. You just have to find the root note, and therefore where to begin the scale shape on the neck. The best (or maybe most confusing) part of this is that both scales have the same five shapes, they’re just in a different order.
So there are 5 scale shapes that you can learn that will fit any song, backing track, or jam night. Which is why learning the pentatonic scales is a very powerful method to start soloing quickly!
Where to go from There
After learning the pentatonics, and being comfortable using them in your lead playing, you may start to realize that that is only one sound. In fact, many guitarists would argue that these scales are way too cliché- being played to death by ACDC, Zakk Wylde, Led Zeppelin and countless others. So you may want to then branch out into other scales.
Incidentally, if you’re looking for the classic rock sound, the pentatonic scales may be all you need!
If you want more, I suggest then moving on to the major scale before tackling anything too crazy or obscure, because this is the scale that music theory is pretty much based on.
Understanding the major scale, and how it’s harmonized will lead the way onto understanding chord tones and figuring out the key. In fact, all other scales in music are compared to how they relate to the major scale– so it’s pretty important!
2) Use Phrases
The next tip comes down to the old adage “It’s not what you have, it’s how you use it!”. In musical terms, it’s not the notes you use, but how you use them (or when you play them) that is more important.
Phrasing is just how you group the notes together. You may have heard people talk about ‘phrasing’ and certain guitarists ‘having good phrasing’- this is what they’re referring to. A phrase in music is a short group of notes.
For example, this would be a phrase (if a fairly complex one):
(Listen to me play this lick here)
Grouping notes together like this prevents your solos from sounding like constant streams of notes.
I mean- don’t get me wrong- there is a time and a place for playing fast streams of notes, but you should be balancing those times out with slower sections- or at least have gaps between them!
Contrary to popular opinion, however, you can have good phrasing and still play fast. The two don’t cancel each other out- it’s just when you have a solo that’s non-stop 16th notes that’s the problem. More on this idea further down.
3) Listen to Existing Solos
Listening to what other people have played can be a great way to get new ideas. For example, the bands I listed earlier (ACDC, Led Zepplin, Black Label Society) all have a very different sound…
…but they use the same set of scales.
Look at he 12 bar blues progression, and how many people have soloed over that through the years- do they all sound exactly the same? Not really– similar, maybe, but not the same. Listening to different approaches to the same thing can be a great way to find ideas for your own solos.
Recently I started listening to the drum tracks of songs, and that’s when I realized that I’d never really listened to the drums in a song before- not properly. I realized that there is much more going on with the kit than I first thought, and that there is actually a lot more to listen to in songs I already know.
So, just because you think you know something inside out, it doesn’t mean you actually do. It just means that you know the parts you’ve been listening to. Have you been listening to what the lead guitarist is doing in the song? What scale is he using? Why?
Answering these questions can help you use that same scale, lick or technique in your own soloing. It can also make the music you’re used to listening to a lot more interesting!
Of course, the next step- after listing more closely to a solo- would be to actually transcribe it. You don’t have to actually write everything down, but figuring out a solo by ear can help you get into the mindset of the guy who originally played it- the lead guitarist mindset.
Figuring something out using just your ears- no tab- is also a fantastic exercise in itself. When you improvise a solo, you’re most often doing it by ear, anyway- so having well developed listening skills is pretty essential.
Also, when I say you’re playing by ear, I don’t mean that you don’t know what key you’re in, or what scale you’re using (you should). I mean that you’re actively listening to what you’re playing. More on this later on.
If you can’t find any good solos to transcribe, you could also try figuring out vocal melodies- or any tune really! It doesn’t matter. If there is a melody that you like, why not turn that into an epic lead line?
Still, if you can’t find any good tunes to work out or any good solos to transcribe, you can always try humming your own. So, next time you want to play something to a backing track, try humming something along to it first. Then you can work on playing that back.
This often works quite well, as people more naturally hum melodies, and I’ve yet to find a person who tries to mindlessly shred when they hum…
…although you never know…
4) Practise Soloing whenever You can
This one should almost go without saying: practise improvising whenever you have the chance. You can use backing tracks, record some chords into a looper pedal, or just jam with some real humans. Whichever method you choose can be great practise for your lead guitar skills (and great fun…when you get the hang of it).
Here’s a technique that I often use with my students and other lead guitarists to keep a jam going. The idea is that you have two guitarists, one of you is playing the chords, and the other is on lead. Then, after however many repetitions of the chord progression, you swap over. Then after the same number of bars again, you swap back.
If you do this properly, the transition will be seamless as one of you takes over the rhythm duty as the other starts their solo. You can make the chord progression as long or as short as you like, but shorter might be easier for a beginner. However long you make it, this is good practise for both your rhythm playing, and your lead playing skills.
I really recommend that- if you’re serious about improving your lead playing- you also include soloing into your practise routine. I prefer add it at the end- after you’ve done all the boring technical exercises or songs that you’ve been learning- that way you’re already all warmed up for that awesome lead playing!
5) Force Yourself to be creative
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and sometimes when you limit yourself you have to become more creative. This is also true of improvisation.
One String Soloing
As well as limiting your solo to only 4 or 8 bars, you can also try only playing along one string, for example. This will limit what you can do with the guitar, and so it forces you to be more creative when coming up with licks. Not to mention that playing up and down only one string is a great way to come up with things that are more melodic.
You see, when you’ve only got one string you tend to think more in terms up ‘up or down’ in pitch. You have no option of going ‘sideways’ across the fretboard, and so all those crazy leaps that you might be tempted to do otherwise, will probably disappear.
Staying in one Position
Another thing you can do is to limit yourself to only one position on the fretboard. A position is the frets you’re on, so if my hand is covering the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th frets, I’m in ‘5th position’. If you know your scale shapes all over the neck, this shouldn’t be too impossible, although it will test your ability to move between them with each chord.
Remember: you’ll be keeping your hand in the same area of the neck, and so you’ll need to find the right shape for your chosen scale in that area of the neck. This is more tricky than it sounds if you haven’t done it before!
Chord Tone Soloing
You could also try to limit yourself only to the notes of each chord. Chord tone soloing like this takes out the ‘wrong’ notes, but requires that you have a good knowledge of chord shapes and barre chords all over the neck. Again, it’s trickier than it sounds if you haven’t tried it before.
Finally, you could try improvising over just one chord- which will force you to become more and more creative as your solo goes on. For how long can you play over the same chord without repeating yourself too much?
For an added twist, try playing without a backing track, and providing the chords yourself. This means you’ll have to keep switching between chords and lead licks, and is much more advanced.
6) Learn to Listen
We’ve talked about listening to what other people have played, but what about listening to yourself? One of the most important things that I ever learnt about improvisation is that you need to constantly be listening to the notes that you are playing!
That’s what stops your solo turning into just a random selection of notes, because you’re constantly listening and evaluating what you’ve just played, while still playing. It also means that if you play something good, you can repeat it because you were listening.
It can take a while to get used to doing this, but it’s definitely worth it. A great exercise that you can use for this is to play a short phrase, and then repeat it. Then you play something else, and immediately repeat that. This forces you to start becoming aware of what you’re playing.
After you’ve got the hang of doing this with one phrase, try playing two. Improvise two random phrases, and then repeat those two phrases exactly. This is a bit more difficult, as you’ll have to remember more and pay more attention to yourself.
Of course, when you’re doing this, you also need to be listening to the rest of the band that you’re playing to! So this technique might be a bit more difficult than it sounds.
You may also want to start out without a backing track for this one, or using one that only has one chord. Again, it’s worth it in the end. You can always tell the difference between someone who just plays randomly, and someone who is aware of what they’re playing and can play it again- because the solo will sound more connected and flow better in the second case.
Also, don’t let this mean that you’re being less creative with your licks! The whole idea is that you’re pushing yourself to remember and repeat what you’ve just done.
7) Learn the Notes of the fretboard
This is another one of those ideas that gets tossed about and thrown at anyone who asks about soloing on guitar forums. Yes, learning the notes of the fretboard is important, but it isn’t more important than using your ears and having good phrasing!
I think there is this general idea that if you go away and memorize all the notes on the fretboard, this will somehow make you a guitar god. Why would that be the case? Sure, knowing which note you’re on at any given time is pretty useful, but not as useful as knowing which scale, or chord it fits with, for lead guitar playing.
In fact, you don’t need to be thinking about every single note in your solo as it goes past. What you do need to be thinking about is how your solo is working with the underlying chords. So I suggest using ‘target notes’, rather than memorizing everything.
‘Target notes’ are where you chose a note as your target- one that fits with the chord underneath really well, and then play towards or around that. Again, knowing your chord shapes all over the neck definitely helps with this. If you know your arpeggios (chord tones), you can pick a note out of one of those for each chord as it goes by. This way you always have a note to ‘aim for’ when playing your lick.
Eventually, you’ll have targeted and used enough notes to know most of them all over the neck. Although, everyone has a different style of learning, and so if you want to learn the position of every note on the guitar, there is nothing wrong with that.
I suggest starting out with the C major scale, as this is all of the natural notes on the neck. It would also be a great idea to learn your octave shapes, so that once you know the position of one note, say a ‘G’, you can work out the position of every other G note on the neck.
As I said, learning how these notes fit into chords and scales is more useful for soloing, but knowing where all the notes are can only be a good thing!
8) Play higher up on the Neck
This one isn’t an unbreakable rule, but have you ever noted how in most solos, the guitarist is playing around the 12th fret and above? Have you ever wondered if there is a reason why? Well, there is a very good reason why this is- actually, several of them.
You see, the tone of the notes on any stringed instrument changes depending on where you are on that string. If you play on the lower notes of a string, the tone will be darker, and with more of the higher harmonics in the mix. The reverse is also true, as you play higher up, the tone becomes purer, and smoother.
Try this yourself: play a note on a lower pitched fret, and then compare the tone to a note higher up the fretboard. Yes, these notes are different in pitch, but notice how different the tone sounds in different parts on the neck for the same string?
This is just to do with the physics of how a string vibrates, and is true for any stringed instrument. It’s also partly why as bass and a guitar, playing exactly the same note, will sound very different. The same goes for a violin and cello- even playing the same note, they will sound different, if you listen closely.
So notes higher up the fretboard (towards the 12th fret and above) have a more melodic sound to them. This often makes them a better choice for solos, depending on the sound you want.
Higher notes will also tend to stand out more against lower pitched chords, which brings us to the second reason: notes higher up the fretboard (towards the body) will cut better through the mix. This might also be the reason that many heavy metal bands have high pitched singers- because there is so much sound and heaviness going on in lower pitches, the vocalist has to sing ‘over’ the band.
For example, if the rhythm guitarist is playing powerchords on the low strings, around the third fret. If you then go and solo on the A and D strings at the 3rd fret, you’ll likely just blend in with the rhythm part.
However, if you start your solo at the 12th fret instead, you’re much more likely to be heard! So playing higher up the neck (towards the body) may actually help your lead playing…but definitely don’t limit yourself by that.
9) Pay Attention to Tension Levels
I know, in the past I’ve talked a lot about tension levels in regards to technique and especially playing fast, but that’s not what I mean this time.
In a solo, you should be paying attention to the tension levels in the music– because the most boring solo you can create is one that is essentially a flat line.
You know how, if someone talks to you in a mono-tone, with a totally straight face all the time, it gets hard to listen to them? Don’t let that happen to your solos! You want your guitar solos to be as expressive as possible- no matter what the mood of the song is, you have to express that as best you can through your solo.
When talking about tension levels in a solo, it’s normal to think of peaks and troughs. A typical solo might start low, build up to a small peak halfway through, and then die down before reaching a bit climax at the end. You could follow that model, or use your own. Just make sure what you’re playing is in line with the mood of the rest of the music at that point.
Adding ups and downs like this will make your solo come to life. There are many different ways to change the intensity: stringbends, tremolo picking, trills, faster scale runs- it doesn’t matter what you use, but the point is to do something to add interest!
10) Don’t use too much Speed
Following on from that idea, using too much speed is actually a bad thing. Even with a faster piece, speed can be increased and decreased to provide more drama, but a constant stream of the same notes will sound boring.
If you really want to show off your speed in a solo, wait for the more intense parts. In fact, the odd scale run or a few sweeps every now and then is probably all you need.
As I’ve heard said before:
If everything is in bold, nothing is in bold
That means that if everything is fast, none of it really seems ‘fast’ by comparison. Nothing stands out. Whereas, if you have slower sections moving up to faster parts (or the other way around) the faster parts seem faster, and the slower parts seem slower- it’s all about contrast.
The same rule applies with volume. If all of your songs are played with your amps on 11, where can you go from there? Without contrasts like this, your songs and solos can start to sound very much the same- and who wants that?
I’m not saying that you should hardly use speed in your solos, or that you should use it only rarely. What I am saying is that speed playing is better off contrasted with slower sections- and the same rule goes for anything else you play. If you use a lot of arpeggios, maybe balance that out with some scales?
Contrast is the key here.
11) Screw the Rules!
Lastly, after you’ve tried all the things above and absorbed them into your system, I suggest breaking all of those rules. For literally every point I’ve made in this post, there are examples of the opposite.
So, what is the point of me giving you this advice? Well, all of the above techniques do help but they are only guides. At the end of the day it’s important that you do what you think sounds good.
That’s the true judge of a good solo.
Any ‘rules’ in music are descriptive and not prescriptive– which means that the ‘rules’ describe what sounds good, and don’t prescribe what should sound good. They don’t tell you what you should play, but only describe why something that has already been played sounds good.
That’s why they say you should know the ‘rules’ before breaking them. If you know what has worked for other people, you’re better off when deciding what to use for yourself! Every one of the methods I’ve talked about above have worked for me, my students and many other guitarists.
Hopefully they will also be helpful to you.
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.