When it comes to lead guitar, there are certain techniques you need to master.
Whether you’re trying to learn your favorite guitar solo, or you’re looking to add some flare to your band’s songs, if you don’t add any feeling to your lead playing, you’re not going to come off sounding like a pro.
“Feel” is hard to define. You know it when you hear it, or even see it, but there are players that have it and those that don’t. When you can easily transfer what you hear in your head to your fretboard, you know that you’ve got feel. When you have to think about every note you’re playing, it doesn’t sound or look natural.
Of course, you need to learn the basics of guitar first. But adding the following essentials to your lead guitar repertoire can make a big difference. Let’s take a look.
1. Hammer-Ons For Lead Guitarists
A hammer-on is where you play one note, let’s say the fifth fret on the fourth string, and “hammer down” on a higher note with a different finger, like the seventh fret on the fourth string, without picking the second note. You would still pick the first note like normal, but any subsequent notes would be “hammered on” by other fingers.
It is possible to perform multiple hammer-ons on one string – the only limitation is the number of fingers you have on your fretting hand (for most people that’s four – so you can hammer-on four times per string from an open note).
Hammer-ons can be used for smooth and fluid legato style playing. But most players, with a little practice, also find that they can perform hammer-ons faster than they can pick the same series of notes.
2. Techniques For Lead Guitarists – Pull-Offs
The pull-off technique is often called the “opposite” of hammer-ons, though it certainly isn’t the same procedure.
To perform a pull-off, you first need to fret a note. After picking that note, you “pull off” to the note below it (it can be a fretted note or an open note) without picking it. Essentially, you’re pulling down on the string without bending it and then giving it a light “snap” so the note you’re pulling off to rings out nice and clear.
Like hammer-ons, pull-offs are often used for legato style playing, and it isn’t unusual for them to be mixed in with a hammer-ons.
When you perform a rapid sequence of hammer-ons and pull-offs together, you get something called a “trill”, which is also a valuable technique to learn.
3. Slides In Your Guitar Solo
Another important lead guitar technique is the slide. It can definitely add a lot of feel to your playing.
To perform a slide, you first need to fret and pick a note. After picking the note, you would either “slide” up or down the fretboard to another desired note. It is necessary to keep your finger on the fretboard while sliding, as otherwise the sound of the note will die out before you reach your destination. It can be tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it shouldn’t cause you any trouble.
“Tight” slides are often used to transition from one position to the next on the guitar. You could be playing in a box pattern between the fifth and eighth frets, and then slide from a note on the eighth fret to the tenth fret, leading you into the next scalar position.
A “wide” slide is often used for effect, and odds are you’ve heard songs that even open with a slide like that. Sometimes it can be used “melodically”, to transition from a lower note to a higher note or vice versa.
Ok, so I’ve saved the best two for last below. 🙂
String bending techniques abound in lead guitar. Jazz and classical players tend to rely more on slides to accomplish the same end, while rock, metal, blues, and country guitarists use bends quite liberally in their playing. Neither approach is right nor wrong – it just depends on the sound you’re after.
To perform a bend, you first need to fret a note (you can’t really perform a bend on an open note unless you’re using a b-bender, a whammy bar, or some kind of pitch effect). Once the note is fretted, you either need to “push” up or down on the string – the direction depends on which string you’re playing (you can’t really bend down on the first string, for example, because the string would come off the fretboard).
This raises the pitch of the note. The “wideness” of a bend can vary. You can do little “in-between” bends that aren’t targeting any particular pitch, and you can also do bends that raises the pitch of the note by two whole tones or more.
A vibrato is a regular pulsating change of pitch. Beginners often call it “string shaking”.
It’s somewhat similar to a bend, except that you aren’t necessarily aiming for a higher pitch. You’re simply adding a bit of wobble to the note, producing a more vocal-like quality. The same effect can be achieved with a light up-and-down motion on a whammy bar.
Of all the techniques mentioned here, this is probably the one that will add the most feel to your lead guitar style. Just playing notes is boring. But when you slide into certain notes, hammer-on to others, pull-off to the next, and finish with a cool vibrato, you’re really starting to get the feel for good lead guitar.
You’ve learned about hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, slides, and vibratos. These are just the essentials of lead guitar playing, but they are more than enough to last you an entire career – if you so desire.
If you want to take your lead guitar playing even further, you’ll want to explore tapping, harmonics, sweeping, raking, whammy dives, and so on. There are always more techniques you can learn to spice up your lead playing.
Also know that it is possible to combine multiple techniques. A slide, for example, can also be used in conjunction with a pull-off. The moment you reach your desired note, you would then pull off, most likely to an open note.
This is just one example of the many ways different techniques can come together. Try experimenting for yourself and see what you can come up with.