In some ways, lead guitar is actually easier than rhythm guitar.
With rhythm guitar, you often need to be able to switch difficult chord shapes on the fly and play complex rhythms.
With lead guitar, you usually only need to play one note at a time, and it doesn’t even need to be fast!
If you want to be really good at lead guitar, you still have your work cut out for you, but if you have the absolute basics of guitar technique and theory covered, you’re more than ready to start exploring the possibilities.
Here are some tips on how to master the art quick.
Starting In The Open Position When Playing Lead Guitar
On the piano, there are white keys and black keys. This makes it easy to know which notes are natural (i.e. A, B, C, etc.), and which are accidental (i.e. Bb, C#, Db, etc.).
But the guitar isn’t laid out like that. Scales (a particular sequence of notes that sound good together) are basically as easy or as hard as they will ever be. This is good news in the sense that once you learn a scale, you can move it practically anywhere on the fretboard. This is bad news in that it will never be any easier to play that scale in any position.
If there’s one thing that gives guitarists an advantage, it would be the open position, in other words, scales in which open notes are a key part of the scale.
Hopefully you’ve had the chance to learn the minor pentatonic scale already, but don’t worry if you haven’t. I’ll give you a refresher. Here’s the E minor pentatonic scale in the open position.
By the way, it’s not a bad idea to practice with a metronome.
It’s good to remember that this scale won’t work in every musical situation. But it does work in more situations than you might think. Consider the following:
- A Blues or Rock and Roll song in the key of E.
- A chord progression or song (Country, Rock, etc.) in the key of G or E minor.
- A chord progression or song (Folk, Country, etc.) in the key of C or A minor.
- Various modal progressions.
- And other.
Wow – I think you’ll agree that gives us a major head start. Now it’s just a matter of applying that scale to some of the musical situations I just mentioned.
To Be A Lead Guitarist, Develop Your “Feel”
To begin creating lead lines, you need to start mixing up the order of the notes in the scale. No need to think of this in complicated terms. An advanced lead guitarist would likely be thinking about the exact notes they are playing in relation to each chord, but you can’t be expected to do that as a beginner.
Let’s begin by creating a simple lead line using the E minor pentatonic scale. Again, this will only work in specific musical situations and key signatures, but we all have to start somewhere.
The following exercise uses whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes, all in order. This creates a nice “build”, which can be a useful technique in lead guitar – starting slow and building speed, or starting quiet and increasing volume.
But without knowing what the backing track is, we can’t really give this lead a lot of “feel”. It’s definitely a starting point, but your long-term goal should be to listen and really feel the music and play in a way that complements the rhythm track, especially rhythmically.
The Blues, for example, has a very different rhythmic pattern than Country. But the best way to pick up the feel is to experiment and play along with a band, a jam track, or a friend that plays an instrument.
Just to solidify what we’ve been working on, I’ll give you another exercise to try. If you don’t understand how this is supposed to work rhythmically, don’t worry about it too much. Just have fun mixing up the notes!
Ok, these next tips are vital when learning how to play lead guitar.
A line like that could easily be fitted to a nice R&B groove.
Using Your Ear
Once you feel comfortable playing in the open position and mixing up the order of the notes, you’ll want to start using your ear more.
We already talked a little bit about “feeling” the rhythm, and that’s part of it, but you’ll also want to listen to the notes you’re playing and how they interact with the backing track.
You’ll notice that some notes work better over certain chords than others. This doesn’t mean that you’re playing any blatantly “wrong” notes, it just means that there are certain flavors that tend to complement certain chords more.
By using your ear in this way, you’ll also develop your instinct for what works and what doesn’t. In time, you will find yourself playing the right notes at the right time without even really thinking about it.
Playing In Different Keys
Another aspect of playing lead is adapting to different key signatures. Like I said earlier, you can learn one scale and easily move it to different locations, so there isn’t necessarily a need to learn a new scale every time.
Within 12 months of learning to play the guitar, I was invited to play on my church worship band. I didn’t always know the chords, and I didn’t always know what to play to add to the band, but that’s where the exact process I just talked about came in handy.
If I could adapt to the different key signatures, I could at least have access to the right notes, and be able to fill or play simple lead lines along with the music.
This is where the major pentatonic scale comes in handy. Fortunately, it really isn’t that different from the minor pentatonic scale – it’s just a matter of starting and ending on the right note. I’ll show you the G major pentatonic scale below:
So if you can move that scale to different positions, and know what key you’re playing in, you’re off to a good start. Keep playing along with a jam track, band or accompanist, and pretty soon you’ll develop your feel and ear for it.
You can’t expect to get better overnight, so try playing the above exercises multiple times per day, and then try coming up with your own lead ideas using the same set of notes.
You can also try reaching for some “outside” notes to see whether or not you like the sound of them. Believe me, there are plenty of other notes (beyond the basic five shown) that can add color to your leads.
With a little bit of practice, you should be able to get some nice-sounding leads happening.