Let's face it. Rhythm guitarists are a dime a dozen. Everyone knows someone who can strum along a song or two. Now, true musicians understand the value of a good rhythm player and how critical it is to the success of a band. This is not knocking rhythm guitarists everywhere, but a lot of guitarists learn some chords and stop short of taking their playing to the next level by learning to play lead.
Lead guitar is the glamour position as guitar playing goes. They do the monster solos that everyone remembers. Most people can't name one famous rhythm guitar player in a band, but almost everyone could name you a lead guitarist. From Slash to Joe Perry, lead guitarists take top billing every time. This article will help an accomplished rhythm player make that next step into getting their feet wet with playing lead guitar.
Lead playing may seem a little mystifying at first. A good lead player can just bust out with some cool licks over almost any piece of music. All they really need to know is what key the song is in and they are off to the races. Then there's the bends, double-stops, hammer-ons, and pull-offs. Most rhythm guitarists are simply overwhelmed, deciding to just stick to good old chords after all. In reality, however, lead guitarists have simply learned a pattern, no different than the rhythm player has learned his chords and strumming patterns.
The key to the mystery of lead guitar playing is the scales. Granted there are many kinds of scales, but the good part is that once you learn one scale in one position, you have in effect learned them all. For example, the Minor Pentatonic scale, otherwise known as the Blues Scale, is one of the simpler ones for a beginner to learn. A scale chart is easy to find on the Internet in a search engine. The image below this article is one example. Now, you learn that scale by executing the pattern from the low E end to the high E over and over. The best way is to pick each note of the scale to the end and then try to work your way backwards. Like all things guitar, the key is repetition. I learned by doing the notes with my fretting hand without actually picking until it became almost second nature. Then I started picking the notes. I actually learned this very scale by doing it over and over for the duration of a football game on television. By the fourth quarter, the scale was burned in my brain forever.
That's the hard part. Here's the good news: the scale shape stays the same. Which fret you start it on is what adjusts the key, but once you have learned the pattern for any scale, it is the same across the entire fretboard. With the Minor Pentatonic, playing the scale from open position or the twelfth fret is the key of G. So, if the song you want to play lead over were in the key of A, you would simply move the beginning of the scale pattern up two frets. If the song were in B, you move up four frets, and so on. So, once you've mastered that pattern, you are able to play that scale in any key with ease.
The Minor Pentatonic scale is also a good place to start because it is the most common scale used in popular music. Even the most gifted soloists on the planet probably use this scale more than any other. So, the other advantage to this scale is that if you don't know the key, you can simply play the first string of the pattern on different frets until you discover the key by ear. Then you know the key and can play along. I used to turn the radio on a good station and just try to figure out the keys so I could jam along with whatever was playing. It was great practice for later on, and after a while, I got devilishly good at knowing the key completely by ear and just starting to play in the right key from the beginning.
Now, no one wants to hear simple scale runs over their favorite song. Variety is the key to playing lead over anything. Once you know the key, you can experiment with the pattern. Any note in that pattern will be technically within the correct key, but you will find licks that are pleasing to your ear. Experiment with runs along the scale, and don't forget that they don't have to always be in order. String skipping is a popular part of lead guitar. This means playing notes across different strings in the same scale, which requires a good working knowledge of the scale as it is not just in order anymore. Later, as you add more complicated tricks to your toolbox, like bends and double-stops, your lead guitar playing will really come to life. At the end of the day, though, all the fancy stuff doesn't change the facts. Every note you play is within that scale, whether you bend or hammer to get to it or not.
Once you have your feet wet with a scale or two, you can effectively play over anything. However, learning more scales will increase your abilities all the more. Then there are the modes. Each scale has modes which are just a different way of playing the same scale in different positions. As you add more scales and modes to your repertoire, you will start to understand how they all fit together. In the more advanced stages, you will be able to move seamlessly across these scales and modes within leads. This is how your favorite lead players are able to play solos that go up and down the neck with ease.
So, at the end of the day, there's still a lot of practice and repetition involved, but when you break it down, it's not exactly the mysterious beast it may have seemed at first. Step one is to pick a scale and start learning. Just one scale will get you on your way to playing killer solos in no time. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or in this case, a half-step.