Today we will talk about playing and learning lead guitar improvisation (as opposed to rhythm guitar) and how to do it in a great way that will benefit the song in a refreshing way. In my opinion, two guitars are ALWAYS better than one as long as it's well done, and it's definitely more fun! This article was written for guitarists but will be just as relevant for any instrument you use for improvisation, from harmonica to a flute.
A lot of times you meet guitarists that when they're playing lead they will just constantly spurt out notes, never stop, and their improvisation seems like they are basically just playing scales up and down. It's a great place to start if you're a beginner, but for an advanced guitar player, this bores the listener, but also it just sounds like they're trying to take over the song, and the whole song suffers badly. We do not want to be that dude.
That's why we learn lead guitar, because we want to be the guitarist who adds beautiful riffs and licks just in the right places, and takes the whole song up a notch, even if it's done subtly. When it's your time to solo later – you will be the frontman, but until then, as a lead guitarist, you need to know how to do your best as a “sideman” for the song. Check out my list of top 10 lead guitar performances for examples of some beautifully done lead guitar by some of the world's greatest.
Start with the right scale
I'd suggest getting started with the minor pentatonic scale if you're into blues guitar, rock, country, or metal. Even jazz guitar players can use it.
This scale is the easiest to learn and the most versatile – it’s the first one that I learned. You will hear it all the time in guitar improvisation.
So why the pentatonic scale?
The secret is right in front of you. It's in the name!
“Penta” in greek = the number 5. However your typical major scale has 7 notes. Jazz guitar improvisation uses bebop scales with 8 notes, adding an extra chromatic passing note.
With less notes, the pentatonic is easier to learn and frankly it just sounds cool.
When you first start playing the scale, practice moving up and down the fretboard vertically in one position. The beauty of this scale is you can play it without really needing to stretch your fingers or shift positions. Then once you’ve memorized it, you can start moving horizontally across the fretboard using the same pattern, moving up and down octaves.
Spice it up with advanced guitar techniques
Now using that same scale, start to mix it up. A lot of this depends on your playing style and finger strength – obviously a classical guitar player isn't going to be tapping. Here are a few ideas that you can incorporate from easiest to hardest:
- Bend the string on a note
- Use vibrato
- Use hammer-ons and pull-offs
- Whammy bars and pedals
- Two handed tapping
- Sweep picking
See how much traction you can get out of learning one scale? I could play one all day just incorporating different styles and techniques.
Triads and Arpeggios
A triad is a simple 3 note chord. For example we can play an A minor chord with all three notes at once – which are coincidentally ALSO notes in the pentatonic scale (see what I did there?). Now instead of playing them all together, play each note individually in order and you’ve got yourself an arpeggio.
Practice with a backing track
Find a backing track with a rhythm guitar or piano playing a simple I-IV-V progression or a 12 bar blues progression (our best guitar apps has some examples). That way you can practice by yourself without the variable of your band mates or the pressure of an audience. Make sure the chord progression that you choose pairs well with the scale that you memorized.
While you rip through the scale, pause and play some of the chords that the rhythm is hitting on (or even better add in additional complimentary chords).
Ear training is what starts to separate the boys from the men – the ability to listen to the rhythm guitar, recognize the chords, and match to the chord tone to the appropriate scale.
Repeat the process with new scales, tracks and chords.
There are 7 different modes of the major scale: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian. You don’t have to learn all of these in order to improvise, but find out which one your favorite guitarist uses. For example Slash typically plays Ionion while Joe Satriani loves the more difficult Locrian mode.
Learn the rules – and then break them!
Basic music theory teaches you which chords and scales go together. The cool thing about guitar improvisation is that rules are meant to be broken. Some notes aren't SUPPOSED to go together but they just sound good. And if you're always following the rules, that's boring. Honestly the whole point of improvisation is to make it up as you go. Scales and chords give you a “home base” that you can always return to if you get lost. So feel free to go off on a tangent and experiment. When you find a guitar lick that sounds good, write it down and come back to it later. I have a few that I keep in the back of my head for future use.
13 Do's & Don'ts Of Solid Lead Guitar Skills
- DO LISTEN To The Song! Above all. Most of us tend to forget that, just check out what the key is and go wild with our guitars. By doing that, we miss the biggest part of the music that is the listening. Pay attention to the harmonic movements, the chord changes, the different feelings of different parts in the song and how they resolve. By doing that you will be halfway towards playing the right notes at the right octave (low or high) and at the right time.
- DO Always Make Sure That Your Guitar Is Perfectly Tuned from a tuner, as well as the other guitarists'. When played together, untuned instruments sound even harsher to the ear, so make sure you take care of that beforehand. It's always good as well to make sure that your guitar is well maintained with fresh strings, low action, etc.
- DO NOT Play Too Much While The Singer Is Singing – try to keep that to a minimum. And if you do so keep the volume down. Remember that the singer is the front man, and you are not competing for the listener's attention, you are SUPPORTING him and the song. The fills between the lyrical lines or between verses and songs will usually be the best spots to play your licks and riffs on. And when you get your own solo off course.
- DO Start Paying More Attention To Lead Guitar In Music You Listen To. These will be usually great examples from professional musicians that can teach you a lot. Try to recreate these licks as accurately as you can on your own guitar. Learning the licks from a song like Sultans Of Swing can be a great school for lead guitar!
- DO Think Of Improvisation As Making Your Guitar SPEAK. Make sure you only say meaningful sentences. Pay attention to the small details – the exact vibrato strength, the cleanliness of each and every note. Speak clearly, do not mumble…
- DO NOT Just Spurt Out Notes With No End. Use a rule of thumb that you should never be improvising for more than half of the time – and even that is usually too much. Take examples from the professional recordings.
- DO Make Sure You Know Your Theory. If you think you know the scales but still everything sounds bad, you might need to freshen up your theory knowledge.
- Sometimes DO Play And “Reinforce” The Whole Chord Being Played Now And Don't Just Improvise With Single Notes. For example, if the rhythm is fully strumming a G chord now, you can add a lot by arpeggiating the G chord slowly. Especially if you're playing an electric guitar and the notes you play can sound more prominent and fuller than the other guitar that's playing rhythm. Do that for a sequence of chords before going back to the scale – this adds so much, or you can even do it for almost the whole song and buff it up. Don't Look Back In Anger by Oasis is a great example of mixing those two improv styles together.
Let's let the Gallagher brothers show us exactly how a lead guitar should sound like, in the most beautiful 90's Brit-rock way:
- DO NOT Push Your Volume Up Too Much On The Amplifier. This is true especially for certain setups like when you play lead on an electric and the other guitarist is playing rhythm on an acoustic which might not even be amped. So make sure you do not “swallow” him and keep your volume to about the same. In the recording studio – This is what's called “maintaining a balanced mix”.
- DO Ask The Other Musicians For A Solo! Even if right now your solos are not amazing, don't be shy. You gotta start somewhere and nobody was born Jimi Hendrix including Jimi himself. It's cool if you ask and decide about the solo before you actually start playing the song, and then decide together where your solo will take place, or in the more freestyle jams, you will just know and feel when you should come in and the other musicians will leave you space for it. Also – “return the favor” and ask the rhythm player if he would like to switch at some point to take a solo while you will take on the rhythm.
- DO Not Be Afraid To Repeat Exact Phrases: That's how certain riffs became so legendary and recognizable. Think “Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stones. Think “Walk This Way” by Aerosmith. If You think you've got something catchy in your hands, keep drilling it into our minds… It might just work.
- DO Use Vibratos, Bends, Slides, Hammer-Ons, Pull Offs… Make sure you always have more rabbits to pull out of your hat and that your playing style is diverse!
- DO NOT Stay In The Same Area Of The Fretboard For Too Long. Now, this is one that I was guilty of in many times. It's tempting to just stay in that box of the scale on the 5-8 fret that you know perfectly and keep playing there, but when you do that you miss so much fun and you sound the same. Instead, play around! Go up to fretboard to the second octave and play on the really high frets, then go down and use some really low notes. Play on the high strings and in one riff go down all the way to the low E string and so on… Entertain! Surprise the other ears in the room!
- DO Make Sure That You Know What Key The Song Is On. And if you are not sure, ask one of the other musicians.
- DO Your Best To Play Your Licks ON TIME. I cannot stress the importance of this one enough. You can take a beautiful guitar phrase and make it sound absolutely BAD if you are not on time. If you think you need practice here so put in the practice time with the metronome or the drum machine app. Check out this article for tips on how to improve your rhythm and time keeping.