Most guitar players have dreamed about becoming proficient lead guitarists. To be able to effortlessly play an intricate solo in front of a crowd isn't easy -- behind that seemingly second-nature ability is lots and lots of practice.
But where do you begin? Maybe you've learned some basic chords but want to expand your knowledge. Or maybe you've gotten the hang of some of your scales and don't know how to apply them. In this list, we'll take you through some important steps to learn to play lead guitar.
How to Master Lead Guitar
1. Understand Some Basic Music Theory
Many musicians are less than thrilled with the prospect of learning music theory. However, if you have no knowledge of music theory whatsoever, you'll likely find it difficult to develop your skills after a certain point. For example, you may already know that to play lead for a song in the key of D major, you can create a solo based on the D major pentatonic scale.
However, you can also create a solo using the B minor pentatonic scale. That's because B is the relative minor of D. This essentially means that the B minor scale uses the same notes as the D major scale -- those notes are just in a different order. This video (below - left) provides a more thorough introduction to the concept of relative majors and minors.
You don't need to spend hours a day learning music theory. If you have a guitar teacher or take online lessons, you're probably already learning bits of theory as you go. If you're teaching yourself, there are plenty of free videos like this one (top - right) introducing music theory basics. And if you prefer textbook-style learning, you might find that studying with a music theory book is the most helpful.
2. Get Comfortable With Scales
Scales are the backbone of many guitar solos. And if the concept of learning and memorizing scales bores you, you aren't alone. However, once you learn how to play scales, you'll be able to use them to create your own solos.
Generally speaking, guitarists learn the minor pentatonic scale first. This is a versatile scale that's used in pop music, rock, metal, blues, and country. The minor pentatonic scale is made up of five patterns down the guitar neck. (You might hear some guitarists refer to each pattern as a "box.")
Once you get the hang of a pattern, it's easy to play it in any key. You just find the root note, which is the same as the key the song is in, and start your pattern at that note. (So for a song in the key of D, you'd start your pattern at the D note.)
If you want to be able to improvise while playing the lead, you'll need to be able to easily recall your minor pentatonic and other scales. And though it's tedious, the best way to commit your scales to memory is to practice over and over. This will also help you develop speed and dexterity -- two essential guitar skills. That said, different lesson plans and different instructors may have their own memorization tips. Check out this example video on learning the minor pentatonic scales.
3. Make Sure Your Guitar Is Ready To Go
Your favorite guitarists are probably able to play solos with ease at any part of the neck. And while most of that ability is due to carefully cultivated guitar skills, part of it is helped along by a highly playable guitar. Even learning a chord progression on a guitar with overly high action can be a chore. For lead playing, it's crucial that your guitar is properly set up.
One of the most important things is making sure your guitar is properly intonated. Intonating your instrument makes sure that each string sounds in tune all down the neck. A poorly intonated guitar will sound bad as you play notes further down the neck. If you want to try intonating your guitar, this helpful video can get you started.
Getting just the right action on your guitar is another important thing. On a guitar with high action (where the strings are far from the fretboard), it can be extremely difficult to play further down the neck. By contrast, if the action is too low, you'll have fret buzz to contend with. Some players like to adjust their own actions, but there's nothing wrong with getting a professional setup, either.
And of course, before every practice session, make sure your guitar is tuned accurately. This is especially important if you're practicing ear training -- if you're learning different pitches, you want to make sure the ones you're learning are correct!
4. Watch Your Heroes
Before you start practicing solos in your chosen musical genre, it's important to have a clear idea of what a solo should look and sound like. Watching some of your favorite guitarists play can both inspire you and help your learning. For example, this video compilation shows several of St. Vincent's guitar solos.
Of course, while watching these players, you'll want to make sure you don't just notice that a solo sounds great. Look closely -- the lead guitarist is likely basing a solo off of a scale that's connected to one of the chord progressions used in a song. Pay attention to their technique, too. You might get some ideas for improving your own speed and expression on the fretboard. And if you're getting bored with practicing scales, remember that you're putting in the work to one day (hopefully) sound like some of your favorite players!
Similarly, learning solos from songs you like will motivate you to practice and to develop a real understanding of soloing. Thanks to the multitude of guitar sites out there, you can likely find tabs that will help you learn how to play just about any song.
5. Work On Speed And Dexterity
As you start playing melodies and solos, you might find that you need to be able to play very fast. This is especially true of many hard rock and metal songs. And while your favorite artists might make it look effortless, building speed takes work. One helpful exercise is the 1-2-3-4. To do this exercise, choose a progression of four notes. You can practice single-note lines or even practice with just one note, too. Set a metronome and practice playing in time with it. Once you master the exercise at one tempo, you can increase it and/or start practicing more complex patterns.
To get the most out of your exercises, make sure to constantly challenge yourself. After all, there's a reason elite athletes don't do the same workout every single day. Be sure to regularly change your guitar playing exercises, and make sure to practice them each day. Even if it's just running through scales while watching TV, doing some kind of daily practice will do wonders for your playing.
If you get stuck, try looking up new exercises to do -- "spider walk" exercises using chromatic notes can really do a lot for dexterity anywhere on the neck. If you want some more ideas to get started, this video shows you three beginner-friendly exercises.
6. Incorporate Hammer-Ons And Pull-Offs
We mentioned earlier that many solos are based on the minor pentatonic scale or on other scales. However, lead guitarists aren't just playing random notes. They might select a few notes from the minor pentatonic scale, but they aren't playing them robotically. Every guitarist has their own expressive style of playing. And while the good technique is impressive, guitarists who play expressively tend to do the best job of connecting with an audience.
A good rhythm guitarist will also be able to play expressively. And if you've spent time learning rhythm guitar, you might already know some of the guitar skills necessary for playing well. Hammer-ons and pull-offs can really add some depth to a solo. If you aren't familiar, hammer-ons involve putting an extra finger down on a string to play just one note higher.
Pull-offs involve removing a finger from a string in order to play a note lower. How many notes in a solo you apply this technique to depends on the style of music you're playing. But hammer-ons and pull-offs are fairly easy to learn, and they're good to have in your arsenal of techniques. To see a visual demonstration, check out this helpful video.
7. Start Practicing Guitar Licks
Many guitarists start learning lead skills by discovering and memorizing guitar licks that they can add into solos. Of course, you'll eventually want to be able to really improvise without falling back on patterns you've memorized. But when you're starting out as a lead guitarist, even playing the same lick with different root notes is a sign of significant progress.
Once you've mastered a given lick, practice playing it in different positions on the fretboard. You can even practice playing it backward. The point is to get as comfortable as possible with it so you can easily throw it in while improvising. If you want to start building your library of licks, start out on relatively easy ones -- even three notes can come together to create a catchy rhythm. This video gives you 10 easy lick ideas to get you started.
8. Work On Your Phrasing
On a guitar, phrasing simply means how you play the notes. After all, playing the lead is all about expression -- when you develop a solo, you want it to capture the essence of a song in a way the lyrics might not be able to. When you learn rhythm guitar, you discover the ways that different strumming patterns can alter the mood of a song. Similarly, certain lead techniques can create a mood, too. And when you master them, you can use phrasing techniques to cultivate your own voice as a lead guitarist.
Two of the most important phrasing techniques that you've probably heard of are string bending and vibrato. If you've ever watched a blues guitarist, you've almost certainly seen string bends. With this technique, you can "bend" the pitch of a note you've played up or down. This video gives you an introduction to string bends.
To create a vibrato (also called a tremolo) effect, you essentially perform a series of very small string bends. Vibrato is usually used on more sustained notes (just like a singer's vibrato is more noticeable on longer notes). A well-placed vibrato can add incredible meaning to just one note in a piece.
To start learning these techniques, apply them as you practice your major and minor scales. You can also apply them to licks and solos you've already learned. You can bend a few notes up and occasionally add vibrato. Pay attention to how the use of vibrato and/or string bending changes each one.
If you have a guitar with a tremolo arm (also called a whammy bar), you can use it to bend pitch and add vibrato, too. For instance, instead of bending a string downward to bed the pitch, you can press the whammy bar downward. But don't pressure yourself-- if you're just learning to play the lead, you don't need to master the whammy bar at the same time. If you have a guitar with a whammy bar but aren't completely sure how to use it, this video tutorial might help.
9. Start Practicing Ear Training
Have you ever met a guitarist who can tell what key a song is in just by listening to the rhythm guitarist? If you have, that guitarist probably has dedicated considerable time to ear training. At its core, ear training is learning to recognize what's being played simply by hearing it. Practicing the pentatonic scale can be helpful in ear training, especially if you say the names of the notes as you play them.
In order to train your ear, you also can consult free or inexpensive online guitar resources. Some will help you learn to transcribe music, while others will quiz you on intervals. You don't necessarily have to master ear training to be a great lead guitarist, but it's a great skill if you want to learn how to play with other musicians. If you want to learn more about ear training for guitarists, check out this helpful video.
10. Start Playing Along
There are countless guides out there for players who want to improve their ability to improvise or simply get better at playing the lead. But as you likely know, one of the best ways to get better at something is to just do it. And just as you probably did while learning rhythm guitar, you can play along with a song in order to improve.
If you have a backing track without the original lead, use that. But if not, don't worry -- just follow the rhythm guitar. First, look up what key the song is in. Then, select a scale (we'd recommend the major or minor pentatonic scale) and find the root note. This single note will be your starting point.
From there, you can think like both a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist -- obviously, you want what you're playing to follow the rhythm of the song, but you want it to add some variety, too. Don't be discouraged if this seems tough at first. Getting good at improvisation takes time and effort, and plenty of guitarists are too hesitant to try.
If you have friends who are musicians (and especially if you have a friend who can play rhythm guitar), practice playing with them, too. Practicing along with a recording is one thing, but playing well when there are two guitarists in a band is a whole other skill.
Ready to Start Learning?
Teaching yourself to play lead guitar certainly isn't easy, but it's an outstanding way to improve your musicianship and take your playing to the next level. However, learning from an expert in a structured program has its merits, too. When you take lessons, it eliminates the guesswork of deciding what to learn next.
But perhaps most importantly, learning from a well-developed guitar lesson program ensures that you won't have major gaps in your learning. This is an issue that sometimes arises from self-taught guitarists, and going back to fill in those knowledge gaps can become difficult and frustrating. Luckily, thanks to the vast selection of online music courses, you can learn to play almost any genre. There's a teacher or a lesson program out there that's right for you.
Hopefully, our list has given you some ideas for building your skills as a lead guitarist. By following the tips we've found, you can ensure that your guitar journey is both enjoyable and effective. But what do you think? Did we leave out any valuable tips? Please let us know in the comments, and don't forget to like and share if you found our list useful.