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How to Play Lead Guitar

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If you’re just starting out learning the guitar, then you should know that a guitar can have different roles in the context of a band.

One of those “roles” is the lead, and in this article we’ll go over the basics of how to play lead guitar for beginners.

We’ll get into what it is and a few different approaches to how it’s done.

If you really want to master the art of playing lead guitar then definitely try out the online guitar lessons we recommend.

So…

What is Lead Guitar?

Lead guitar is a style of playing that is usually at the forefront of a musical arrangement, hence the word “lead.”

There can be a few different guitar parts in a song – bass, rhythm and lead.

Bass guitar provides the low end to a track, while rhythm guitar adds to the groove of the harmonic progression of a song.

Lead guitar offers an opportunity for a guitarist to shine as the star of the show.

What Is The Role Of A Lead Guitarist?

The role of a lead guitarist is to showcase their skills in performing intricate melodies on the instrument.

The lead guitar line acts almost like a vocalist singing on an instrumental bed. 

This role requires the guitarist to leave the background and be front and center as the focus of attention for a short time within the longer song.



What Does A Lead Guitarist Do?

What this all means is that they don’t play chords like rhythm guitarists, but instead focus on single notes.

Usually a lead guitarist will focus on exploring specific scales and chord arpeggios to form a cohesive melody line that acts as the “topline” of a song section.

They’ll combine their technical knowledge of picking techniques with their theory knowledge of scales and chords to perform amazing melodic feats.

Most people refer to this as “soloing.”

But lead guitarists don’t just play solos – they can contribute to the song in other ways too, like call and response with other parts or the vocalist, etc.

So how’s it all done?

Scales Are a Lead Guitarists Best Friend

If you really want to master the art of lead guitar then there’s no getting around it – you have to know your scales inside and out.

That’s because those scale tones are precisely the notes you can use to build your melody. And if you are playing lead across various songs, they’ll likely all be in different scales/keys.

So before even trying to play lead, learn at least one scale inside and out. You should be able to play it up and down with ease in varying positions on the fretboard.

You need to have it memorized to the point you don’t have to think about it.

I recommend starting with a pentatonic scale since it’s only got 5 notes.


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Turning Scales into Solos

So now that you’re a master at playing a scale (or scales) up and down what do you do? You can’t just play a scale up and down and call it a lead guitar part.

The trick to taking your scale and turning it into a solo is learning how melodies work.

You don’t just want to pick random notes from the scale and play them in a random order (although that can sound good too sometimes…).

You want to experiment with two different types of movements when building out a lead part:

  1. Step-wise motion
  2. Intervallic Leaps

Stepwise motion is moving from one scale note directly to the next scale note (up or down) without skipping any notes in between (ex/ moving from C to D in the C Major scale).

An intervallic leap is jumping from one scale note to another scale note that isn’t directly beside it (ex/ jumping from C to F using the C Major scale).

A great melody uses a balance of stepwise motion and leaps.

Another trait of a great melody is that if you were to visualize whether the melody is moving upwards in notes or downwards in notes, it would look like “rolling hills” – it would go up and come back down, and go back up and come back down (all while using a balance of steps and leaps).

And finally, make sure you pay attention to the rhythm of your melody – the note lengths, where the notes and rests occur, etc. This will have a dramatic impact on how good your melody sounds.

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This will take some practice and experimentation, but at this point in your learning that’s to be expected.

Spend days worth of practice time trying different things and coming up with some cool little melodic ideas (or “motifs” – better known to guitarists as “licks”) that you think sound great.

Then try stringing them together into longer “lead guitar” parts that span 4, 8 or 16 bars.

A great lead part will take some melodic licks, and string them together using call and response, repetition and novelty (i.e. new material). 

Arpeggios

Another great way to play lead guitar is to use arpeggios of the main chords in the harmonic foundation of whatever song you’re playing (i.e. the chords in the the scale).

Of course, this will require you to know both the scale and the chords within that scale. So get to memorizing!

You won’t be playing the chords like chords, but instead you’ll break them up and play the notes of the chord individually.

So if the chord progression of the song is playing a C Major chord, you’d play an arpeggio using the notes C, E and G.

You can play them up, down or in any other pattern. Then you can arpeggiate the next chord in the song’s progression, and so on.

The same guidelines for coming up with melodies can apply here too – especially the one about using rhythm effectively.


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Final Thoughts

You’ll probably be able to come up with decent solos using just the information we talked about if you work at it.

But if you want to really level up your guitar playing, you should start learning and practicing guitar skills/techniques alongside your lead guitar practice.

These are things like string bending, hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, vibrato and much more.

Using these skills as part of your lead guitar playing will take things to a whole other level.

And as always, put in your reps! This is the only way to get good at anything. You just have to do it over and over and over again.

Work through the suck, and you’ll arrive at mastery.

If you really want to become a better guitar player fast, I highly recommend you check out Guitar Tricks (14 Day Free Trial) – they’ve got a TON of in-depth video lessons on everything you could possibly want to learn.

Thanks for reading this article on how to play lead guitar for beginners. I hope you found it helpful.

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.