When one of my guitar students wants to learn lead guitar I usually show them the minor pentatonic first. Once that scale is down in all keys, I play different and familiar chord progressions and have my students solo over using the scales they just learned. Almost always the same thing happens: the students leads sound like a continuous scale. I call it the musical equivalent to a stomach virus: the notes just keep on running out with no end in sight. The same thing occurs when they advance and learn the extensions of the minor pentatonic and the modes. They know the notes and the connections very well but it just sounds like one big run on sentence. Sometimes I’ll see cover bands in which the more experienced guitarist will do the same. In short, there is no phrasing. Here are some methods I have used to make lead playing more melodic and dynamic.
1. LISTEN BEFORE YOU PLAY: Sometimes I’ll start a profession and the student will just jump in and start playing licks. I always stress to them to listen for a few bars to what the chords sound like, especially if you are unfamiliar with the structure. By listening first you may be able to hear something you wouldn’t have heard before such and a rhythmic or melodic motive that you can build a lead line from.
2. REST, SILENCE AND RHYTHM: Let the notes breathe a little bit. Slow the phrase down and maybe stop playing all together. The silence in music is just as important and the music itself. The silence can draw the listener in. Holding a note for a longer time can do the same. The use of silence and resting will make the scale sound less like a scale if you catch my drift. Here is a great example: play a descending D major scale. Pretty boring stuff. Now alter the spacing a bit and change some of the rhythms up, hold certain notes longer and shorter and next thing you know you are playing one of the most recognizable melodies of all time, Joy To The World. That is what we are shooting for in lead playing, making something ordinary into something special. And that’s what separates the good from the great.
3. ACCENTUATE CERTAIN NOTES: As I stated above, I referred to certain lead work and one big run on sentence. Is there anything more annoying than hearing a speech in which the speaker has no articulation, speaks without pauses and is monotone? Probably not. The same can be said about lead guitar playing. Think of the phrase “I love you”. Three short powerful words but if I accentuate and put emphasis on different words, their meaning drastically changes. “I love you”. “I love you”. “I love you“. If you say those words out loud using the accentuations written you will hear the difference. The meanings of the phrases change. You can do the same in your lead playing. You can stress a few of the notes in a phrase by making them louder or softer, longer of shorter. If you do so, the whole context and meaning of the phrase will change into something unique unto yourself. You can play one phrase faster and then in the next phrase play something slower and softer holding a few of the notes. The ideas are limitless.
4. LISTEN TO OTHER LEAD GUITAR PLAYERS: This seems like a no-brainer but you would be surprised how many young guitar players who want to play lead never heard of David Gilmour. You need to listen to music is which the art of lead guitar is prevalent. It is so important to immerse yourself in the music of other lead guitarists that have come before us and are here now! You get the creative juices flowing and draw inspiration from them. The examples are too numerous to mention but just a few examples are Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Slash, Eddie Van Halen, Billy Gibbons, Joe Bonamassa etc etc etc…
Now get off the Internet and get to work and one last thing: I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and a Happy and Healthy New Year and I would like to humbly thank all of the readers who have checked out my blog section over the past few months. And a great thanks to the staff at guitarworld.com especially Damian Fanelli for this opportunity. I get to write about playing guitar. Who has it better than me? Nobody that’s who….See you next year…