Beginner’s Guide to Lead Guitar

Whatever your preferred style of music, you often find lead guitar. Lead guitar traditionally is handled the guitar player in the band who plays all the guitar solos however the style of lead guitar can apply to melodic passages or simple licks and phrases.

To understand lead guitar you must first consider some of the elements of this playing style. At the basic level we will need to know some scales and some techniques to allow us to create lead guitar passages.

Most guitar players gravitate towards learning guitar solos and lead guitar passages from classic rock and blues songs in the early stages as these are easier to disassemble and learn. In this article we will cover the concepts you need to start building your own guitar solos and lead guitar lines.

Scales

Scales come in all shapes and sizes up and down the fretboard in every key imaginable. For this lesson we will just focus on one scale, the Minor Pentatonic scale. This scale is a 5 note scale, repeated over 2 octaves. This scale is the most commonly used for lead guitar.


A Minor Pentatonic as Guitar Tab. This scale is only made up of 5 notes (A, C, D, E and G). The notes are repeated across 2 octaves with the additional C note from the third octave (8th fret of the E string)

We will play this scale in the key of A Minor for this lesson, starting from the 5th fret of the E string. This scale is a transposable scale meaning it can be played in any key based on the starting note. The ideas and concepts covered in this lesson are also transposable as they are relative to the shape of the scale.

Technique

Legato

Legato is a family of techniques that all enable us to join notes together in a smoother manner than picking each note of the phrase. The term legato is an Italian term meaning “join together”.

In this family of techniques we can focus on 3 main things that we can start using in our playing today.

Hammer Ons

A hammer on is a technique that involves playing a note and “hammering on” to a higher pitched note without picking for a second time. If you’ve never attempted a hammer on before, the first thing you’ll find is the finger doing the hammering will need to use its own strength to sound the second note clearly.

When seeing hammer ons notated in guitar tab you will see them with a join line above the notes as shown here:


An example of a simple hammer on exercise using the 5th and 7th frets on the D and G strings.

On some guitar tab sites, this will be shown as a “h” between the notes. The line that connects the notes shows that the first note should be played and the second is joined on by the technique. If the second note is higher pitched than the first, this is always a hammer on.

Pull Offs

A pull off is the opposite of a hammer on. Instead of playing a lower note and hammering onto a higher note, now we are playing the higher note and pulling off to the lower note. To do so, both fingers must be positioned in place prior to the first note being picked. Once the first note has been picked, the finger playing the higher note is then pulled off to allow the other note to ring.

When doing a pull off, you may find that initially lifting your finger produces a noticeable drop in volume on the second note. You can remedy this with a slight downward finger flick as the higher finger pulls off. This will create more energy in the string and allow the second note to ring louder. Be careful when doing so, you don’t want to pull the string too far and change the pitch.

On guitar tab, the notation for pull offs is shown the same as hammer ons with a line connecting the two notes. On some text based guitar tab sites the pull off will be noted with a “p” between the notes.


An example of a simple pull off exercise using the 5th and 7th frets on the D and G strings.

Slides

Slides, as the name suggests, involves sliding from one note to another. This is done in a similar manner to hammer ons and pull offs except you only need one finger to perform this technique. Slides can be ascending or descending and they don’t have the same limitations as hammer ons and pull offs.

Slides can be across 1 or 2 frets, or across 15 frets. The only limitations are ensuring you land on the correct notes.

When performing a slide you want to apply enough pressure to keep the note ringing once you are sliding between frets, but not too much so that you don’t hear the note dragging along the fretboard. Slides can also be played at a range of tempos for various effects, quicker slides create urgency and slower slides create more of a laid back feel.

You will see slides written in guitar tab with a slash. The direction of the slash and the order of the notes shows you if it’s a slide up or down. A forward slash would be a slide from a lower note to a higher and a backslash would be a slide from a higher note to a lower note.


An example of a simple sliding exercise using the 5th and 7th frets on the D and G strings. Bar one is sliding up from a lower note to a higher, bar two is sliding back from a higher note to a lower.

String Bending

String bending is another way to connect notes together. This is the smoothest way of joining notes as string bending does not follow semi tone steps like any of the fretted technique. String Bending allows the player to access the notes “between the frets” which is why string bending is the easiest of the techniques to get wrong. Many players starting out often suffer from under or over bending strings.

String bending is a complex technique and has been covered in detail in the following lesson titled How to Bend a String.

On guitar tab, bends will be shown with an arrow above the note indicating a bend. The arrow will indicate the distance of the bend, in this example, the arrow shows “full” which is a full step (2 fret) bend. You may also see bends written as a “b”. For instance 7b9 would mean you play the 7th fret and bend it to the pitch of the 9th.


An example of string bending using the 7th fret on the G and the 8th fret on the B. All string bends in this image are full fret bends meaning the note you play is bent until it reaches the pitch of the note 2 frets above.

Combining Techniques and Scales

Here are some basic ideas that combine the scales and techniques that we’ve learnt so far in this lesson. These examples will help you visualise the way scales can be used in a nonlinear way (I.e, not just playing the scale up and down sequentially). The addition of the techniques we have discussed will add to the parts having more melody and flow.

Example 1


A simple lick to start learning about combining techniques with scale notes.

This example  uses an ascending hammer on pattern on the D and G strings before moving to a 7th fret, full step bend. The lick ends with a descending run from the 5th fret of the G before pulling off from the 7 to 5 on the D string.

This lick is centered around the D and G strings and is a great way to take a small amount of notes and create some interesting melodic phrases.

Example 2


A descending lick using multiple string bends across different strings.

This example is a descending run that starts with a pair of full step bends on the 8th fret of the E string, right at the top end of our scale. The lick then descends via the 5th fret on the E and B strings.

The second bar starts with a full step bend on the 8th fret of the B before you play the 5th fret of the same string, ending with a pull off from the 7th to 5th fret on the G.

Example 3


A longer, ascending lick using more techniques including slides and bends and adding more complex phrasing.

Slides can be used as a great way to move between notes, but slides can also be used as a great way to give a starting note impact. You’ll notice in this phrase that the first note has a slide leading into it but there is no note before the slide. It doesn’t matter where you start, you are just aiming to capture the sound of sliding into a note, don’t worry if there is no starting note, as soon as you hit the string you want to be sliding to the target.

This lick runs up the scale across 3 bars and incorporates a some string bending along the way. The end of the second bar is worth paying attention to as you will have to consider your hand shape in the approach here. You are performing the full step bend on the 7th fret of the G before rolling your first finger over the 5th fret on the B and E strings on the way up to the final bends.

Example 4


A short lick using slides and string bends including a tricky slide at the end of the lick coming out of a string bending phrase.

This lick also contains some slides, starting with a slide down from the 7th to the 5th fret on the G. The final bar contains the same run we discussed in the previous lick, a full step bend on the 7th fret of the G before rolling the first finger across the 5th frets on the B and E strings. This time, the lick ends by sliding the 5th fret of the E up to the 8th.

Try It Yourself

These patterns are all transposable, meaning, once you know your way around the guitar you can play them in any key.

I have written all the examples out here as straight quarter notes. Whatever speed you play these at, you will be playing one note per beat.

When it comes to developing your own sound with lead guitar, you can take these ideas and play with them. Manipulate the timings to create different sounding phrases. Guitar players should always be mindful of their phrasing when playing lead guitar. Phrasing is how you play the notes, not what notes you play. Imagine you have 3 notes and you can only play those 3 notes for 5 minutes, how many different ways can you interpret three notes?

Use that idea when playing these licks. Imagine different ways you can make the guitar say something with the notes you have available.

Phrasing and lead guitar ability develops over time, it is not a skill you can pick up quickly so be sure to integrate lead playing and phrasing practise into your practise routine on a regular basis.

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