The Guitarists Guide to Lead Guitar

What is Lead Guitar?

Lead guitar is when a guitarist plays a melody, usually in a higher pitch range. 

In most rock, pop and metal music, the main melody of the song is performed by the vocalist. 

You can think of lead guitar as replacing the vocalist, for supplying the main melodic material of the song, at that point in time. 

You often hear lead guitar playing at guitar solos, intros and outros, and sometimes as breaks between sections in a song. 

Lead Guitar vs Solo Guitar

The guitar solo in a song is a section where the lead guitar is the main musical focus of what is happening for an extended period of time.

This typically occurs towards the middle of a song, and sometimes at the start and end of a song as an intro or outro.

Why Learn Lead Guitar?

Different people have different reasons for learning lead guitar. 

Some people enjoy the challenge that learning lead guitar presents. 

Some people enjoy being able to play the guitar solos from their favourite songs. 

Some people enjoy their moment in the spotlight, when playing with a band and their solo comes round in the song their playing. 

Some people really enjoy improvising, whether it’s with their friends or over backing tracks. 

There are a lot of reasons for learning lead guitar – if you are interested in learning, then the best thing to do is dive in and give it a go. 

How To Play Lead Guitar?

Learning lead guitar requires studying several different techniques.

A lot of of students also find studying a bit of music theory very beneficial. 

At a minimum, lead guitarists will want to study economy picking, two string sweep picking and ornamentation skills.

These picking skills are best applied to 3 note per string major and minor scales. 

Studying the minor pentatonic scale would also be beneficial, as a lot of rock and metal solos are based on this scale, so studying the scale will allow you to learn your favourite solos faster, by relating the patterns in the solos to the scale. 

If you are aspiring to play lead guitar, you will also benefit from studying ornamentation skills, such as:

  • Bends
  • Pre-bends
  • Vibrato
  • Slides
  • Legato (hammer ons and pull offs)

You would then want to integrate those skills with playing through 3 note per string scale patterns, and learn to combine, or stack, those ornamentation techniques together. 

Other areas of music that aspiring lead guitarists would find useful to study are:

  • Arpeggios
  • Harmonised major and minor scales 
  • Ornamentation techniques such as staccato and rubato
  • Tapping
  • Rhythm
  • Use of non-harmonic tones in melody

And of course, integrating these skills with all other aspects of your playing. 

How To Play Lead Guitar Over Chords

There are two approaches you can take to this, an easy scale based approach, and a more complex but musically richer approach following rules of composition. 

Scale Based Approach to Playing Lead Guitar

This is the approach that most people take. 

Take your chord progression, work out what key it is in, and use a scale appropriate for that key – this is where knowing some basic music theory comes in very useful! 

When you chords in minor scales, you will know which minor scales to use over those chords.

For example, if you had the following chord progression:

Am Dm Em Am

Those who know their music theory will know that those chords are all from the key of A minor, so you could take your Am pentatonic scale and use that to then improvise over the top of the chords

You can see some other minor key chord progressions here.

This will sound pretty good and be quite fun! 

A second approach would be to change scale for each minor chord, for example, playing A minor pentatonic over the A minor chord, D minor pentatonic over the D minor chord and E minor pentatonic over the E minor chord. 

Composition Approach to Lead Guitar

The second approach is to take the rules of melodic composition, and apply them as you’re playing. 

This takes a lot more practice that the scale based approach that we looked at above, but  will give a musically richer result. 

A good way to start with this, is to learn your 5 string arpeggios and then look at how to integrate non-harmonic tones with those arpeggios. 

You can then integrate 3 note per string scales on top of that. 

It can take a while to work through, but if you chip away at it, you will develop some awesomely expressive musical skill.s 

How To Write Lead Guitar 

This is going to be a similar answer to the composition approach to lead guitar that we talked about above. 

Everything that you do in improvising will apply to composition, but with composition you get a bit more time to think about the notes you are choosing.

A common mistake guitarists make when writing lead guitar, is to have a straight 16th notes for their entire solo. 

While the odd run of 16ths is very cool, having too much of it can be boring. 

Learning how to use rhythm to compose motifs, which you then build into musical functions and themes will give you a much more expressive melody than a solo composed entirely of 16th notes. 

It’s also important to make sure that your melody has plenty of ornamentation – ornamentation takes your lead guitar playing from sounding like a bunch of scales, to sounding like your guitar is singing.

How To Learn Lead Guitar

As you’re probably starting to see, lead guitar covers a huge range of skillsets and topics. 

The basics that every lead guitarist will need are to develop their technical skills, usually through practising scales, working closely with a metronome and learning some basic music theory so that they understand how to apply those scales in different musical situations. 

There are different ways you can approach this, as I outline in this article on different ways you can approach learning guitar.

The two biggest ways are with a teacher or with a course. 

A good teacher will provide feedback. 

A good course will give you structure and present ideas in a bitesize, digestible way and keep you on track over the long term. 

Whichever approach you take, it’s important that you understand that this is a long term process, that requires time every day. 

Lead Guitar Basics

Here are some basics that you can start with:

  • 3 note per string based picking exercises
  • 2 string sweep picking 
  • Theory: the major scale, harmonised major scales, the minor scale, harmonised minor scales
  • The minor pentatonic scale, 5 positions
  • 3 note per string major scales, 7 positions
  • 3 note per string natural minor scales, 7 positions

Is Lead Guitar Hard to Learn? 

Yes. There’s no two ways about it. 

Lead guitar is challenging. It takes time and consistent practice to develop the skill. 

You can see the article here on the 10,000 hours rule applied to guitar playing, you can see that truly mastering lead guitar takes an enormous dedication.

But… that’s what makes it so rewarding to learn.

Seeing yourself develop and expand your skills, looking back at your progress and see how you can now do things on guitar that three months ago you couldn’t…

Personally I find that the most thrilling thing about learning guitar, and something that makes life enjoyable on a deep metaphysical level. 

Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar Differences

Rhythm guitar tends to focus on playing chords and riffs. 

Rhythm guitar will often have a single chord being strummed or played for a sustained period of time. 

The rhythm and / or chord/riff will tend to repeat. 

Lead guitar tends to play a melody on top of the rhythm guitar. 

Lead guitar will use a variety of pitches, ornamentation techniques and rhythms to play that melody. 

The lead guitar part will tend to be less repetitive than what the rhythm guitar part is doing.

Is Lead Guitar Harder Than Rhythm Guitar?

Yes. 

To play lead guitar requires practising a lot of techniques and scales.

How To Pick Lead Guitar

There are two main approaches to picking lead guitar:

  • Economy Picking 
  • Alternate Picking 

Economy picking makes it easier to move the pick between strings, as you always start the next string in the direction that the pick is already moving in. 

Alternate picking involves strictly playing “down up down up” no matter the direction that the pick is moving in. 

Some lead guitarists prefer economy picking for its ease, and others prefer alternate picking, claiming that it gives a better attack. 

Here are some examples of tabs with picking directions marked, that contrast economy and alternate picking – pay attention to where the scale changes strings:

Guitar tab showing a c major scale being picking with economy picking.
C major scale being picking with economy picking.
Guitar tab showing a c major scale being picking with alternate picking.
C major scale being picking with alternate picking.

What Makes a Good Lead Guitarist? 

A good lead guitarist is going to use their playing to add to a song. 

They will use a variety of techniques to create a melody that adds emotion appropriate to the song they are playing over. 

This usually means outlining chord tones in their melody, using ornamentation to make their guitar sing and adding some variety to their melody with non-harmonic tones. 

There is a lot more that goes into writing a lead guitar melody than playing up and down scales as fast as possible! 

Famous Lead Guitarists

Here are some famous lead guitarists: 

The Beatles had George Harrison as their lead guitarist. Paul McCartney was the rhythm guitarist. 

In The Rolling Stones, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood shared lead and rhythm guitar. 

The Eagles have two guitarists, who share lead and rhythm playing. Joe Walsh has been in the band since 1975, with Glenn Frey, Bernie Leadon, Don Felder and Deacon Frey playing lead/rhythm guitar at various times. Currently, Joe Walsh shares guitar duties with Vince Gill. 

Lynyrd Skynnyrd have Gary Rossington and Allen Collins sharing guitar duties.

Metallica’s lead guitarist is Kirk Hammet.

Pink Floyd started with Syd Barrett playing guitar, with David Gilmour taking over in 1967.

Can Lead Guitarists Sing? 

Yes! 

Lead guitar is usually technically challenging, requiring a lot of concentration so usually lead guitarists don’t sing. 

However, as always, there are some notable exceptions, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.

Dave Mustaine also plays some lead guitar part in Megadeth, but often as another guitar player do a lot of the solos in their songs. 

Lead guitar players will may sing backing vocals in a song, but not while playing solos.

Can You Learn Lead Guitar? 

Yes – all it takes is patience, dedication and the expectation that it will be a process.

You aren’t going to learn lead guitar in a month, it will take time and plenty of practice…

but, if you put in the work, you will develop the skills. 

What To Do If You Can’t Learn Lead Guitar?

If you are struggling to learn lead guitar, then you have to try and figure out why.

However, this can be difficult, after all, you don’t know what you don’t know, and some unknown variable is probably the reason you are struggling. 

But you can try and isolate the problem. 

Are you struggling to play fast? Then you need to work on your technique. 

Can you play fast, but it sounds sterile and boring? Then you probably need to use ornamentation such as string bends and vibrato. 

Can you learn other peoples solos, but have no idea how to play your own? Then you would benefit from studying improvisation and melodic composition.

There are a lot of resources on these topics. 

A great option is to find someone that can help you, or find an online course that is well structured and supports you on your journey.

There is one thing you must do though: Don’t give up. Keep asking questions. Keep trying to narrow down what it is you are struggling with, then find resources that can help you with that problem. 

Best Lead Guitar Lessons Near You

The best lead guitar lessons you can get are right infront of you! 

Our online courses contain tried and tested methods to develop your technique, theory and skills so that you can become a better lead guitarist.

If you are looking to take lessons from a local guitarist, then the best way to approach it is to setup 3-4 introductory lessons (ideally free) with local guitar teachers.

You want to see if these teachers:

  • Ask you about the guitarists and music you are interested in
  • Specialise in those genres
  • Have taught other students that do what you want to do
  • Take an interest in you

You will want to avoid teachers that:

  • Do not ask any questions about you and what you are interested in
  • Only talk about themselves
  • Have a bad attitude / complain

Lead Guitar Effects

Lead guitarists are well known for using effects on their guitar tone. 

The most common effects are reverb and delay. 

Guitarists will often use overdrive on their amplifiers when playing lead lines, some will also add distortion, especially in heavier genres.

However, guitarists will also use modulation, phaser and compression.

Some lead players will use pitch shifters to help “accent” important sections of melody.

Effects are usually used as “stomp boxes”, however some guitarists still use 19u racks for their effects (myself included!).

Lead Guitar Instrumentals

There are a lot of guitarists who create instrumental guitar music. 

Some notable guitarists and great examples of lead guitar instrumentals are:

  • Steve Vai: Bad Horsie, Building the Church. 
  • Joe Satriani: Surfing with the Alien, Redshift Riders.
  • Tony McAlpine: Death of Roses, Edge of Insanity.
  • Vinnie Moore: The Journey, Cryptic Dreams.
  • Steve Morse: Eyes of a Child, Stressfest.
  • Yngwie Malmsteen: Blackstar.
  • George Bellas: Machine Man.
  • Sam Russell: RiffstruMental

Conclusion

Hopefully that gives you an overview of what lead guitar playing involves.

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