Learning to play lead


gtrx_symbol_thmHow do you play lead? That’s a question I hear a lot around the old Guitar Therapy shed and it’s a good one. The answer is both complicated and somewhat counterintuitive.

How do you play lead? That’s a question I hear a lot around the old Guitar Therapy shed and it’s a good one. The answer is both complicated and somewhat counterintuitive.

I always teach that in order to become a good lead player, you must master rhythm first. That’s the counterintuitive part of this post. It doesn’t seem logical that mastering rhythm will make you a good lead player…at least not at first glance. But upon further reflection, you’ll find that playing lead well requires you to really understand rhythm. If your sense of rhythm is stunted, you’ll never be the lead player you would have been, had you undertaken a sound approach to rhythm playing first. For example, every lead player I have known who didn’t learn to play rhythm first didn’t (pardon the expression) play “well with others.” Their sense of timing was so out or whack that they couldn’t keep their chops together with the rest of the band. They don’t know how to listen and they don’t know how to compliment those with whom they are playing. The irony is that many of these guys had outstanding chops, they just couldn’t play lead with anyone else joining in. They are all over the place, out of time, and usually stepping on everyone else’s toes. The remedy? Put your big honking ego on a shelf and buy a metronome then start practicing rhythm with it. If you’ve been playing lead all this time to the detriment of all else, you need to just put it aside for now and totally focus on rhythm. When your cadence starts getting refined, you can add lead playing back into your practice sessions. Just be sure you incorporate the metronome whenever possible, utlizing both lead and rhythm elements.

Now, for the complicated part: Once your sense of rhythm has matured, how do you play lead? For the lead player I mentioned in the first paragraph, soloing is a foregone conclusion. But for those of you who have never been this way before, it’s a complicated issue. What to do?

First, begin with learning the solos of your favorite guitar heroes. If your ear isn’t good enough yet to do that, hire a good teacher who can figure these solos out for you and then teach you the techniques employed by the artist playing the solo. Learning other players’ solos will not only help you learn new techniques, but it will help you to understand how good solos are structured and how melody lines are phrased. This is essential.

Next, begin learning your scales. Start with the modal system. Modes are a system of scales which allow you to link the guitar neck together from end to end. I use the three note per string modal system.  If you master your modes, you’ll no longer be locked into that same old box shape you’ve been playing forever and a day. Instead, you’ll “Rule The Neck.” Alternatively, you can master the blues or pentatonic scales in five positions. In a future post, I will discuss these in more detail and offer explanations for each scale method. In the meantime, you can find some explanations for these techniques in our resources department.

Finally, start utilizing jam tracks. Jam tracks are simply rhythm tracks, which you can practice soloing over. Some of these are simple loops which are really great for improvising. Other’s are skillfully arranged tracks which allow you to play a specific solo along with them.

You can find many of the resources I have mentioned above by browsing our resources portals listed at the top of the page in the drop down menu under “Resources.” I have provided links to what I believe are some the best online guitar helps out there.

So what are you waiting for?  Break out your axe and let the healing begin…

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