There are few moments in our six-string lives more exhilarating than busting out a few lead guitar phrases that actually sound like, well, lead guitar.
Unfortunately, that is often more fantasy than reality.
Lots of guitarists are still stuck in that decidedly mediocre area I like to call the “noodle zone” – the place where you wander aimlessly through the scale patterns, noodling with the notes and hoping for something cool to happen.
We’ve all been there.
But nothing cool is happening in the noodle zone because there is no real guideline, no basic plan of attack.
Great lead guitarists play solos that contain an active and deliberate mix of elements, which keeps things interesting and makes us want to hear more. They may not plan out the exact notes to play, but this overarching concept guides their movements.
Enter the easiest lead guitar lesson ever!
It requires nothing more than a little imagination and some attention to detail. And it will almost instantly get you sounding more pro than you ever thought possible!
Step 1 – Mix Up Your Techniques
The first and most important way to boost our soloing power is to actively mix up the lead guitar techniques that we use. If you are currently only picking through pentatonic scales, then you have to get hip to slurring techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs and bends.
A lot of guitarists get stuck on picking each note, but mixing picked and slurred notes is an easy way to add interest to your solos. Slurs not only smooth out your phrasing, but they also help you to build speed more easily than straight picking.
1 – Improvise some pentatonic phrases and actively mix in ONLY hammer-ons.
2 – Repeat the improv, but mix in ONLY pull-offs.
3 – Repeat the improv, but now mix in both hammers and pulls.
4 – Repeat the improv, but eliminate the hammers and pulls and instead ONLY mix in some bends.
5 – Finally, improvise freely, mixing all the slurring techniques together.
Mixing techniques in this way is a great start, but it can still sound kinda random. Most great soloists will then find some polished phrases to memorize, so that their playing has some “architecture”. I highly recommend that you check out The Ten Basic Moves, one of my most popular lessons, for building lead vocabulary with mixed techniques.
Step 2 – Mix Longer and Shorter Phrases
Rookie lead players almost always default to short phrases of of 2-3 notes. So our goal here is to deliberately lengthen our phrases.
Think of it as moving from simple three word sentences to longer, more complex sentences of a dozen words or more. It’s generally more interesting to listen to players that mix up their phrase lengths.
The best thing about this tip is that it’s hella easy to apply.
The key is to first visualize the pathway of notes in the scale pattern. If you can do that, then you’re halfway there. Now deliberately play phrases of specific lengths. It’s really that simple.
1 – From one of the pentatonic patterns, pick a low-ish starting note and count up the scale 5 notes. The fifth note will be your ending note.
2 – Practice playing from the starting note to the ending note until it’s memorized.
3 – Improvise a few short phrases and then mix in the 5-note phrase you memorized.
4 – Expand on this idea by lengthening your phrases to 6, 7 or 8 notes and more.
5 – Repeat these ideas by starting on a higher note and descending through the scale.
After a little bit of this type of simple practice, you’ll be amazed at how much your fretboard vision has expanded and how much more confident you are in crafting longer phrases.
Another easy way to lengthen phrases is to string together some of your memorized licks from the Ten Basic Moves. Watch the video to see it in action.
Step 3 – Mix Faster and Slower Phrases
Just as we mixed up our phrase length, so should we practice mixing the speed at which we play our lines.
This might seem obvious, but it’s much harder to improvise fast phrases than it is to improvise slow phrases. Fast phrases not only require technical ability, but they also require you to see your scale pathways well in advance of your fingers. Make those phrases long as well as fast and now you’ve got the soloing double whammy.
The takeaway point: You must actively and deliberately practice the harder of the two things – faster vs. slower phrases, and/or longer vs. shorter phrases – as these things cannot just be “turned on” at will without a lot of preparation under your belt.
A Most Excellent Sports Analogy: Jamaican gold medal sprinter Usain Bolt can always jog if he wishes, but a weekend jogger is not going to just ramp up to elite sprinting speed without a lot of advance preparation.
1 – Pick one pentatonic pattern and, from it, compose a phrase of 5-6 notes. It can be descending, ascending, or a mix of the two.
2 – Practice building speed on the phrase, little by little – don’t get (too) sloppy.
3 – Play a few notes leading up to it at a slow speed, then let ‘er rip on the fast phrase. Try slow quarter notes, doubling the speed to 8th notes on the fast phrase to start. Move up to 16th notes when you’re feeling good.
4 – Repeat this process with longer phrases.
5 – Improvise a few easy phrases and start mixing in the faster phrases as the spirit moves you.
If you want some real inspiration for mixing up your lead guitar techniques and phrases, just go to some world class solos. You can find some excellent material in 10 “Must Know” Guitar Solos and in 16 Great Rock Solos in Pop Songs.
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