A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away* lived a guitar teacher who had a bright idea. Although bright ideas were not his typical thing, on that day he felt particularly enlightened.
He knew that some of his guitar students wanted to play lead guitar. He knew that they were ready to take the leap.
And from his vast experience, he knew that playing lead guitar was really just a matter of mastering a few basic moves and combining them to form seemingly complex phrases of musical genius.
[Note: Although it would have been fun to keep the “musical genius” myth going, he knew that playing hot licks was not the result of genius – after all, he had learned to do it himself. And he was no genius. Just a guy with a dream.]
So he devised a simple plan to get his students rockin’ on the right track. This plan was built on a foundation of movements that appear time and time again in the lead guitar universe. And thus was born The Ten Basic Lead Guitar Moves.
Does Everything Really Boil Down to Ten Moves?
In my experience, yes.
Although there is more to lead guitar – much more – than The Ten Basic Moves, everything that is more complex seemingly flows from or incorporates these common phrases. They are the building blocks of lead playing, but certainly not the end-all.
Of course, guitarists who are new to lead playing can’t be expected to jump in and handle complicated movements. So these licks are designed to get the new lead player movin’ and groovin’ in a way that they can handle.
Please note that the Ten Basic Moves are just that: movements. They can be applied to any strings, any frets – not just in the spots that I’m about to demonstrate.
Think of them as movement ideas. Although some of them work best when performed exactly the way I show you (like Move 10), most of the other moves can be adjusted to use whatever fingers, frets or strings are required or desired at the time. Get creative!
Get Your Slur On
The Ten Basic Moves have one thing in common: they all incorporate slurs.
Slurs are musical techniques in which two or more notes are generated by articulating only the first note in the “normal” way. For guitarists, it means plucking the first note, and then creating additional notes with the fretting hand only.
Those additional notes are generated by slurring techniques such as hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends. By their very nature, slurs create musically connected – or legato – phrases.
IMPORTANT!: Slurs are the next step after you’ve gotten your left hand coordination and picking technique under control. If you haven’t gotten command over those elements yet, check out The Best Guitar Exercise, Period.
If you don’t know how to perform proper hammers and pulls, check out The Definitive Lesson: Hammer-ons and/or The Definitive Lesson: Pull-offs. Likewise, if you want to tighten up your string bending technique, peep The Definitive Lesson: Bending Strings.
Minor Pentatonic Mania
I developed the Ten Basic Moves for the standard, minor pentatonic Box 1 pattern. This particular pattern is arguably the most important one in pop, rock, blues and country styles, so it makes sense to start here.
Remember, scale patterns are moveable and are named for their root note. This one has its root note on string 6. I’ve played and tabbed all the examples in the key of A minor (root on fret 5). But of course you can move the pattern up and down the fretboard, using the Ten Basic Moves in whatever key you wish.
It’s highly recommended that you be able to play through the pattern with alternate picking as well as with slurs – ascending with hammer-ons and descending with pull-offs – before tackling The Ten Basic Moves. It will make life much easier.
Let the rocking begin!
The Ten Basic Moves
NOTE: I’ve included a video, which will demonstrate all of the techniques explained in this lesson, after the text. Rather than embed multiple short clips, I combined all of the clips into one video, so you will need to pause the video periodically to read the corresponding text for a clear explanation.
You can also follow along by downloading the TAB sheet that I created for my students. You’ll notice that the Ten Moves progress roughly in order of difficulty.
BASIC MOVE 1: HAMMER-ON PLUS TARGET NOTE
This move features a single hammer-on followed by a target note on the next higher string. Make sure to practice playing all of the target notes with some vibrato.
BASIC MOVE 2: DOUBLE HAMMER-ON PLUS TARGET NOTE
This move features a hammer-on followed by another hammer on the next higher string, followed by a target note on the next string. It’s important to remember to “seesaw” your fingers, as we discussed in the Best Guitar Exercise lesson.
BASIC MOVE 3: PULL-OFF PLUS TARGET NOTE
This move features a single pull-off followed by a target note on the next lower string.
BASIC MOVE 4: DOUBLE PULL-OFF PLUS TARGET NOTE
This move features a pull-off, followed by another pull-off on the next lower string, followed by a target note on the next lower string. Watch closely since this is where the “seesaw” action really comes into play.
BASIC MOVE 5: BEND PLUS TARGET NOTE
This move features a single bend followed by a target note on the next higher string. The bend should only be heard on the upward arc; the release is silent.
This is one of the most essential movements in all of lead playing, so learn it well. Be patient and follow the Golden Rules of Bending.
BASIC MOVE 6: BEND PLUS TARGET NOTE WITH FORWARD FINGER ROLL
This move features the same single bend, followed by the target note on the next higher string, and a forward finger roll to the final note, which is on the adjacent string/fret.
Remember that a finger roll is NOT a barre; you must roll onto the new note while rolling off of the previous one (which will effectively mute it).
BASIC MOVE 7: HAMMER-ON PLUS SINGLE TRILL
This move features a hammer-on followed by a single trill on the next higher string.
A trill is nothing more than a hammer-on directly followed by a pull-off. Whereas the initial hammer-on in this move must be “seesawed”, the trill is anchored at finger one to facilitate the hammer-pull combo. Although it is common to play trills as multiple hammer-pull combos, this move features a single trill.
BASIC MOVE 8: PULL-OFF WITH BACKWARD FINGER ROLL
This bluesy move features a single pull-off, two “filler” notes and a backward finger roll. The backward finger roll must be set up with a flat index finger, so that you can actually roll onto your finger tip on the next string lower.
Note that this move is not particularly intuitive and must be practiced thoroughly before it becomes automatic. Check out Technique Spotlight on Finger Rolls for detailed info.
BASIC MOVE 9: HAMMER-ON PLUS BEND
This move features a hammer-on followed immediately by a bend, which is executed with the hammering finger. After you hammer with the fingertip, you must get to the side of your fingertip to push the bend upward. Also über-common in blues-rock styles.
BASIC MOVE 10: BEND AND RELEASE PLUS PULL-OFF PLUS TARGET NOTE
We’ve saved the most difficult move for last, but it is an essential part of blues-rock playing. Move 10 features a bend, an audible release, and a pull-off with the bending finger. It concludes with a target note on the next lower string.
The slur consists of three separate events (the target note is the fourth event) and should be practiced as such, slowly and steadily. Ultimately, it will sound like one fluid movement. Jimmy Page famously played a rapid-fire sequence of Move 10 in the solo to Led Zep’s “Heartbreaker”.
At this point, I encourage you to put these moves together in some random sequences. This will help you create some longer phrases pretty easily.
You can start with groupings of two moves (as an example, Moves 6 and 8 sound good together), and progress from there, until you can string together all ten phrases with minimal pause between them, a la the video’s final clip.
Then all that’s left to do is to go forth and be awesome! 🙂
*Bel Air, Maryland.
QUESTION: How would you rate your lead guitar phrasing? Do these types of lick combinations inspire some new ideas? Leave me a comment below!