Help me become a (real) Guitar Hero
July 7, 2008 3:20 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to be doing in order to transition from being a strictly open chords style guitar player to a lead/riff oriented player?

I have been playing the guitar for about 12 years now. Throughout this time, I have rarely ventured past the acoustic open chord type stuff. I began playing the guitar to accompany myself when singing. I've played tons of open mics/shows with bands/innumerable campfires and house parties. I really think that being a decent singer has taken away the impetus to improve my lead technique.

Now I'm in a situation where being able to play some more advanced lead stuff would really open up some possibilities as far as playing out. A good friend is a drummer, and we have been playing with a few bassists. We're doing fine, but it'd be nice to strap on an electric guitar for a lot of the music we'd like to do (my dreaming of rock stardom days are long past - I'd be perfectly happy churning out music for folks to dance to at bars and weddings)

I need help with understanding the hows and whys of what to play when - I have fiddled around with some basic blues scales over the past decade, but nothing has really stuck.

Would switching to a straight electric guitar approach help me get the sound and feel that would move me along to mastering some lead technique?

Is there a canonical band or style of music that I should start learning that will set me down the right path?

My hands are reasonably agile - I can pick out random riffs all day long. I just need to know how to learn to know what to play and when to play it. A guitar teacher where I am right now is unfortunately not an option for me.

Any advice/personal stories/tips are welcome.
posted by davey_darling to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
The straightforward solution is to pick out some CDs with the kind of music you want to play that features a lot of lead guitar, and learn to play it. Since you've been playing for 12 years and say you're adept at picking out riffs, this seems pretty feasible. If you don't want to spend too much time picking out the notes by ear, get some tab books.

Beyond that, it's hard to answer this question since (1) you haven't said anything about what kinds of music you like, and (2) you haven't mentioned any particular problem you've been having aside from a general concern that it might be hard to break out of your previous mold.

Two specific suggestions:

(1) Get the complete Beatles' scores, which give you the music for every single instrument. The Beatles' aren't one of the more obvious "lead guitar" bands, but that's exactly why it might be good to start here. They had plenty of decent riffs and solos, but there isn't much that's intimidating to learn. By looking at the complete scores, you can see how the lead guitar fit in with the overall structure of things.

(2) Try Guitar World magazine. It's surprisingly intelligent and well-written.

Would switching to a straight electric guitar approach help me get the sound and feel that would move me along to mastering some lead technique?

Not only would it "help"; if you want to develop as a lead guitarist, you must get an electric guitar. It is possible to play lead on acoustic, but it's rare (who's done it successfully in a full rock band besides Dave Matthews?) and a lot harder.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:12 PM on July 7, 2008

What to play when is a pretty tough concept, really. I'm trying to think if I know any good online resources for this kind of thing.

Although plenty of people get by without it, I was not able to learn to solo without learning quite a bit of music theory, including these topics:
* chords - what notes they're made of, how they can be extended, where they fit in keys
* scales - what scales can be played over what chords (this usually has a context to the key, but not always)
* chord progressions - why do "blocks" of chords work. This leads directly into knowing what you can play over them.
* chord substitions - this opened up soloing for me. Without generalizing too much, let me put it this way... you can always play the notes of a chord, over that chord, but it's not going to sound very interesting. You can also play any of the notes in a chord that can commonly be substituted for that chord, so that expands the notes you can play.
* memorization - it helped me to learn several very nice runs from a teacher, to work over a ii-V-I chord progression. It gave me something to fall back on, to work from, and it gave me a familiarity with how moving through the progression "works"
* limitation - when you're starting out, sometimes it helps to have a very fixed simple limitation. I went through a few practice sessions where I was only allowed to play, say, 3 notes, given to me by my teacher, in any octave. This helps you develop a rythmic style, makes you think about what you're doing. There are all kinds of ways to impose limits, that can help you expand your repetoire.
* practice - I use band in a box, with a given chord progression, and noodle around endlessly.
* singing/humming - many people find that they can "play" lead by humming. Try it. Record it, learn to play what you were humming. This is good practice anyway. And actually I've found lots of great stuff by transcribing. I recently transcribed a few Django Rheinhardt songs and found that he uses a lot of the same concepts and riffs over and over again, with small variations, at high speed. I learned so much from transcribing those songs.

I don't think whether you play electric or acoustic makes any difference. I take the same approach on electric, acoustic, mandolin, etc.
posted by RustyBrooks at 4:16 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

All good suggestions.

There really are no short cuts for learning to play lead well.
Tone/Touch/Taste/Technique all require a lot of practice, time,
and patience to develop. Start by learning to play some leads you like.

Also, learning to improvise is a lot tougher than just playing lead -
you can work out all your leads ahead of time, which is your best plan,
but being able to improvise well is another skill entirely.

Many guitar players know the basic chords and don't know notes or theory
at all. You'll need to get "up" the neck, which requires some framework
of music theory to work from. There's a lot of material available based
on the CAGED system, which helps you visualize the neck, and to work out
the variants of any arbitrary chord or scale.

A quick example: All Along the Watchtower: C#m,B,A,B

What key is it in?
What's the generic progression?
What scales work over that key/progression?
Where are the blue notes?

Find the chords, find the scale, find the melody, then tweak with it...

Don't be afraid to bend and shake the strings. All the best notes are in between.
posted by and for no one at 5:00 PM on July 7, 2008

RustyBrooks nails it. There is an audible, immediately obvious difference between players who've awkwardly memorized a few lead "riffs" and players who've routinely put in 30 minutes a day doing scales, chord forms and finger independence exercises, until they've achieved power, musicality and fluidity of technique. Be the latter, not the former.

As for the electric vs. acoustic debate, electric guitars have some possibilities not available on most acoustic instruments, such as Floyd Rose tremolo floating bridges, and enough sustain to do double hammer style lead like Stanley Jordan. Acoustics, on the other hand, have a delicacy of attack and the complexities of overtone harmonic series not possible on electric instruments. The theory of music is, as RustyBrooks says, the same across all instruments, but you use what strengths one kind of instrument offers, when playing it.
posted by paulsc at 5:26 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think most start with the pentatonic box (or scale) which is a basis for improvising on a lot of different kinds of songs. google that & you will find lots of refs.
posted by canoehead at 5:56 PM on July 7, 2008

I've always found mimicking melodic vocal lines really helpful in developing ideas and technique for playing lead. The caveat is that most singers can't cover more than two octaves, so you have to mix it up a lot or find vocalists who have good range.

Great singing comes from the soul, and so does great lead guitar.
posted by secret about box at 7:14 PM on July 7, 2008

Start with a simple scale like the minor pentatonic, but don't learn it just up and down. Learn it as a series of interlocking patterns (like these) that cover the entire neck. Once you get the patterns under your fingers, you'll start to notice combinations of notes that sound musical to you. Memorize these. They are now part of your bag.

The example above is in G, but it's moveable. Slide it up two frets, and it's A, and so on. Whatever key your song is in, start your first pattern on that root. Though this is minor (and will fit perfectly over an song in the key of G minor), it will sound particularly bluesy over a G major progression. Experiment. Keep what works. Discard the rest. There's also a major pentatonic scale. In fact, it's embedded in the minor pentatonic scale (you just start on a different pattern). So, you now know two scales.

If you have a way to record, lay down some chords to songs you know and practice soloing over them. Loopers are handy for this, but even a cheap cassette deck can work.

After you have the minor and major pentatonics under your belt, try the blues scale (it's just the minor pentatonic + the flat 5th). Then learn the major scale and the minor scale (you already know five notes of each.

The whole idea is to build up your familiarity with the sounds of the scales (and how they interact with the underlying notes of the chords), their location on the neck, and the particular phrases that, to you, are musical.
posted by wheat at 7:27 PM on July 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't forget the importance of your picking hand, and muting with your fretting hand, in terms of articulation and making a lick "sing." Try playing the same riff with the same fingering over and over, just using your picking hand to emphasize different notes, mute others, etc., and when you think you've exhausted that, try adding things like grace notes, vibrato, and such in different places with your fretting hand. Once you can do these things instinctually where needed, simple blues licks and the like will be a lot more expressive.
posted by arto at 8:26 PM on July 7, 2008

You need to learn three things: theory, the fretboard, and the musical idioms of your choice.

Theory: You need to be able to construct and play scales, modes, and chords. How much theory is enough depends on what kind of music you're going to play. Start with spelling and playing major scales and triads. Then work on the different types of seventh chords and minor scales. From there you could progress to altered chords and scales. Don't be intimidated, music theory isn't that hard. is a good starting point.

The fretboard: You need to learn how to apply theory to your guitar. For scales: the easiest thing to start with is learning the 5 positions of the pentatonic scale. This will be your bread and butter if you're mostly playing simple rock and blues stuff. From there you'll want to work on major scale fingerings. A good exercise is to pick a single major scale and find fingerings for it in every position (all 12). Remember that a position covers 4 frets, one for each finger, plus a first finger stretch and a fourth finger stretch. You can also limit yourself to a single position and practice playing all the major scales in that position. Move through the keys in fifths, in fourths, in thirds, in whole steps, etc.

For chords: Practice voicing chords in all inversions and on all string sets. Chords are usually voiced on sets of 4 strings, not necessarily adjacent strings. Pick a chord, spell it out, pick a string set, and find the first available note of the chord on either the lowest or highest string of the set. Then find the other three notes from there. Then move to the next chord tone on each string.

For example, Amaj7 is A C# E G#. Let's say we're voicing it on strings 1 2 3 4. The first note of that chord that can be fretted on the 1st string is G# (4th fret). Put a finger on that G# and then find the A, C#, and E on the adjacent strings. When you've got that voicing, move up to the next chord tone on the 1st string (it's the A) and repeat the process. There are 4 notes in the chord so there will be 4 voicings to find. Another way to approach it would be to cycle through the different chord qualities on the same root. For example, voice AMaj7, A7, Am7, Am7b5, and Adim7 in the same position. Then move to the next inversion and do the same thing. If you play them in that order you'll only be altering one note of the chord by one half step each time. Another way to practice is by playing chord scales -- that is, playing all of the diatonic chords in a given key, in each inversion. For instance, in A major, you'd play AMaj7, Bm7, C#m7, Dmaj7, E7, F#m7, and G#m7b5. Then you'd repeat this for each of the chord inversions. Do all of these on all stringsets.

For idiomatic stuff: Listen to tunes and players that you want to imitate. Transcribe them.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:47 AM on July 8, 2008 [6 favorites]

Oh, and also practice arpeggios using the same principles outlined above. Playing all the diatonic arpeggios in a key, moving a single arpeggio around the neck, cycling through different arpeggio qualities on a single root, etc.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:57 AM on July 8, 2008

« Older Chippy in Central London?   |   Where to find "interactive" hikes in the bay area? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.