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Old 01-08-2013, 02:28 AM   #1
soundmachine3
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Lead Playing Question

Hi,

I have a general question for lead guitarists who do not read sheet music.

I've played guitar for at least 20 years. I basically consider myself a "chord strummer". I understand the basic concepts of chords and can listen to a song and usually figure out the chords.

What I have never understood is how someone becomes a lead guitarist. By lead, I mean playing solos. I would love to know what a lead guitarist is thinking.

For example, do lead guitarists usually write their solos note by note? And if so, how does a lead player memorize that solo if they don't use sheet music?

When I play, I can either memorize the chords by playing a song many times or I can write the chords on a sheet of paper and just play those.

But what about lead solos? Is the lead guitarist just using "muscle memory", playing the song many times until it's memorized by his fingers? Or is the lead guitarist actually thinking of the note names in his head as he plays? Is he thinking "OK, now play C, now play D, etc."

I just really can't understand the mental process at all. Over the years, I have seen things like scales that people practice and been exposed to some theory, but it never seems to add up to imagining I could play a lead solo.

So my question is... if you play lead solos and you don't use pre-printed sheet music, how do you compose those solos? How do you memorize them? Do you think in single notes? How do you remember to play the same solo twice? What do you hold on to mentally when you think of a specific solo?

If anyone can shed any light on this mysterious process, I would love to hear your thoughts. I've always thought that most anyone can learn to play a few chords, but I'm truly amazed that anyone ever becomes a lead player because it seems there is no clear path to get there.
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Old 01-08-2013, 08:37 AM   #2
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Quote:
Originally Posted by soundmachine3
Hi,

I have a general question for lead guitarists who do not read sheet music.

I've played guitar for at least 20 years. I basically consider myself a "chord strummer". I understand the basic concepts of chords and can listen to a song and usually figure out the chords.

What I have never understood is how someone becomes a lead guitarist. By lead, I mean playing solos. I would love to know what a lead guitarist is thinking.

For example, do lead guitarists usually write their solos note by note? And if so, how does a lead player memorize that solo if they don't use sheet music?


Muscle memory and remembering the sounds and ideas that are going on rather than the actual notes. I'm sure some people do remember the notes but I personally find remembering the concepts much easier.

Quote:
Originally Posted by soundmachine3
I just really can't understand the mental process at all. Over the years, I have seen things like scales that people practice and been exposed to some theory, but it never seems to add up to imagining I could play a lead solo.


It does. Pretty quickly really. Really you don't need any theory to play solos, many highly acclaimed soloists have known no formal theory, all you actually need is a decent ear.

Quote:
Originally Posted by soundmachine3
So my question is... if you play lead solos and you don't use pre-printed sheet music, how do you compose those solos? How do you memorize them? Do you think in single notes? How do you remember to play the same solo twice? What do you hold on to mentally when you think of a specific solo?


There are a lot of questions here... I'll take them one at a time. Be aware though: I can only really answer these questions from my own point of view, I know many other people think about these things differently.

It starts, as I believe it always should, from a sound. For me I might not be thinking exactly in lead terms first, I usually start with a vibe or vague sound I'm going for. A band I was in once had a song called Scum, was a really agressive, pretty dissonant song so I wanted the solo to match that so for writing one I started from that slightly disturbed sound and went from there. From there I go in to what I know about music and the guitar to try and relate the sound I want to the sounds I have available to me on the guitar. Going back to the Scum example, my first thought when it comes to sounding agressive and dissonant is the diminished scale so that was my first idea, I came up with a big tapping lick that went over the backing.

So yeah, it's a question for me of starting from the sound you want and then making that happen on the guitar. It's a skill that takes practice and knowledge though, I couldn't do things the way I do if I hadn't learned a decent amount of theory but that's because of the music I play, if you're going for something like an AC/DC type sound you need to learn one scale in about three keys and you'll be good


Ideas and muscle memory. Also I think solos are generally much easier to remember if you've written them yourself; you can put yourself back in the frame of mind you were when you wrote it and get it back pretty quickly. It also gets much easier with practice, I had a really hard time remembering anything when I first started playing guitar but now I find it pretty easy to memorize anything that I can play.

I don't, in fact I think it's a mistake people often make both when playing and writing; people get way too fixated on the individual note and don't think enough about the overall contour of the line they're playing and the overall effect of everything they're doing. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Whatever though, that's a very personal note. I don't think in single notes unless it's something very specific, when it comes to playing I often thing in terms of the overall sound I want the line to have and I have a target note I want to end and/or begin on. Also when playing at any kind of speed it's impossible to think in terms of the notes rather than the line. You have to think at least in sequences once you're playing with any kind of pace.


Well this is a tricky one... sometimes I don't! Seriously though, in the set my band is playing right now I have one written solo and it's pretty easy to remember, possibly because I wrote it! Once you've learned to play something up to speed really well it actually becomes quite difficult to play it badly. I think a good way to illustrate this is watch the guitar duel from the end of the movie Crossroads (the one with Ralph Macchio). Watch what Steve Vai does when he's 'screwing up' Eugene's Trick bag; he's playing it perfectly until it's time to screw it up then it suddenly all goes wrong because that's all he can do: start playing it right and then interrupt it.

Target notes and phrases mainly, like specific places in the solo where I have to hit a certain note or phrase for the solo to work at all. These are usually notes at the beginning and end of runs or when a run has such a specific sound that nothing else will fit. Again, once you've learned to play a solo and learned it well you don't have to think about these things as much but they're always good markers so you know nothing has gone wrong



Really I think what's holding you back if you want to start playing solos is fear as much as anything else! You've got all the time you need when you're at home so take it slow, start off with simple things like AC/DC solos, Smells Like Teen Spirit and so on and just build from there.
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Old 01-08-2013, 08:51 AM   #3
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You should probably learn some scales and play them in the right key for whatever you're playing to.
Personally whenever i write a solo i just let it flow and improvise a lot. I eventually get a piece i like, and try to remember what it sounds like. I like to say that the best solos are different every time.
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Old 01-08-2013, 09:30 AM   #4
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For me, I only have a couple solos in my band that are set in stone because I like that idea the most. Everything else is improvised, which can get a bit hairy I don't really think when I play. I don't treat it as a "solo" because in my mind a solo is a piece played by one instrument alone. I treat them as riffs that are just parts of the song that I play. I'm not super well versed in theory so I just play and hope it comes out right.
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Old 01-08-2013, 11:41 AM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Zaphod_Beeblebr
Really I think what's holding you back if you want to start playing solos is fear as much as anything else! You've got all the time you need when you're at home so take it slow, start off with simple things like AC/DC solos, Smells Like Teen Spirit and so on and just build from there.


I agree with this very much. And also lots of ear training (knowing what your intervals sound like, as well as learning stuff by ear/transcribing).

And every once in a while, try letting yourself go and noodling around. You might be pleasantly surprised with what you get. As your ear gets better, this will get better too.
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Old 01-11-2013, 03:06 PM   #6
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Excellent question(s)!

and excellent answer(s) from Zaphod! (thanks for taking the time to share!)

So first, some background. There are two main roles of guitar in typical music: Rhythm Guitar - laying down the backdrop with chords (or "Chord Strummers" as you put it ), and Lead Guitar - "Singing" melodic lines (using a guitar)
They require very different and specific skill sets.

Lead Guitar is all about singing melodic lines over the underlying chords. These lines are VERY much dependent on the Key and (optionally) the chord moving under them.

As long as you stay in Key, anything you play is "correct". Many Lead Guitarists will take it a step further and highlight notes that are in the underlying backdrop chords.

A Lead Guitarist is VERY much a painter, painting with sound.

How different Lead Guitarists choose to paint (from their palette) widely differs.
The palette that they are drawing from is a combination of scales/modes and "tonal techniques" (e.g. Bending, Slides, Vibrato, Hammer-ons, etc)

Some Lead Guitarists are aware of the chords underneath and know what scales/modes and licks fit over that chord. And so they paint like that - some paint note by note, some paint in pre-memorized sequences (licks).

Some Lead Guitarists are aware of both the "little picture" and the "big picture" - the overall mood that certain techniques or note choices have on the feeling of the whole phrase, (and some, how the entire solo will impact the entire song) etc.

A note is a Sound - we just give it a name so we can talk about it (and relate that sound to theory), so, many Lead Guitarists just paint by sound and feel, hovering around in certain modes and positions and highlighting different sounds. Some actually do think in notes or as Zaphod mentioned, mostly don't but then sometimes look for specific notes (like a b5 or b7) in order to highlight the underlying chord/create a specific feeling.

How do you memorize Solos/remember them:
Some guitarists are aware note by note what they played (and what techniques they used - e.g. I did a unison bend there) and could literally write them out/notate them.

Other guitarists have a general/fuzzy memory of around where they were, what modes they were using, what techniques, and what mood.
They may never play the Solo the same was twice, but always manage to convey the same mood (their notes/techniques are different, modes are not)
[there is a BIG benefit to this, but I prefer it to be cognizant, not accidental]

Other guitartists have just chained together pre-memorized licks (so they just remember the chain)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------
So, how do you become a Lead Guitar player??

It is a loooooooooooong journey (and much harder imho than exclusively playing rhythm)

Most people start off the easiest way:
They learn the Key the song is in, and then they learn/memorize licks that are in that key (without really understanding what the notes are and how they work, it just sounds cool - no need to be a mechanic, just drive the car)
Then they just chain them until they've filled up the time slot.

Another good way to start is to find some songs that you like that have easy solos and just learn them (e.g. Green Day's "When I Come Around"), then optionally find out why those notes work.

The "next step" is to learn why/how they work and truly understand the available palette so that you have the Maximum number of paints to paint with. Then you won't feel "trapped" because you can express yourself and the mood however you want (with no compromises)

Happy Jammin!

Last edited by InfiniStudent : 01-11-2013 at 04:24 PM.
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Old 01-11-2013, 03:54 PM   #7
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Have to admit I can't stand the artificial distinction people are obsessed with making between "lead guitarists" and "rhythm guitarists".

In reality there's no such thing, and IMO looking at it that way is just plain unhealthy and counter-productive.

A guitarist is a guitarist. That's it. Full stop. Do you play the guitar? Then you're a guitarist, no further definition required.

By all means make the distinction between lead and rhythm with regards to the music being played, I agree that's important. However trying to force those labels onto the person playing the guitar smacks of elitism and is, frankly, a bit poncy.
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Old 01-11-2013, 04:40 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by steven seagull
Have to admit I can't stand the artificial distinction people are obsessed with making between "lead guitarists" and "rhythm guitarists".

In reality there's no such thing.


I completey agree with you Steven. There is no need for artificially labelling people as one type of guitarist or another.

However, to clarify any misunderstanding, my post above is not refering to people, but rather to musical roles within a composition - playing solos (Lead Guitar) versus playing chords (Rhythm Guitar).

and when I say "Many Lead Guitarists.." I mean "Many Guitarists who happen to be playing Lead..."


Cheers!

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Old 01-11-2013, 05:40 PM   #9
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Old 01-11-2013, 06:34 PM   #10
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Originally Posted by steven seagull
t. However trying to force those labels onto the person playing the guitar smacks of elitism and is, frankly, a bit poncy.


poncy... nice haha
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