Five Pieces Of Advice To Help You Improve Your Lead Guitar Playing

A third attempt at submitting this article, sorry for any inconvenience. It gives advice to intermediate/beginner guitarists on how to improve their lead guitar playing. I've kept accidentally hitting the "Submit Article" button prematurely which I think should have a confirmation step afterwards to avoid similar problems in future.

Ultimate Guitar

This article has been written to help intermediate and beginner guitarists improve their lead guitar playing skills in a number of ways. It has been split into 5 different sections that each focus on a slightly different aspect of lead guitar playing.

Part 1 - Creating distinctive licks

There are plenty of classic pentatonic licks out there that all guitarists get familiar with. Many of them make particular use of string bending to get from one note to the next in the scale. The lick below is one such example:

While these licks are great, what really makes a lead guitarist stand out is the ability to throw in some more unusual licks of their own. The simplest way of going about this is to choose a lick you are familiar with, and analyse it and see what makes it distinctive. In the case of the lick above, its crucial property are the string bends that take you from one note to the next. Taking this and putting it into another lick can be particularly effective.
The two licks shown above illustrate this. The one on the left is a pretty basic lick that uses a few notes from the B minor scale. On the right is the same lick that uses the string bending idea mentioned above in a slightly different context. Play around with this idea of taking one lick and transferring its crucial element into another. The only thing that limits what you can come up with is your creativity, and that will improve with experience.

Experiment with:

String bends - tend to create tension in a lick

Sliding up the fret board - for a quirky, lively sound

Double stops - for a more exciting sound

In short: be inventive with the licks you play to stand out with your lead guitar playing. Don't just learn licks and play them over and over; mix and match them to create your own unique "Frankenlicks".

Part 2 - Mastering Tapping

Most people are probably familiar with the basic idea of tapping, and most are able to get the hang of basic single string licks with a bit of practice. However, many guitarists don't use tapping to its full potential, partly because the step up from single string licks to multi-string licks is a large one in terms of technical difficulty.

The biggest challenge is preventing the other strings ringing out when you don't want them to. This is something that can be overcome with a bit of practice, as long as you start off with a simple enough lick to get you going.

     t      t      t      t
The lick above is a good one to begin with. Hammer onto the next string with your fretting hand, and use the underside of your finger to mute the string above it. Practice as slow as you need to at first, and gradually build up the speed.

Another reason people don't make the most of tapping is they don't integrate other playing techniques with it. Sliding up and down the fret board with your tapping finger can add an interesting sound to your tapping lick, as can bending strings with either hand.

Try out the following exercises to see what I mean:

   t           t         t
                    ^ here, use your tapping finger to carry out the slide
                      quickly, before pulling off to the 10th fret as if 
                      nothing had happened. Try finishing with a screaming
                      bend on the 10th fret on the B string.
   t                 t
This lick works well when repeated at high speed. The bend here is carried out using the fretting hand (i.e, the left hand for right handed guitarists)
          t    t    t
Here, you should hold the bend with your fretting hand and tap on the bent string with your tapping hand. Instead of tapping on 12-14-15, experiment with other patterns.
    t       t        t
This is an interesting exercise since all the string bends are done with the tapping finger. It may also be useful to use your fretting hand to provide extra strength when bending the strings. The only note sounded by the fretting hand is the very last one.

In short: Tapping is a very versatile skill that gives your playing that extra degree of freedom and fluidity. It's definitely worth practicing the more technically demanding side of tapping as it is something ordinary players tend to overlook.

Part 3 - Improving speed

Let's face it, speedy guitar playing is pretty impressive and when done properly, it also sounds great in a solo.

The trouble most guitarists have when beginning is they watch a few Yngwie Malmsteen videos, think "heck, I can do that one day!" and spend the next few days noisely thrashing away at their guitar frustratedly. After a few days of trying, they give up on becoming a shred-god and go off and learn some easier stuff(Blink-182 covers and the like) for some instant satisfaction. They then feel the need to write crap about Malmsteen's playing on Youtube to make themselves feel better. Yeah right. If you'd never considered shred guitar, you wouldn't be searching for Yngwie Malmsteen videos on Youtube. I'm not the world's biggest Malmsteen fan, but come on, you didn't expect to learn that sort of thing overnight, did you?

Anyone who wants to play fast needs to accept it will take many months if not years until they make substantial progress. There are a few exercises here that will help get you started if you want to get into playing faster, and there are some excellent articles on UG by other users on the same subject and they go into more detail on stuff like legato and alternate picking etc.

Here, either obey the hammer-on/pull-off symbols (legato) or pick each note indivually, picking up-down-up etc. (alternate picking). Play it regularly (perhaps 5 minutes non-stop everyday) until you suddenly surprise yourself at how fast you can pull it off (be that 6 weeks or 6 months later).

The next two licks are identical in sound, but I find the second one easier to play since it requires less needing to change the shape of my hand, and can also be played in a smoother, more flowing style.

D|-------2h4h5------4h5h7------5h7h9-----|     <-- I prefer this one
My biggest piece of advice here is that you learn your scales and how to play the same notes in different places on the fretboard. Then look at your scales written over 6 strings and work them out so the same thing is played on fewer strings. Go slowly and work your way up to becoming a faster player.

In short: Becoming a fast guitarist doesn't happen in days or weeks - it requires a lot of practice and patience. When practicing or learning a fast piece, consider all the ways in which it can be played on the fretboard, and if possible, find a way of playing it which comes most naturally to you.

Part 4 - Writing lead guitar parts

I have written an article on this (already). In it, I compare the structure of a solo to that of a story, and give some more advice on lead guitar playing.

One thing I would like to add is to suggest finding an inspirational guitarist and really examine what it is they do when they play. I found that there were all the usual guitar heroes that everyone suggests (Slash, Kirk Hammet, Jimmy Page etc.) and although I enjoyed their music, I never really understood why people regarded them as "inspirational". It was when I discovered Van Halen that I realised that I had discovered my "guitar hero". I was given the official VH1 and VH2 tab book for Christmas, and I spent the next few weeks studying and dissecting the various solos in there, and incorporating what I found into my own playing.

I'd recommend you do the same when you discover a guitarist you genuinely find inspirational, not one who you feel you ought to find inspirational. Keep looking for them, they are out there! If you need any starters, try:

(Eddie Van Halen)

(George Lynch)

(Steve Lynch) (Kee Marcello)

In short: find yourself a guitar hero, and really pay attention to what they play and how they play it.

Part 5 - Performing

We've all been there. We want to play something we've been working on for a while (either to a friend, or family member, or a group of people hanging out in your school music class room), and suddenly we get all nervous and feel inferior. You start uttering things like "I'm bound to mess this up" and "I'm no good really" before you've started playing. When you do start playing, you hunch your shoulders and hide behind your hair.

STOP! That's not at all rock n'roll. It's normal enough to feel a bit of stagefright in even the smallest of perfomances. Tie your hair back with a big bandana and get rocking properly. That means putting on silly faces, swaying about with what you are playing and even getting on your knees and rolling on your back at the crazy climatic part of the solo. Act confident - become a momentary rockstar, and you will not only play more confidently, but also enjoy yourself a lot more. And if you don't play rock n' roll to enjoy yourself, you're not playing rock n' roll.

Sure, people may laugh, but it will distract them from any slip ups you might make. It will also make the experience more fun for them, and will be good preparation for when you play your first stadium on your world tour one day in the future.

In short: rock n' roll is supposed to be fun (yes, that's right. Not misery and angst. (fun).) As long as you have practiced your piece well enough to play it consitently over and over in your room or at band practices, you will have no reason to worry about performing, so just get on and enjoy it!

I hope this article has been of some use to people. Keep rockin' and rollin'!

-Redd Dymond

14 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Here's my 4 pieces of advice- 1.Learn to write a proper rhythm track first - if you don't write the right notes and drums to go along with the solo, the solo can deteriorate to pure crap. A good example of a good rhythm behind a solo is "Lack of Comprehension" by Death. Note how the drums start slow double bass half way in, adding to the intensity of the moment. 2.Learn about intensity, and what creates it - you always want the solo to BUILD in intensity. This could mean that the solo becomes more melodically intense or more rhythmically intense. A good example of this is the song "Soothsayer" by Buckethead. It builds and builds steady for about 6 minutes of solo, and it's beautiful. 3.Learn all sorts of techniques, and never tire one of them out - tapping is cool, but it can be overused, as can bends and everything. Learn how to make cool noise effects, how to use pedals to your advantage, and how to appropriately place harmonies and shredding and wah wah and tapping and bends, so that the solo doesn't feel repetitive or boring. A good example of this is ANY solo by Andy Larocque, but the best reference would be his solo on "Trapped in a Corner". 4.Learn how to play other people's solos by ear - this will help because you're learning notation that you may not be used to, in a form that you've created for yourself. In other words, being able to move about the neck is one difficult task for starting guitarists, and if you learn a song's solo by EAR, you're learning your OWN version of the song, so you're learning someone else's style while also DEFINING your own in the process.
    Insanity ninja
    MegaSteelMaiden wrote: These "advice" are all for newbs
    I'm not exactly a "newb" but I found this interesting. No matter how good you are, there's always something more to learn. Just because it's not helpful to you, doesn't mean it's not to somebody else. Rant over.
    Thanks. most of this I already knew, but the part about fun was kinda eye-opening
    Good article, but there are more musical, and more accessible, shredders than Malmsteen.
    True. Tony McAlpine's "Tears of Sahara" is as good as instrumental shred can be. Thanks for the feedback guys!
    Thanks! It's great! I've found an inspirational guitarist...though there are no tab books on him, and few tabs of their stuff on Ultimate Guitar. Working out by ear is so much harder. Someone has to do it though, I guess... But yeah, thanks
    You've basically stated the obvious, this "article" could have been written in just a few lines. Find your Influence. Play Faster. Master Technique. Play your own style. Perform it all confidently.
    My three pieces of advice: 1. Vibrato 2. Vibrato 3. VIBRATO! Work on it, spend months on perfecting it, and learn to control it. It't the critical factor to distinctive, interesting sound on every instrument, and guitar isn't an exception. Deal with it