How to Become a Great Lead Rock Guitarist

What's better: knowing 4,000 arpeggio patterns that can't be recalled quickly in a song or knowing 12 and playing them with the fullest level of conviction, phrasing, and rhythm?

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"Becoming a master is not about doing 4,000 things; it's about doing 12 things 4,000 times." -Chet Holmes

Very often, I work with students who simply want more stuff - another exercise, a new scale shape, a fresh arpeggio idea, more chords. And though these things are all valuable and beneficial to us as musicians, most of the time they are not necessary. If you've been playing guitar for any length of time, there's a good chance you already have notebooks full of ideas. You've probably learned bits and pieces of a lot of songs from Internet tabs or videos or your teacher. You likely own enough instructional books and videos that you will never be able to learn every example from them in this lifetime (I am certainly in that group). There's a good chance you already know everything you need to know. Now it's time to master it.

What's better: knowing 4,000 arpeggio patterns that can't be recalled quickly in a song or knowing 12 and playing them with the fullest level of conviction, phrasing, and rhythm? 

To answer that question, let's look to the publicly celebrated masters of guitar. I'm not talking about the guys who have achieved virtuoso levels of playing per se. I'm talking about the most famous, influential, and listened-to guitar players of the last 60 years. I'm talking about Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Angus Young, Carlos Santana - you know, the guys you see month after month, year after year on the covers of the guitar magazines. These are not even necessarily my favorite guitarists, but they are a handful of the most popular lead guitarists in rock music. I used to roll my eyes when someone would tell me how great Hendrix was, because all I could think was, Steve Vai can play way better than him! And technically speaking, yes, he can, but then I began to approach this matter from a more objective standpoint - rather than ask, "Who are my personal favorites?", I began asking, "Who are the favorites of the general public, and why?"

Once I got off my elitist-guitarist high horse, I began studying these classic players, and came to the very simple conclusion of, "These guys don't do a lot of things well, they do a few things really well!"

Let's take Jimmy Page, for example. Does he know all the Pentatonic boxes and each note by name? Maybe. Does he know the Harmonic Minor scale? Possibly. Can he play a Db9 arpeggio and apply it the Phrygian Dominant scale? Doubtful. But when you listen to his playing, all of a sudden the answer to those virtuoso-testing questions becomes, "Who cares?" So what is it, exactly, that does make him great if he doesn't know how to recite all this nerdy guitar jargon that I enjoy discussing and playing way more than I should? Staying true to Chet Holmes' famous quote, I've boiled it down to 12 simple things you likely already know but just need to do more:

1. Vibrato - I can't tell you how many players I know that can play a lot of notes, but they can't play one really good note.

2. Bending - Many players use bends. Few guitarist play them in tune.

3. Hammer-on's and Pull-off's - The note that is hammered to or pulled from should sound smooth and just as loud as any picked note.

4. Two Pentatonic Boxes - Memorize the first and fourth box of the Minor Pentatonic scale in every key.

5. Slides - Play them in rhythm and without losing any volume.

6. Picking - Learn how to pick well in some fashion. It could be alternate picking, economy picking, tremolo picking, sweep picking, or hybrid picking. It doesn't have to be all of them. Just pick one and master it. Many famous guitarists are not fast pickers, but they pick with conviction.

7. Rhythm - Too many players focus on lead without having mastered the art of rhythm playing. Those who have mastered rhythm playing have decided to forget that leads should have rhythm. It's not about just notes: make it groove!

8. Silence - Take a break every now and then. You don't have to fill every sixteenth-note space available.

9. Confidence - The difference between a good guitarist and a great guitarist is very often a matter of confidence. Hit those notes like you mean it!

10. Balance - Great guitarists balance loud passages with soft playing. They balance fast runs with slow, long-ringing notes.

11. Wear Your Influences on Your Sleeve - Learn a few licks from your favorite players, then overuse them. For instance, Satriani heard a single-string legato descent that Hendrix did maybe a few times during his career and inserted it into nearly everything he's ever done. Now it's considered a Satriani-style lick!

12. The Signature Move - Jeff Beck is a master of the whammy bar. Santana is a master of long-ringing notes with excellent vibrato. Eddie Van Halen is a master of two-hand tapping and speed picking. What is your signature move? Decide on it, then master it the way no one else ever has. 

A lot of this is really common sense. Of course we should learn how to use vibrato and bend in tune, but I also know a lot of overweight people who know more about nutrition than I do. I know plenty of atheists who know the Bible better than I do. I know people that are in debt but know a lot about savings and retirement. And I know a lot of guitar players who know far more than I do about playing guitar but can't actually play what they're talking about if you put them on a stage. It's not about how much you know, it's about using what you have to the fullest extent possible. 

About the Author:
Eric Bourassa owns and operates a music school in Fort Worth, TX, and plays regularly at City on a Hill Church and with his band, Eric Bourassa. His instrumental rock albums are available on iTunes and at his website, www.ericbourassa.com.

30 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Grey Dread
    "If you've been playing guitar for any length of time, there's a good chance you already have notebooks full of ideas. You've probably learned bits and pieces of a lot of songs from Internet tabs or videos or your teacher. You likely own enough instructional books and videos that you will never be able to learn every example from them in this lifetime (I am certainly in that group). There's a good chance you already know everything you need to know. Now it's time to master it." ~ Nope. None of this. I'd add something, though, and it is this: learn the E pentatonic minor scale in all five positions of the neck. It will enable you to master the fretboard.
    TheGroundZero
    This is really good general advice. It's nice to think about things like this rather than specific licks/scales/theory sometimes. It's always good to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
    dairylea
    Great article! It's always important, when trying to nail that live performance, to stick within your comfort zone! found that out the hard way!
    TomusAM
    This is probably one of my favorite lessons I've read here in a very long time. Looking forward to reading more of your stuff, man.
    latinromans
    I think real new creativity on how you use techniques, melody's, and rhythms is how you achieve influence among the next generation of musicians, I feel Tosin Abasi is going to be a real influence on the next generation of technical minded guitarist's.
    grungerocker90
    great article. getting good is hard work. but everyone gets there at their own pace. some learn faster, some slower, but eventually everyone gets better when there is determination, patience and perseverance.
    haifisch234
    This article is really good. Take a look on Gilmour, he plays like a couple of notes per minute, but does it with huge confidence and precise, and people love his playing. Nonetheless "guitar wankers" can be amazing either.
    Witt1975
    I think that confidence is a huge factor and the funny thing is, I didn't really realise it until it was mentioned. I know that may sound stupid but it's really important. I'm not the greatest guitarist out there, I'm not terrible either but having confidence about what you do is hugely important. It's something I need to work on to make me a better guitarist, and hopefully others will get the same thing from it. Great job on the article!
    Jacques Nel
    I agree with you on one thing, and that is that knowing a bunch of theory and actually being able to apply it in a manner that is actually enjoyable not only to yourself but your listener as well are two completely different things. It's no use knowing every scale and every technique and every chord but not being able to string them together to actually make up a cool song or riff. Many people enjoy listening to a simple riff that is properly executed rather than listening to 'skilled' shredding over the whole fret board. But, for your argument over what's necessary to become a great guitarist to actually be relevant, the goal of the player needs to be established. Does the player actually care about becoming a famous guitarist? Is popularity the goal? Or does the player actually just aim to be a properly skilled and diverse guitarist with a vast knowledge on applying the instrument? Some players actually just aim to be as good as they possibly can be and do not care about achieving fame or popularity.
    stevethepirate6
    true, all of the guitarists that are known by everybody are jimmy page, jimi hendrix, eric clapton, angus young, brian may etc.... you get the point, theres no point fret wanking if nobody will appreciate it.
    Vatussi
    My signature move will be sweeping like a tripping janitor with ad/hd.
    Nero Galon
    I'm totally gonna be better than Pete Townshend at smashing guitars.
    sklaiss24
    Townshend may be the best at smashing his guitar, but at Monterey Hendrix set his guitar on fire to outdo him and the Who.
    Ruark
    Reminds me of a quote from Jimmie Vaughan, who can shred like a monster (yeah, really, he can), but virtually never does: "It's not the notes you play that matter; it's the ones you don't play."