Leading Questions

Let’s examine the “mystique” of the lead guitarist. Chances are very likely that you took up the guitar with the fixed mental image of yourself playing soaring, blistering solos in front of hundreds of thousands (we really do build the biggest stadiums in our minds, don’t we?) of screaming, adoring, amazed fans. You’d play the fastest riffs, every note right in its place. Whole new generations of guitarists would crop up, hoping to be the next you.

But how do you reach this point? Players just starting out will hear leads and usually react in a typically paradoxical manner. They can’t wait to play like that but they’re afraid to try because they know there’s no way they will sound remotely like it. But even the greatest of lead players have to start somewhere. Don’t they?

Anyone who has ever played with me will be happy to report that I am no lead guitarist. Don’t get me wrong, when given my chance to do a solo I can usually hold my own, unless I try to do something I know my fingers can’t do, something really outrageous. But I usually don’t embarrass myself (at least not anymore – when I first started soloing, well, let’s just say it’s a good thing to play with friends who are willing to overlook things) and that’s usually all I tend to worry about when given a chance to solo.

Okay, it’s not the only thing about which I worry. As I’ve grown as a guitarist, I’ve learned a lot about leads and fills from all sorts of sources, hands-on and researched. What we’re going to do today is to go over how to start developing your skills as a soloist. We’ll examine things you should know and dispel some of the mystique that might keep you from even trying to attempt to “soar.” We’ll also construct a solo from scratch to show you not only how it’s done but also, more importantly, to show you how to start thinking about how it’s done.

I will warn you outright – my “methods” might strike a number of you who have been playing a while as a bit unorthodox. But if you remember that my basic philosophy is to get you to think about the “how” in order to accomplish the “what,” then I think you’ll see we’ll eventually wind up at pretty much the same place.

Before You Even Pick Up Your Guitar…

(“Don’t touch that dial…”)

There’s something that you may already know, but it’s very important to fix in your brain. The “solos” you hear on your CDs are NOT spontaneous, just off the top of one’s head creations that are laid down on disc (vinyl, tape, whatever) in one take. To think so is to put yourself into a huge disadvantage from the start. Most solos are the result of (gasp!) planning. The guitarists involved know how many measures are involved or what chord changes are taking place underneath the solo. The good lead guitarists will construct a solo, giving it the same qualities of a well-written song – a beginning, a middle and an end as well as points of dynamic tension and release. Of all the guitarists I know there is maybe one or two who are capable of a quality lead at the drop of a hat. Don’t get me wrong, there are a zillion who can improvise a spur of the moment solo (usually based on scales) that will sound great and, more often than not, fit the mood of the song. With a fair degree of practice and a backlog of riffs, just about anybody can do this. I’m not kidding.

Leads generally fall into one of the following categories: “rhythmic,” “melodic,” “slashing” and “effects.” They’re pretty self-explanatory. And they can overlap – you can have “rhythmic/melodic” or “melodic/effects” and so on. A rhythmic lead usually is a rhythm guitar part brought to the fore. The start of the solo in Proud Mary is a great example of this. The second half of that solo is a melodic lead.

The difference between a melodic and a slashing lead is can be best seen (okay, heard) in the two solos in the Pink Floyd classic, Comfortably Numb. The first solo, between the verses, is truly gorgeous (and the solo on Mother from the same album would fit this description as well). The “melody” carefully follows the chord changes. You really can “sing” it, if you wanted to. The lead at the end of Comfortably Numb is more harsh – full of jarring runs of blues and rock riffs strung together. It’s the sort of thing that makes you drop everything and grab your air guitar off its air guitar stand and play along. Slashing leads are more concerned with scales and flashy guitar “tricks” which could include anything from a simple bend to a complex series of tapping. A melodic solo will follow the path laid out by the chords of the song; the slashing solo will say, “Here’s my scale!” and stick to that, letting the chords of the song fall where they will.

An effects lead is precisely that, a solo built out of an effect or multiple effects. Usually, an effects lead is combined with a melodic or slashing lead but it can stand on its own. One of the inherent problems of an effects lead is that it relies solely on the electronics to accomplish its task This is why some bands sound so much different live on stage than they do on record. Innovations in effects are rapidly changing this, however.

For the beginner, the melodic lead is the best place to start. Way too often guitarists learn to solo simply by copying other solos. You learn various riffs and “tricks” and then string them together in the appropriate key. This is a tried and tested method and while it will get you off to a fast start, it will not make you a good soloist. It will make you a good imitator. If you start out with discovering and developing your own style, it is easier to adapt other guitarists’ styles to fit yours. I’m not saying don’t learn solos note for note (more on that later), just wait a little and give yourself a chance first. Become someone else later if you want to.

Another good thing about melodic leads is that, again due to the nature of the solo, they can be studied and learned on any guitar, whether electric, acoustic or classical. Never con yourself into thinking that “solo” automatically implies “electric guitar.” Any song arranger or soloist worth his or her salt will explore not only different types of instrumentation when constructing a lead, but also the ever-growing array of devices through which to play them.

Starting Out Nice And Easy

(“…we never do anything nice and easy…”)

Most of you have heard of the three “r’s” of education. For the beginning soloist, appropriately enough, there are three “s’s:” short, slow and simple. I also like to add “singable” to that list. Anyway, just as in all our other studies, our object is to start out with things that we can handle and then branch out to more and more difficult problems.

I prefer to work with actual songs but you can also work out solos off of chord progressions. If you decide to use a song, pick something that you know pretty well. It will help immensely if it is slow or moderately paced and it helps even more if it doesn’t have a lot of chord changes. I also find that it helps to choose a song that doesn’t already have a “famous” solo because I don’t want to have that in the back of my head when I’m trying to come up with something myself. I also don’t want to start with something very long – four to sixteen measures tops. When I get good at this I may never have enough time for a solo, but for right now half a verse, a verse or a chorus is more than enough.

So now I take up my guitar and I make a recording of my song. Nothing flamboyant, you understand. Just me playing, singing, whatever on a cheap cassette – making certain that I’ve got a good steady rhythm guitar part where I intend to solo. I may put on a number of songs on one tape so that I have a few things to work on. And, thinking about it first, I will definitely begin the tape by simply playing the open strings one at a time so I have something to be in tune with (it pays off to think of these things in advance). Instead of songs, you can also lay out a tape of chord progressions. Again, I encourage you to keep it short and simple to start with. Also make sure you have a definite pattern. Songs follow patterns; therefore, leads should as well.

Okay, if you’re with me up to this point, then you’ll understand that I have to switch to a concrete example. It’s all fine and dandy to speak in generalities up to a point but I think that you’ll get a lot more out of things if we have something specific to examine. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll pick Dylan’s Knocking On Heaven’s Door. It fits the “s” criteria – short slow and simple. A single verse is eight measures. Tempo is moderately slow. Chords are as follows:

Knocking on Heaven's Door chords

Repeat this sequence of four measures twice and you’ve got a verse. Definitely qualifies as simple. Without meaning to, I’ve actually tipped my hand to the next step. I need to do a quick analysis of the chord structure over which I’ll be soloing.

As you can see, these are all standard chords in the key of G (which is the key of the song):

Chords in the key of G

No surprises here – it’s almost as if someone planned it that way! The reason for going over this is to see which notes will work and which will not. In other words, I’m figuring out which scale or scales I’ll use. And that’s all we’re going to say about this topic for now…

Absorbing The Atmosphere

(“Breathe…breathe the air…”)

Okay, maybe we’ll talk about scales just a bit…

The principle reason I tell people not to start out with scales and riffs is very simple – it takes away from thinking about what you’re doing. Many fledgling guitarists learn their scales and learn standard riffs (or “tricks” if you prefer) and then are left to simply plug them into a song. Little thought is given as to why a particular scale works and even less thought is given to the mood or the atmosphere of a song, it’s just “Hey, I know this lick and I’m sure I can jam it in here somewhere.” This is nowhere more evident than when people get together to jam, especially when the particular song being played is not well known by the players involved. If you listen carefully, almost all guitarists have “fallback riffs,” a pattern (or patterns) that they will use when called upon to solo on a relatively unfamiliar piece. This is why, believe it or not, it is more important for the lead guitarist to have a bigger repertoire of songs and song styles than the rhythm guitarist. I knew one guy in school who could play “metal” riffs to perfection. I still don’t know anyone else who was as fast on the fret board as he was (and probably still is). But that was all he could play. Even simple blues songs left him completely at a loss for an appropriate lead.

If you walk away from this column with only one thing, this is what you need to know: THE SONG DICTATES THE SOLO. This is what eventually separates the “soloist” from the “lead player.” Yes it will be important to learn scales and different riffs and tricks but all of that will be useless if you are incapable of hearing, imagining and understanding the difference between a lead that enhances a song and one that completely derails the song. This is why the melodic leads is an ideal tool for the beginner – to – intermediate soloist. The very process of coming up with it will ensure its appropriateness to the song.

Going back to Knocking On Heaven’s Door, I’ve decided some things: first, I’m going to put the solo in at a traditional point in the song – between the first chorus and the second verse (there are only two verses). Second, eight measures – the length of one verse will be long enough for me. Finally, I want to do something based on the melody line, which in the original recording is also “echoed” by the humming in the intro as well as at the end of the song. By using the melody taken straight from the song I am assuring myself the easiest way I know how of maintaining the mood. It’s like taking a shoot from a plant and putting it into a second, smaller pot. After listening to the recording and singing it myself a few times, I’ve figured it out:

First motif

I’ve also found that I cannot get out of my head another melody line that a friend of mine used to do when he played this song (he told me he took it from a live Clapton version of the song):

Second motif

So what I’ve now decided to do is to throw the two snippets of melody (these are called motifs) together. I will do motif 1 (the “humming” line) twice followed by motif 2 (the “Clapton” line) also played twice. That will give me eight measures and bring me right into the second verse.

And this is as good a place as any to bring up another important topic. While we’re discussing the atmosphere and mood of the song it is also good to have an idea of how the lead is going to be played. Leads for single guitarists (no band, no back up) require a great deal of thought and attention. Not only do you have the integrity of the atmosphere to maintain, you also must deal with the integrity of the overall sound. Switching from rhythm to lead dramatically changes the dynamics of your performance so special care must be given to the planning of your leads. We will cover this sometime later (late summer/early fall at this rate…). For now, though, I’m working with the simplest plan – that I will be playing an acoustic guitar (no tone settings to worry myself with). Usually I will be playing with at least one other guitarist and, if not singing lead, I will be singing harmony on the first chorus. This does not leave me a lot of free time to swing into the lead. Also, I normally would be playing rhythm and singing on the second verse so I want to try to make my solo segue smoothly into the strumming pattern of verse two. Well, so much for a total lack of complications!

Hearing What Isn’t There

(Space and Negative Space)

Starting as simply as possible, I string together my two groups of moitfs into an eight measure “first draft” (which, hopefully, will become my solo):

First draft part 1
First draft part 2

Now that sounds incredibly plain, doesn’t it? Well, this is where I need to use my brains, heart and nerve all at the same time. You’ve probably all heard professional athletes or motivational speakers talk about how important it is to “visualize” things. The theory being is that if you can see it in your mind, then you can somehow (through sheer willpower, talent and, occasionally a small donation to the proper powers that be) do what you see yourself doing in your mind. Make that perfect golf shot. Sell seven hundred percent over your quota. Get a four instead of a queen from the dealer when you’re sitting on seventeen. Whatever.

Music is one of the few places where “visualization” can truly work. Maybe “audiolization” is a better word (even though, of course, my computer will red line it every time I use it…). If you can hear what you want to do in your head, you should be able to produce it on your guitar. Don’t be discouraged if your hands haven’t caught up with your head yet. Your skills will eventually allow this to happen, but if you cannot hear what you want to do in the first place, it becomes a moot point. And that’s okay, too. Not everybody even wants to solo but certainly there is enough going on musically to allow the chance to whoever wants to.

When I listen to music, it’s almost always in terms of harmonies. Yes, I’m one of those often annoying people who can’t be content to simply sing along with the song, I have to create my own part. So in my head I hear harmony lines along with those motifs. And since they are already fairly slow, I can play them myself instead of counting on a second guitar to do it. One problem, though, is that when I use a harmony line on the first motif, I really can’t distinguish it from my normal first position strum. So instead I move the whole motif up an octave and, to flesh it out, I add more harmony parts to it. In essence, I am using chords, albeit a different chord voicing from my first set of chords. I’ve gone and turned the melodic lead into a melodic/rhythmic hybrid.

Here’s what we’ve got now:

Second draft part 1
Second draft part 2a

I’m not satisfied with this. While it’s a big improvement over the first one, it still feels, I don’t know, stagnant. It doesn’t “breathe;” rather, it’s like it’s inhaling all the time. I really like the first two measures and the last two but I’m not sure how to connect them. Since the first motif is now an octave higher than the second motif, I have an inspiration – why not play the second motif an octave higher the first time and then play it the second time where I have it now? The brain agrees with the nerve. Logically I would be making two descending patterns, one flowing straight into the other. I give it a try and find that I’m really pleased with this:

Third draft part 1
Third draft part 2

However, I’m still not happy with the transition from the first motif to the second. It’s definitely better having the first part of the second motif up an octave. The flow of the notes is much smoother but it still doesn’t feel right. So I wrack my brain a little more and think, “You know, this fingering is just a D chord on the seventh fret instead of the fifth. I know a lot of D chord flourishes. That could work.” So I play around with different things, hammering on here, picking off there, just like I would if I was playing a regular D. I also toy around with arpeggiating the chords, making them fit somewhat more with the general rhythm. But I also make sure to let the initial strum ring out as long as it can. This “holding on” to the chord while picking out the arpeggios creates a bit of depth. It sounds like there’s a solo lurking under the chords that pops its head out every now and then. And after a bit of trial and a lot of error, I settle on this:

Fourth draft part 1
Fourth draft part 2
Fourth draft part 3

I’m getting really close now. This little flurry of notes is not too busy and, best yet, it leads me directly into the recently raised up an octave second motif. It also inspires me to try to come up with a “lead in” from the first half of motif 2 (the one up an octave) to the second half and then another lead in from the finish of motif 2 to the G chord to start out the second verse.

But I have to be careful here. I’ve established a nice pattern. Everything is not all rushed together in a torrent of notes. Currently, there is tension and resolution and it almost is an antithesis of the song itself. Where the song would have a vocal line and then some breathing room, I have some slower two and three note clusters held together by a short burst of flourishes. Any of you who have taken any introductory art classes will probably be familiar with the concept of “negative space.” What we’ve done with this lead is essentially a musical equivalent of that. Using some simple hammer-ons and pick-offs, let’s put the finishing touches on our solo, shall we?

Solo part 1
Solo part 2
Solo part 3
Solo part 4

You can hear that this lead certainly keeps the mood of the song intact. There is a nice balance of “melody” and “busy-ness,” but not so much “busy-ness” that it attracts all the attention to itself. The final flourish brings me right back to the G chord without missing a step. All in all, this lead sounds and feels like an organic part of the song. No, it’s not the flashiest solo you’ve ever heard (or that I’ve ever done), but (a) it’s not a rowdy song and (b) I’m not a flashy guitarist. Which brings us to:

Playing To Your Strengths

Depending on your personality, you will either be saying to yourself, “Wow, this was cool! I’m going to try use this technique on (whatever song I like)…” or “Geez, what’s the big deal? I could do that in my sleep!” But what I’m actually hoping for is a combination of the two. A solo doesn’t have to be the most flamboyant thing. Not all of us (myself included) are gifted with a brain that is capable of analyzing a chord pattern and then sorting through its catalogue of borrowed riffs, selecting one that will work, transposing it to the correct key, and changing it to a rhythmic pattern that will fill the alloted lead space without sounding like it’s been jammed in there by someone who really could care less and then shipping all this information down to the hands (which of course are the world’s fastest hands, which never, ever, make a mistake!) and doing all this in the space of a heartbeat. But we are all capable of thinking things through. There is a big difference between soloing and improvising. And I hope that I’ve been able to make this, if not clearer to you, than at least a little less daunting. Over the course of the upcoming summer, we’ll be looking at some of the “tricks” and riffs that you can use to flesh out your soloing notebook. Many of these can be used to serve as rhythm guitar fills as well (and I bet you thought I’d forgotten!).

And it really should go without saying that more you work on constructing leads (or simply analyzing the construction of leads), coupled with your knowledge of song structures and scales, the easier improvising will come to you. And real improvisation, not just sticking in “riff A” because it’s a rock/blues song in the key of whatever.

But it’s vital that you realize there is more to soloing than speed and scales. Just as there is so much more to playing than simply knowing the chords and how to strum. Concentrate on whatever appeals to you most but at least try to familiarize yourself with all the aspects of the art of playing. And it is an art. As I’ve told you from day one, the surest way to regret ever taking up the instrument is to forget why you took it up in the first place. Playing the guitar will always be a challenge and an adventure as long as you keep finding ways to grow.

When it comes to soloing, you have to be true to yourself. While I will never be mistaken for lightning, I have it within me for a burst or two to take me to the next melodic line. And I am terrific with melodies and harmony lines. You need to find out what strengths you have and play accordingly. This is how you get a style that is unique. Learn other people’s riffs in order to incorporate the techniques used and then come up with ways to use them that fit your style. This may sound incredibly pompous, but we’ve already got a Jimmy Page and a Steve Vai and whoever. I love listening to them all but I’ll always more excited at the prospect of who’s coming next. Maybe it’s you.

And, as always, please feel free to write me with your questions, comments, concerns, ideas for upcoming topics or simply to say how things are coming in your niche of the guitar world. You can email me directly at [email protected] or drop a line on the Guitar Forums. Those of you who are into songwriting should definitely check out A-J Charron’s latest articles (and yes, I joined the Guitar Noise Writing Club).

I’d also like to especially thank all of you who wrote me about the last column. I really had no idea that so many of you would respond to it and I am incredibly overwhelmed with your emails. If I haven’t gotten a line off to you yet, it’s simply because I had to take the time to write this!

Until the next update!