Picture in Dorian Gray

Okay, you’re jamming with some people, having a grand old time and suddenly someone shouts out, “Take a lead!” and you realize that everyone is looking at you! Now that can really put a shock to your system, eh? Oh my God, what key are we in? Which scales will work for this? Panic takes over and you frantically shake your head yes or no (you don’t know which) so maybe you’ll play and maybe you won’t.

That scenario is, of course, fictitious – it could never ever happen, right?

And if I’ve been telling you that a good solo is the result of planning, how do you plan for the spontaneous, spur of the moment solo? Oh, you’re going to hate me, but the answer is that you plan for it.

This is why lead guitarists must practice a lot in order to get fairly good at what they do. You not only need to compile quite a catalogue of riffs, you’ve also got to know how to play them in various keys, modes, tempos and styles. This is also why lead guitarists tend to be proficient in one particular style. It’s rare to find someone who has taken the time and energy to play good, interesting leads in several musical genres. Even our favorite lead guitarists are often one or two-dimensional (whether we’ll admit it or not is another thing). But that’s okay. It’s tough enough being a virtuoso in one given field.

Today we’ll go over how to “plan” for spontaneous leads and use another specific song (and don’t worry, it’s not Knocking On Heaven’s Door this time!) in order to illustrate how to think these things through. I guess we’ll need a disclaimer, too:

These files are the author’s own work and represents his interpretation of the song. It is intended solely for private study, scholarship or research.

I think I’ve already told you that when it comes to lead playing I rank right up there with Roger Daltry (yes, you read that correctly). And the stuff I’m going to go over with you is pretty basic; it’s designed to simply get you over your initial bout of nerves and to get started. It’s supposed to be about having fun and not having anxiety attacks. Remember, it’s not that hard to not embarrass yourself if that’s all you’re worried about. There are a couple of guidelines to remember:

  • Know your major and (relative) minor keys – this is important in order to determine which scales to use as foundations for your leads.
  • Know your basic major and minor scales (and learn a few extra ones) – this is how you learn where on the fretboard to play your leads.
  • Know some basic riffs – and be sure to learn how to play them in any key in which you might happen to find yourself playing.
  • Stay within your strengths – keep things short and simple. Usually the longer a solo the faster it loses its power and momentum (and often your audience as well).

We’re going to work on the Jefferson Airplane classic Somebody to Love. I’ve chosen this for a couple of reasons, the first being that I think that virtually everyone knows it. The others should become apparent as we move along.

The Simplest Scale

How do you know what key a song is in? If you have the music, then you just check the key signature (the number of sharps or flats (if any) on the staff). You can read about this in Jimmy Hudson’s article Key Changes.

If you don’t have the music, you can still pretty much figure out what key something is in. We covered this earlier this year. But don’t forget the easiest way – ask. Sometimes when I’m playing with new people and someone suggests doing a certain song I forget that he or she may have learned the song in a different key than I did. So you can imagine what it sounds like when I start in A major and the other guitarist starts in C.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that we’re going to play a song in the key of G. Well, we already know the make up of the G major scale from our exhaustive (and seemingly endless) study of Knocking On Heaven’s Door. In case you’ve forgotten, here it is again:

G major scale

Now let’s make an intuitive leap. Since E minor is the relative minor of G major, then this scale should work for songs in E minor as well. And it does – to a point. As long as the chords underneath your solo are also from the key of G major, then this will work. More on this later..

The thing that you should note and remember is that you can shift this scale to fit your needs. It’s simply a matter of replacing the open strings (which we’ll designate as point “0”) with the fret of the relative minor (or actual minor) of the key of the song. Say you’re playing a song in C major. The relative minor of C major is A minor. A is the note on the fifth fret of the E string. So we shift all of our fingering up to the fifth fret (which replaces the open fret as “0”). So you’re a minor/C major scale is as follows:

C major scale

Suppose, for reasons known only to yourself, you are playing a song in Db minor. Again, you know that Db is the ninth fret on the E string so that is where you’d anchor your scale:

Db minor scale

By keeping the notes you need close at hand, you don’t have to go flying all over the fretboard. This gives you one less thing to worry about when you’re soloing. And if you practice your riffs at each fret (using each fret as a new 0), you’ll be able to play in any key.

You don’t need me to tell you that this is not the only scale you’ll find on your fretboard, do you? It is simply the easiest one to learn and as such will get you going a bit quicker. Okay, now that you’ve got a scale, just what are you supposed to do with it?

Compiling A Portfolio

Did you ever notice how sometimes you are able to tell that a certain guitarist is playing even when you’d never heard a particular song before? Often this is due to the fact that many guitarists rarely change their styles. It may be a certain tone or use of effects but usually it’s a certain riff or group of riffs. As I’ve told you, people tend to fall into patterns when they play. And these patterns are simply riffs that they’ve accumulated over the years.

Where do these riffs come from? Well, as Martin Mull once put it, “It’s just licks off of records that I learn.” You can figure things out from songs and artists you really like. Lord knows that there’s zillions of riffs to be had at the various sites linked to Guitar Noise’s Guitar Lesson pages. And there’s always the people with whom you play.

So let’s pick a riff. Here’s a standard blues riff used by so many guitarists that we could devote the rest of our natural lives to listing them:

Standard blues riff

If you find this hard to play then remember to approach it the way we’ve been trying to approach just about everything from day one – break it up into smaller pieces and take it as slowly as necessary. Start with just the unison bend at the beginning of the riff. Then add the next phrase and finally the last one (including the ending unison bend). Now put it all together. That wasn’t too hard, was it?

And learning it that way will also help you with the next step. Now that you can play this riff, try it out in another key. Then change the tempo around. The object is to play with it. Music is fairly elastic and by speeding this part up or stressing that particular note you can dramatically alter the riff. Don’t believe me? Well, here it is again:

Riff 2

Yes, that’s essentially the same riff. Starting out, anyway. I’ve changed the key and added a few variations to it but it is all based on the initial riff. Sounds more like Mark Knopfler when it’s speeded up, doesn’t it? This riff is pretty close to one of the fills he uses in Sultans Of Swing. Amazing, isn’t it? Amazingly simple, too.

The real objective, though, is not to just know a lot of riffs (in different keys or at different tempos). The ultimate goal is to get so used to what different riffs sound like that you are able to “visualize” your lead in your head. You hear what will work and you play it effortlessly because you know exactly what goes into the lead in your head. This is not something that will happen overnight (or after several hundreds of nights), but with a lot of practice it does happen. And again, the more riffs you familiarize yourself with the more you’ll be able to hear in your head and translate into your playing.

And if you learn nothing else from this today, please take that last paragraph to heart. If you don’t take the time to listen to what you learn and see how it fits (or doesn’t fit) with the various chord progressions you’ll just be endlessly and aimlessly stringing your riffs together with no rhyme or reason. Take the time while you’re playing around with things to hear what the notes are, where they come from and where they can lead to. You can know every single guitar riff ever done, you can come up with some terrific ones on your own, but if you can’t hear how they might piece together in a song it won’t matter in the least.

Being True To Yourself

It’s a lot easier to play leads (or just play in general) when you’re relaxed. And it’s easiest to be relaxed when you’re playing something that you’re comfortable with. This is also why people spend hours practicing their riffs – to get comfortable with them.

As I’ve told you, I’m not a fast person. And I’m comfortable with that. I can bend fairly well and I tend to be more interested in melodies and harmonies so my leads reflect my guitar personality. Your leads will also develop a personality of their own if you concern yourself more with overall sound and less with copying things exactly.

So, onward with Somebody To Love. If you’re not familiar with the song, here’s the basic layout:

Somebody To Love layout

Now, on first glance, I would say that this song is in E minor. And technically, it is. But looking at our E minor natural scale, I foresee some problems. How about you?

E minor natural scale

Right, the A major chord contains a C# as the third and there’s no C# to be found in this scale. In fact, we know that the A major chord is not naturally a part of the G major/E minor scale. So now we have to rethink things a bit. If this scale has two sharps in it (F# and C#) instead of one (F#), it would really be in the key of D. The relative minor of D major is B minor. But I don’t want to play in D or B minor because the songs is firmly and obviously rooted in E minor.

So I think about my scales and I realize (having read my previous column Scales Within Scales as well as Jimmy Hudson’s Modal Thinking) that an E Dorian scale should work. Let’s see:

E dorian scale

You see that it’s a small difference but one that makes quite a difference when you play it. The C# in this scale will allow me to play my lead over the alternating Em and A major chords without sounding dreadful. And since the song has no C major (or A minor or F or anything with a C note in it for that matter) chords in it, I don’t have any other worries about sticking with this scale. Let’s plot it out on the fretboard, shall we? And for reasons we’ll touch on in a bit, I’m taking in the three frets below and above our “0” fret (which here is the twelfth):

Scale layout

Okay, on to the solo itself. I should let you know that up until last weekend (May 20th), I had never played a lead to this song. Oh, I’ve played the song itself more times than I can count but I’d usually pass on taking a lead. So what you’re getting here is something that I threw together in three tries at it. I recorded what I did and this is more or less a cleaned up transcription of the third try. The point of this, after all, was to be spontaneous.

Somebody To Love solo part 1
Somebody To Love solo part 2
Somebody To Love solo part 3
Somebody To Love solo part 4
Somebody To Love solo part 5
Somebody To Love solo part 6

And if you play this you’ll hear that it is a fairly simple lead. It consists of a single verse and chorus. I lead in to the verse with a simple use of the scale below the twelfth fret and go into the first of two motifs that give a bit of cohesion to the solo. It’s nothing even remotely complicated On the verse portion of the solo I just use a quarter note/half note rhythmic pattern whenever I’m on the E minors and exert most of my energy on the A major measures. Those of you who are into such things can note that this (again, like my solo on Knocking On Heaven’s Door in Tricks of the Trade) is almost “anti-vocal,” if you will. In the actual song most of the singing n the verse is done over the E minor while notes are held over the A. That’s just part of my style.

In the first measure of the second line I use a technique that I’ve copped from David Gilmour’s solo at the end of Have A Cigar that I really like and always thought would fit into a song like this. Then in the third measure of the same line I’ve managed to throw in a variation of that blues riff we looked at earlier. Nothing like overkill, right? Before the final E minor of the verse I use the hammer-on/pick-off routine that I used on Knocking On Heaven’s Door but of course it’s now an octave higher than we played it then.

I lead into the chorus portion of the solo with a slight variation of the first scale, again an octave higher than where we started. In this section I get more melodic, not truly copying the actual melody but certainly bringing it to mind. This is my second motif and, like the first, it is more a motif of rhythm than notes. Each place where someone would be singing “somebody to love” I get progressively higher on the scale in order to build a climax into the solo.

On the first E minor measure of the chorus (3rd measure of the 4th line) I use artificial harmonics (designated A.H.) in order to put a bit more punch into the proceedings.

The only “tricky” part of this lead comes at the end of the first measure of the last line. I really wasn’t sure of how to notate this (and MusEdit, while being a fine software, cannot read my mind), so please bear with a bit of an explanation. Basically it’s a two-string bend, but while I bend the G string a whole step I bend the B string only a half step (I told you I’m good at bending). This is not as difficult as you might think, but you really have to be able to hear what you’re doing. These are the actual notes you’re shooting for:

Actual notes

I finish the whole thing off with a slower double string variation of the hammer-on/pick-off similar to the one I used to close off the verse portion of the lead. You may wonder how I developed this habit of soloing in motifs and variations and I’m afraid I can’t really explain it. It probably has something to do with my songwriting – I guess I just carry over the different techniques I use in my writing into my playing.

Again I cannot stress enough that it is practice and the familiarization of scales and riffs that will allow you to come up with the spur of the moment solo. And if you couple this technique with the construction of the solo which we discussed a few columns ago (as well as with the various tricks that we’ve covered (or will cover)) you should be able to not only overcome any jitters you might have of ever taking a lead but also come up with consistently interesting leads on your own. Always remember that the more you absorb, from any source, the more ideas and influences you will have at your disposal. Maybe not everybody can be the greatest lead guitarist, but everyone is capable of shining in one way or another. Play to your strengths, work on the stuff that gives you trouble and, above all, soak in as many outside influences as you can.

As always, please feel free to email me with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to have discussed. Or just to say “hi” and let me know what’s going on in your corner of the music world. You can either email me directly at [email protected] or drop a note at the Guitar Forums.

Until next time..