Becoming a great lead guitarist is a pretty difficult task. There are loads of different skills you need to be able to develop to get the most out of your playing. But if you’re serious about being a better guitarist, then you’ve come to the right place. Here are the top 6 things you need to work on to start improving today!
how to be a better lead guitarist
- Master your technique e.g. vibrato, string bending, hammer-ons, pull-offs, sweep picking.
- Learn the fret board including all the most frequently used scales.
- Learn to solo properly by taking your knowledge of the fret board and proper technique.
- Set targets to make sure you’re consistently improving your ability.
- Develop a practise routine to meet your targets faster.
- Record yourself playing so you can accurately track your progress.
1. Master your Technique
All the best lead guitarists have spent countless hours mastering proper technique. When playing solos and lead sections, it’s not always just about what you play, but how you play it.
There’s no point going through the motions playing certain notes and hoping to sound good. You need to be able to put emotion into your playing, and that can only come with proper technique.
So what do I mean by this? Well, there are several different techniques that are particularly important for lead guitarists, and being able to master them, will you set you apart from the amateurs. Of course, there are loads more techniques than the ones on this list, but in my opinion, these are the most important. Now let’s go through them individually.
Hammer Ons and Pull Offs
This is one of those techniques that most guitarists know how to do already, but a lot fewer have really mastered the art.
Hammering on, is when you hold down a fret and then press down on a higher fret with another finger. It makes the higher note ring out, but without having the pluck the string.
Pull offs are the reverse of this. They happen when you are fretting at two positions on a string. You can pull offs by releasing the fret that’s higher up on the fretboard. This causes the lower note to ring out without plucking the string.
It doesn’t matter which fingers you use. You can use your little finger, index, ring or middle, and you can still execute this technique. And that’s where things start to get harder.
When you’re first practising, you may find it easier to hammer on and pull off using your index finger and either your middle or ring finger. Start by doing this slowly. You need the note to ring out clearly and as loud as possible. You do this by applying greater force and a faster action when hammering on and pulling off. You can then increase the speed, but make sure you don’t let the volume drop. If it does, slow down and then build back up again.
Once you’ve mastered this, you should then try it using your middle finger with your index or pinkie. Then you can try it with your ring and pinkie. This is where most players tend to struggle as your pinkie tends to be the slowest to react and hardest to apply pressure. But again, start slowly and build up without letting the volume drop and you’ll get there!
Another super important technique for lead guitarists, is bending the strings. This is really where you can put some emotion into your playing. Personally, I think it’s a great feeling when you manage to execute a flawless string bend, and although it’s not the flashiest of techniques, it sounds one of the best when soloing.
To bend a string you should use two or three fingers in most instances. For example, you can have your index finger on the 12th fret, and your ring finger on the 14th fret. You then, bend upwards with your ring finger. This will make it sound like a higher note, because you’re stretching the string and putting more tension on it.
To string bend properly, you need to know what note you want to bend it to. As the more you bend, the more the note will change. So practise bending the string different amounts, and learn how much this changes the note, so you know what the plan is every time you try it.
Make sure you always keep your notes in tune. One of the hardest parts about string bending, is knowing how much to bend. There’s a fine line between a note sounding in tune, and too sharp, when it’s bent. So really listen out for it. It will usually be pretty obvious though.
Vibrato is one of my favourite techniques to use when playing lead guitar. It’s what makes your electric guitar almost sound as if it’s singing, and it gives your performance a lot more complexity.
Vibrato is the term used to described the pitch changing. It’s a similar technique to string bending, and occurs when you move a string up and down, like making it wave.
There are two factors you can control when using this technique.
- The speed at which you move the string up and down
- The distance you move the string up and down
You can do this really quickly and aggressively, so the string moves wildly up and down. This is commonly seen with hard rock and metal solos. Or you can do it more subtly to give your playing a bit more depth.
A good tip hear, is to listen to your favourite guitarists. You’ll notice that they use vibrato quite a lot when playing lead sections. Try and imitate this technique when playing along.
This is a pretty hard technique to master, because you need to focus on both your left and right hand and get the timing perfectly. The best thing to do, is to start slowly, then build up speed. Once you feel more comfortable, then you can move around the fret board using this technique.
Be patient with this one though. It’s not as easy to master as bending and hammer ons and pull offs, but the results are worth it!
2. Learn the Fretboard
So it goes without saying, that technique isn’t everything, it also matters what you actually play. This is where lead guitarists have the hardest job. In order to be a creative lead guitarist, you need to know the fret board inside out.
Don’t panic, you don’t need to actually be able to read music to be able to do this, if you have a good ear. A lot of it is practise, and trying different things.
So where do you start?
Well, the best place to begin, is by learning scales. Scales are simply groups that provide the basis for a harmony. Put simply, they just sound good together. So you can use them to solo and work with.
All lead guitarists should be familiar with the most common scales, to be able to solo properly. So here are some that you should master.
- Minor pentatonic scale
- Major scale
- Blues scale
Scales can seem a little tedious at first, but if you stick with them, they’ll become your best friend and unlock the door to being able to properly play lead guitar.
tips for better scales
- Use them to warm up when you start practising. Play them for around 5-10 minutes every day and you’ll see a big difference in your speed and accuracy.
- Focus on rhythm and accuracy at first, rather than speed. It’s best to be consistent and build up speed, than to go really quick but sound sloppy.
- Practise with a metronome once you can play the scale slowly to help you build up your speed.
- Once you’ve mastered the full scale, try skipping strings out to make things more difficult.
- Make sure you play the scale on different positions on the fretboard, it’s all about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone!
3. Learn to Solo
Now you’ve got your technique down, and you know what to actually play, you can move onto the fun part, soloing! Every lead guitarist needs to be able to improvise and solo. So how do you actually learn to solo properly.
The best place to start, when it comes to soloing, is to copy other guitarists. By imitating both their technique, and the notes they play, you’ll be in a better position to actually make your own solos. Copying other guitarists will improve both your knowledge of the fret board, and the different techniques like bending, sweep picking etc.
Here are some great solos that you can try out when you’re learning to solo!
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
- Some Might Say by Oasis
- Come Together by The Beatles
- Holiday by Green Day
- Ruby by The Kaiser Chiefs
- Californication by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers
- Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns ‘n’ Roses
- Voodoo Child by Jimi Hendrix
- Don’t Stop Me Now by Queen
- Highway to Hell by AC/DC
- Johny B Goode by Chuck Berry
- Paranoid by Black Sabbath
- Livin’ On a Prayer by Bon Jovi
- Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
- Hotel California by Eagles
- One by Metallica
- Cliffs of Dover by Eric Johnson
- Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits
- Eruption by Van Halen
- Afterlife by Avenged Sevenfold
Play your own
If you feel pretty confident copying other solos, then you should start being creative and thinking of your own. Use your scales as a starting point, and add some flair by using different techniques like sweep picking and vibrato. Here are some tips for solo writing.
- Play using a backing track. You can find them on YouTube, simply search for a guitar backing track version of a song and try and jam.
- Start simple, you can always add more in as you go along. Don’t frustrate yourself by attempting anything too complicated on your first try.
- Try and keep the melody of the song in mind when soloing, it’ll keep you on track and make sure everything is tied in properly.
- Throw in some power chords to add more flair rather than just playing individual notes.
4. Set Targets
One of the most important things, that a lot of guitarists neglect, is target setting. Now it’s not the most exciting thing in the world, but if you’re looking for a way to improve as quickly as possible, then this is something you definitely need to be doing.
So what should your targets be?
Well, this depends on what stage you’re at already, and what you want to accomplish. But think along the lines of learning a new solo, writing a solo, mastering a certain technique like sweep picking or being able to hammer on and pull off faster.
Whatever your goal is, you need to make sure that it’s actionable. That means that your target needs to meet the following criteria:
- It has a specific time limit e.g. you need to learn a new song within a week
- You need to make sure it’s specific. So don’t just say “I’ll improve my vibrato technique”, instead say that you will be able to perfectly imitate a certain section of a song that uses vibrato.
- They need to be realistic. Don’t set yourself a target of learning to play Cliffs of Dover by next week if you can’t sweep pick yet.
- Try and make your targets measurable. You should be able to quantify how much you’ve met them. For example, if you’re trying to be faster at a scale, then try and give yourself the challenge of performing it within 3 seconds.
5. Develop a Proper Routine
So setting targets is all great, but it doesn’t actually mean you will be able to achieve them automatically. You’ll need to make sure you’re working hard and consistently to practise them. The best way to do this, is by developing a proper routine.
I’ll admit it, when I first started playing guitar, I hated the idea of having a practising routine. It just seemed like it would take all the fun out of playing, and that it wouldn’t actually help. But I was definitely wrong!
When I started implementing a proper routine, I noticed huge improvements in my ability, at a much faster rate than I had before using a routine. So give them a chance, just for a few weeks, even if you’re sceptical, and you’ll probably want to stick with it.
How to develop a routine
There are two things to consider when developing a routine.
- When to practise
- What to practise during your routine
how long should you be playing your guitar for?
Firstly, when should you practise? Well, this of course depends on how much time you have. The more you practise, the better you’ll get. At least, up to a certain point. You want to make sure you don’t practise for too long that you start playing sloppily. It’s best to practise less, but with more intensity, than just mess about on your guitar for a couple of hours. Personally, I think between half an hour and an hour is a good amount of time to aim for.
If you’re really serious about improving your lead guitar playing, then consider dedicating certain days and times to practising. I’ve noticed that I have a lot more success trying to stick to a routine when I really map out when I’m going to do it. For example, I’m much more likely to practise if I say I’ll do from 6-7 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, than if i just say I’ll practise for an hour 3x a week.
what should your session consist of?
The best thing to do when planning a routine, is to keep your targets in mind. If you’re looking to improve your scale technique, then make sure your practise sessions are focused around that.
Every session doesn’t have to be perfectly mapped out. You don’t have to make things so regimented that it takes the fun out of it. You want to get the balance of enjoying playing, with making progress, to be able to be the best lead guitarist possible.
With that said though, here’s a quick example of a practise session that you can try out.
example practise routine
- 0:00-0:10: Practise scales
- 0:10-0:20- Practise Power Chords
- 0:20-0:45- Work on your targets e.g. learning a solo
- 0:45-1:00- Improve your techniques e.g hammer ons
6. Record Yourself
One final point I want to mention before I wrap up this post, is about measuring your performance.
Setting targets and developing a practise routine are really useful, and in my opinion essential ways of improving your guitar playing, but how do you actually know you’ve improved?
Well, one of the best ways to track this, is by recording yourself. You don’t need anything fancy, just use your phone. But recording yourself weekly, just for a few minutes, can really help you see how much you are improving.
It’s a really good way to motivate yourself too, because you will be encouraged by the improvements you can hear.
It’s also great to just get some feedback from other guitarists you may know, or you can post videos of yourself playing guitar online on YouTube or Instagram for example. Take what people say online with a pinch of salt though, as you can get some trolls, but generally the guitar community is a really encouraging place to be in.