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How to Play Lead Guitar: 5 Key Tips

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band playing with microphone up close to show lead guitarist in action

The lead guitar can sound intimidating to new players. After all, it puts your guitar skills at the center of the song. But mastering lead guitar means you can do solos and improvs that bring out the soul of your music.

Below, we’ll show you how to play lead guitar with approachable steps.

What Is the Lead Guitar?

First, let’s clarify some misconceptions.

There are two key guitars in a song: the lead and rhythm guitar.

You don’t need a specific guitar model to play either. One musician can use the same instrument for both the lead and rhythm parts of a song. Instead, these terms refer to the role a guitar will play in a melody.

The rhythm guitar forms the foundation of the music. It presents basic guitar chords that the drummer and singer will build upon.

On the other hand, the lead guitar will establish the melody of the music. They add solos and riffs to add an extra layer of texture to the tune. 

However, that extra layer and expectation make it challenging to learn how to play the lead guitar. So use the next tips to kickstart your practice:

Tip 1: Study the Fretboard

Our first tip is to study the fretboard, or fingerboard, of your guitar. It looks overwhelming at first, but free visual guides online show you what each note does.

fretboards of three guitars illustrated to show what a fretboard looks like.

When you know what sound each note on a fingerboard makes, you can adjust the chords freely to change their tone. So if you know how to play a song in the major scale, you can figure out how to shift it to minor. 

Here’s another pro-tip: memorize only the first 12 fret pitches of your guitar. After the 12th fret, the pitches repeat. This method will save you time from trying to remember the entire guitar neck as a beginner guitarist just learning.

Also, scales can help you learn the fretboard quicker. The Chromatic Scale covers all 12 pitches available on your guitar in succession, effectively giving you an ABC song to the fretboard.

Tip 2: Learn Your Scales

A scale is a sequence of guitar notes played in order. If you listen to some of the most famous guitar solos, you’ll notice you can break them down into basic scale sequences.

The Pentatonic Scale is one of the most crucial to learn on your guitar. It’s a five-note sequence that’s popular in Rock n Roll, Blues, and even Pop.

Other common scales you can learn are the Blues Scale, Dorian Mode (as well as all 7 major modes), Major Scale, and the Natural Minor Scale. Not only will these help you become a better listener, but they’ll also train your fingers.

We find that learning intervals can also help you break down scales even more. Intervals refer to the relationship between two notes played right after each other. These terms tie back to music theory, which can form a foundation for you to understand sounds as you hear them.

Try next: Learn to play blues guitar

Tip 3: Listen

Sometimes, playing what you hear in a song can be more effective than reading tablature on a page. Many experienced guitarists learn new songs just by copying what they hear. It helps you learn music more intuitively and pick up improvisation later. 

We recommend the “Hum and Hunt” method for you to start. To do it, you just hum a single note and then look for the same sound on your guitar. If you’re having trouble finding the match, ask yourself if the guitar sound is higher or deeper pitched than your hum.

This is essential for beginners because it helps you practice at your own pace. Plus, it helps you memorize your fretboard’s base sounds so you can detect them in complicated songs later. 

Once you know the basics, you can easily mimic other songs, which brings us to our next tip.

Tip 4: Copy the Masters

You could have all the music theory in the world, but it won’t help you grow until you practice how musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton did it.

Listen to your favorite musician’s music, and try to detect what progressions they’re using. Many hits already have free, digital note sheets (learn to read guitar sheets, first) online to help you visualize what they did. 

And when you practice their methods, you pick up on unique chords, sequences, and combinations that can deepen your understanding of why it sounds so good.

As you learn other songs, you should master basic techniques like hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and bend-ups. We suggest you even transcribe the progression of a song yourself to seal it into your memory.

Here are a few songs with easy solos to help you learn how to play lead guitar:

Tip 5: Improvise

To learn how to play lead guitar like the masters, you need to develop fingerpicking dexterity and speed. 

Many solos require a lot of exercise on the guitar. But it also includes one of the most fun steps of guitar practice: improvisation.

Once you know basic guitar scales and chords, try improvising new sounds on your guitar. Record yourself as you play guitar, so you can listen after and determine what sounded good. 

Sometimes, an improv sounds great alone but doesn’t match the song it’s with. In those cases, you can adjust the tone or position of your scale to weave them together.

Music theory can help you recognize what sounds naturally go together in improvisation. But don’t get too bogged down by the technicalities. 

The key is to practice, accept trial and error, and you’ll be on your way to mastering how to play lead guitar.

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