Have you watched lead guitar masters like Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and John Petrucci play and wonder how they do it? While lead guitar might seem like an impossibility as first, it’s far from impossible once you master the right techniques.
From basic skills like alternate picking to advanced lead guitar techniques such as tapping and sweep picking, read on to discover the best lead guitar lessons to help you rock the fretboard like Slash, Jimmy Page or Eddie Van Halen.
Are you just getting started with electric guitar? Before you start trying to play fast and complicated lead guitar solos, master the basics of guitar technique and rhythm guitar with our Complete Guitar System: Beginner to Advanced course.
What is lead guitar all about?
Most modern blues, rock and heavy metal songs have two guitar parts. The first is the rhythm guitar, which plays chords (or, in the case of hard rock and metal, two-note power chords) to support the drums and bass.
The other guitar part is the lead guitar. The lead guitarist plays the melodies of the song – parts like repeating hooks and guitar solos. Each guitar part is challenging, but most styles of modern music have more complicated lead than rhythm parts.
Learning to play lead guitar requires some of the same skills as rhythm guitar, as well as some new ones. Lead guitarists needs to know scales and intervals off by heart to be able to piece together interesting melodies and guitar solos.
The theory of lead guitar
What’s your favorite guitar solo? Whether it’s the soaring melodies of 70s rock like Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb or the lightning fast shredding of 80s metal such as Metallica’s Master of Puppets, every style of lead guitar depends on music theory.
Every lead guitar part – whether it’s a short melody or an extended solo – needs to match the key and scale of the song’s rhythm parts. Let’s use the examples above to break down a lead guitar part and understand its scale relative to the rhythm part.
Comfortably Numb, the famous Pink Floyd song known for its extended guitar solo, is in the key of D major. Despite this, the guitar solo is in the B minor scale – at first, this seems like a completely different key and scale.
This works because B minor is the relative minor scale of D major. Although it starts and ends on a different note, it uses the exact same notes. This knowledge of theory allows the lead guitarist to create a great sounding solo in completely different key.
Metallica’s Master of Puppets – another famous guitar solo song – uses far simpler music theory. Both the rhythm part – which in this case, is just as challenging as the lead guitar part – and the guitar solo are in the exact same scale: E minor.
Understanding the key that songs are written in and the relative scales that you can use to perform guitar solos over them will help you play tasteful, iconic lead guitar pieces. Before you start mastering technique, it’s just as important to learn theory.
Do you want to learn music theory, from rhythm notation to intervals, scales and arpeggios? Learn how to work out the key a song’s rhythm and bass guitar is in to perform great sounding guitar solos with Beginning Music Theory.
If you already understand the basics of music theory, it’s best to kick off your lead guitar education by learning the most frequently used scales in lead guitar. These include the basic major and minor scales, the pentatonic scale and the blues scale.
Interestingly, the pentatonic minor scale is just a minor scale broken down into the five ‘core’ notes. This ultra-simple scale is used in almost 90% of guitar solos, from amazing guitar shredding to solos in classic rock and blues songs.
The blues scale is a slightly modified version of the pentatonic scale. It includes the same five notes as the pentatonic minor scale, as well as an extra flat-5th note. This one note gives the scale a dramatically different sound that’s perfect for blues.
Would you like to learn more scales for blues and rock lead guitar? Learn the most frequently used scales in blues, classic rock and modern rock ‘n’ roll in our Ultimate Blues Guitar Beginner Lessons guide taught by a renowned performer.
The technique of lead guitar
Many of the key techniques of rhythm guitar are equally important for playing lead guitar. Things like understanding rhythm, upstrokes and downstrokes, and simple technique markers like hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides all apply to lead guitar.
However, there are many techniques that are exclusive to lead guitar. These include advanced techniques like sweep picking – which allows you to rapidly pick through arpeggios in a single movement – and cool guitar tricks like fretboard tapping.
Have you ever heard solos where the notes are played so quickly they seem to melt into each other? This is the result of a technique called tapping, pioneered by heavy metal guitarist Eddie Van Halen in the late 1970s.
Once a cult guitar technique reserved for late-70s rock bands, tapping has become a frequently used guitar technique employed in a wide range of genres. While it might look extremely difficult, the guitar tapping technique is surprisingly easy to master.
Do you want to learn two-handed tapping to play cool guitar solos like Van Halen’s Eruption or Green Tinted Sixties Mind? Learn how to play tapping solos in the bonus module of our Complete Guitar System: Beginner to Advanced course.
From alternate picking to hammer-ons and pull-offs, there are plenty of other guitar techniques used in modern lead guitar. Mastering all of the key techniques will give you a balanced understanding of how to play a variety of lead guitar styles.
Do you want to become a master of modern lead guitar? Learn how to play melodic guitar solos over any type of song, from 1960s surf rock to 1980s speed metal, with an Introduction to Lead Guitar.
Learn more guitar techniques
Don’t become a one-hit-wonder guitarist – becoming a true virtuoso means learning more than just how to play amazing solos. Master rhythm guitar, improvisation and more to become a balanced guitarist that can master any genre of modern music.
Learn the basics of playing rhythm guitar, from palm muting to keeping time with a drummer or metronome in our blog post on rhythm guitar basics. Learn new scales like the harmonic minor scale to make your solos more interesting in our blog post on the best guitar scales to add to your musical vocabulary.