Say you’ve been practicing your scales diligently. You know your formations up the neck and can play a major scale in any key in any position. Maybe you’ve moved on to modes, and maybe you’ve even fully absorbed those too. Or maybe you’ve never played a lick of lead guitar in your life.
Either way, in order to really learn to play great lead you need to learn skills that have nothing to do with how many scales you know. In fact, some people recommend that you don’t learn scales at all.
The fact is, scales are simply a way to organize notes that will predictably sound good together. Practicing scales builds your dexterity and shows you important relationships across the neck. But they won’t make you a good lead player on their own.
Good lead playing tells a story. It might be an unfolding linear narrative, or a pure exclamation, an explosion of energy. But either way, lead playing is like speech. Your skill as a communicator is dependent on your vocabulary, phrasing, and diction. In the musical parallel, we might call diction “articulation”.
Vocabulary is the
words (read: notes) you know and the ideas you can express.
Phrasing is how you put the notes together in time, in groups or with space between.
Articulation is how you attack and sustain the notes. This includes things like vibrato, slides, bends, and muting/percussive sounds.
In other words, to be able to play good lead guitar, you need to be able to choose notes in a way that sounds organized to the listener. All three of these elements help that happen:
Scales are your musical alphabet. Notes are letters that form words and sentences when we put them together. But running up and down a scale is about as interesting as listening to someone recite the alphabet. To make that scale into music, we need to think about phrasing.
Phrasing gives music order and structure. Again, think of the speech analogy. A few notes are like short words or a simple sentence. The main element of phrasing is simply deciding when to play the next note, and whether that note is the beginning, middle, or end of a statement. You make that decision based on the energy of the music and what you feel. Do you hear long, sustained tones like David Gilmour with Pink Floyd, or quick bursts of notes like Eddie Van Halen? Rhythm creates energy, and phrasing is playing with rhythm in the other sense of “playing”: manipulating, experimenting. Articulations like slides, vibrato, and bends add vibe and flavor, but where you place the notes is the most important element.
The other organizing element we play with in improvising is the shape of the melodic line. If you picture any visual representation of the notes, like sheet music or a MIDI “piano roll” editor, it’s easy to imagine seeing a scale as a rising sequence from low to high:
This isn’t just a scale, of course, but also a melody. George Harrison plays this exact line in the chorus of the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye”; it’s also picked up by the background vocals in the second chorus. But usually, to make a scale sound melodic we need to add variations in direction (shape) and timing (phrasing).
Even if you’ve never read music, you can learn to see the rise and fall of the melodic line from whether the note heads are moving higher or lower. You can also get a sense of the rhythm from the way the notes are spaced on the page. And if you understand how the paired notes (eighth notes) fit two notes in the space of a single beat, it should be pretty easy to see how each bar is four beats long.
If we look even more closely at the phrasing, you might note that the first beat of each bar contains two descending eighth notes. This ties the phrase together by establishing a rhythmic “cell” or “motif” with a descending melodic shape.
You can speak the rhythm by using “ti-ti” for pairs of eighth notes and “taa” for the longer quarter notes. Maintain a steady count:
Ti-ti ti-ti taa ti-ti ti-ti-taa-taa-taa ti-ti-taa-taaaaah!
1 & 2 & 3 4 & 1 & 2 3 4 1 & 2 3 4
Note that every bar is not the same, though. In improvising, we aim to balance between the use of repetition (to connect ideas to each other and create familiarity) and variation (to add variety and contrast).
Let’s take this a step further and look at an improvised melody using the A minor pentatonic scale. First of all, here’s the scale; notice the shape:
This melody takes that scale and organizes it into a melody, through a combination of repeated rhythmic and melodic gestures. Notice how certain patters recur, like the descending two-note figures that appear in the second half of almost every bar. Notice also how most of those figures descend from a higher note to a lower note, and how the pairs are connected either by small jumps or by scale steps:
Here’s the same melody with some added articulations; vibrato, slides, slurs, and bends.
The articulations don’t change the basic notes, or the shape of the melody. But they add subtlety and variation to the sound, making it more dynamic. Notice that slurs, slides, and bends all affect the way a note begins and ends, and how connected it sounds to the surrounding notes. Having several options for how to begin or end a sound allows for more variation in accent and feel.
This is of course only one example. But if you listen for phrasing in the music you hear, it quickly becomes impossible to miss, and every great player has absorbed hundreds of examples of the choices other musicians have made, Ultimately, this is how we learn to play: exactly the way we learn to speak. Listen, imitate, and grow.