Some people can play a lot of notes, but the best players make the guitar sing.
Why do some musicians command attention with a single note? Chops are impressive, and speed and flashy technique have their place. But the notes are just the beginning. Expression on the guitar comes from the player’s touch, and the way that subtle variations in pressure and movement can shape a melody.
Many players seem to get distracted in their explorations of lead guitar. This often starts with learning scales, which is important for a variety of reasons. But memorizing patterns on the fretboard is just the first step in a longer process, and can even be misleading. Why else would so many students express that they’ve learned the forms up and down the neck but still can’t seem to make music with it? If you’ve learned about bricks but not mortar, you can’t build a house.
Good lead guitar starts with attention to phrasing.
This is much too large a topic to explore with any depth in a single blog post. But for now, we can hugely simplify and just say that the problem most people have is that they try to use the scales as a foundation for improvising. But music is built on gestures: smaller melodic phrases with integrity of their own. Even a long, continuous line can be broken down into smaller segments that together form a larger gesture. The scales give you one possible set of notes to choose from, and this often works very well. But it’s the choices that make your playing musical, not the set you choose from.
Once you’ve begun to trim your ideas down into smaller pieces, you can start to look more closely at the way you articulate the notes instead of just the notes themselves. Playing melody is like speaking, and no one wants to listen to someone droning on in a monotone. Phrasing, dynamics, timing, and articulation are essential elements of communication. An experienced actor can make the same words convey different meanings by the way they deliver the line. To be an expressive player, you need to have the same kind of flexibility with notes.
1. Repetition and variation
Again, the simple idea is just to do less. Make statements: play a few notes, pause, then play an answer. This is called “call and response” and is an easy way to make your ideas more organized. Pay attention to how many notes you play in each statement, as well as how long you wait between them. Trying varying the amount of time between phrases. Use repeated rhythmic patterns to tie things together, then mix them up to create interest. Nearly all music balances the opposing techniques of repetition and variation to create a coherent whole that holds the listener’s attention.
How many different ways can you approach a note? You can land squarely on it, or slide in from above or below. Remember that slides can be timed, in which both the starting and ending notes have a specific duration, or untimed, in which the first note is a “grace note” with no time value of its own. You can slide in from an adjacent fret, further away, or an indeterminate pitch.
We can also use slurs: “hammer-ons”, when coming from below, “pull-offs” when coming from above, or simply tapping the neck (another type of hammer-on where the note is sounded by the finger landing on the string). This also leads us to what in classical music is called ornamentation: trills (moving very quickly back and forth between two notes, from above or below), and turns (approaching a note from directly above or below, moving past it, and then returning to land on the target note). These can be played strictly with fretted notes or might also incorporate open strings.
Then there’s the question of picking hand attack. Are you using a pick or a bare finger? How hard do you strike the note? What about the force of the attack? Does the string ring out cleanly or is there a percussive “snap”? Are you simply passing through the string or “popping” it away from the neck? (This doesn’t have to be a dramatic movement, although it can be). Changing the angle of attack can radically change the tone, as does striking the string in different places. Tremolo picking – quick repeated back-and-forth strokes on the same note – is another powerful and memorable effect.
Vibrato involves moving the finger back and forth on the same fret, pushing and pulling the pitch slightly. This has the effect of essential sounding the note repeatedly, creating more sustain and a more vocal, singing sound.
There are two basic types of vibrato. One comes from the wrist and forearm, in which the arm is rotated slightly back and forth. This works best with the index finger. The movement can also be from side to side, which is effective with any finger. This is the kind of vibrato you see used on bowed instruments like the violin and cello, as well as the classical guitar.
The second is more dramatic and comes generally more from the arm. Balance on the fingertips and lightly move the arm up and down. This tends to work best with multiple fingers resting on the same string. Try varying the speed to create a different effect. This is the type of vibrato you probably associate more with the electric guitar, especially in blues and rock settings.
Some players create this motion more from the fingers than the arm. This generally involves more of a dropped wrist, and requires more muscular effort. This approach has its place, but to my ear the vibrato isn’t quite as controlled and tends to be more obvious and dramatic. We tend to see mostly hard rock and metal players using this approach. As a general rule I always prefer to have the muscles of the hand working less, relying on the larger muscles of the arm to carry more of the movement.
Dynamics are essential to expressive playing: again, think of a speaker with a droning monotone. Varying the volume and intensity of your phrases. Get louder (crescendo) and softer (diminuendo). This variation comes primarily from the intensity of the picking hand attack, but can come from the fretting hand as well.
The music itself will tell you when to change and which way to go. A solo might have an overall dynamic “shape”, perhaps starting more quietly and building in intensity as it unfolds. It can be very effective to suddenly get quieter, especially when it’s unexpected. And when you’re playing with a band, the feeling of a rhythm section responding to your dynamic lead is a powerful thing the audience will always feel.
These are all topics that could be explored in much greater depth, but the first step is just to get you thinking about them.
Pay attention to the ways you hear great players shaping the sound with variations in touch, timing, and melody. Some of these techniques are more challenging than others, but they all can be mastered through experimentation and practice. Taken together, these are all factors that contribute to a player’s sound. All of my guitar heroes had their own approaches and ways of using these techniques, some very distinctive and recognizable. The great Latin rock guitarist Carlos Santana once said, “your tone is your face, why would you want to look like someone else?” His sound is instantly recognizable: melodic, expressive, and yes, singing. Yours can be too.