If you’re working to really develop as a player, learning to play lead is an important part of the well-rounded guitarist’s skill set. And besides, we all love a good guitar guitar solo. When I was a teenager first learning to play it was the most exciting part of the song. I idolized virtuoso soloists like Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Randy Rhoads, and Eddie Van Halen. Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour taught me about melody and the well-placed slow bend. Eric Clapton and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia showed me how to spin long, sinuous phrases, while Neil Young and Carlos Santana demonstrated how simplicity and intensity make a powerful statement.
I learned my scales, copied licks, and transcribed solos. Most of all, I played, just turning on the radio or putting a record on and jamming along. I learned that the lead player’s role is to be a secondary voice to the vocal. Sometimes the guitar steps in for the lead singer to take over the spotlight, and other times it provides commentary and counterpoint.
Good lead players use a wide variety of approaches, and the best develop a unique voice as recognizable as their face.
But there’s one thing they all have in common, one rule that applies in every style of music in any setting: fit in with the rest of the music. Above all, that means listening to everything else that’s going on and complementing it.
It might sound ridiculously obvious to say you need to play parts that sound like they belong. After all, every student of lead guitar wants to learn how to play the right things, don’t they? I’m sure the answer is yes, but I’m still amazed and sometimes even a little taken aback by how some players are terrible listeners. Or at least, how often some people choose to stop listening.
Even here in Nashville, where the baseline of guitar skill is very high, you still hear players who break this cardinal rule.
The worst offenders sometimes make an unwelcome appearance at the Music City institution called the songwriter round. In a round, multiple performers are onstage at once and take turns playing their songs. Some people like to jam along with the other songwriters they’re onstage with, and in the right hands this can make magic. But unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Full disclosure: I love to play along with other writers’ songs, and often do. I’m sure I’ve been guilty in the past of exactly the same kind of musical blindness. But as a performing songwriter, I understand what it means to want your song to be well-represented, and how frustrating it is when a jammer’s good intentions hurt the performance instead of help it. So let’s consider this an open letter to every lead player everywhere that wants to join in and jam.
Rule number one, and really the only one: stay out of the way.
Remember, when there’s a vocal the lead guitar is a secondary voice. That means the vocals always take priority. Don’t step on the singer. Listen for the spaces between the vocal lines and pick your spots. Played skillfully, melodic fills can really enhance the song. Chosen poorly, they can ruin it. Here are some guidelines to help make sure you’re adding to the music, not distracting from it.
1. Know what you don’t know.
In a jamming situation, you might not have ever heard the song before. That means there could be things you can’t predict: chord changes, rhythmic and dynamic shifts, and other musical details. Recognize that you don’t always know what’s coming. A good rule of thumb is to listen all the way through a verse and chorus before you play a note. Then when you do join in, you have a basic picture of the song. It’s also important to have enough understanding of song structure that you can begin to anticipate when something new might happen, and hang back until you know what it is.
2. When in doubt, lay out.
This speaks for itself, doesn’t it. Have a realistic sense of what you can and can’t follow, and don’t fish for notes during someone else’s practiced performance.
3. Watch for body language.
It’s pretty easy to tell when someone’s about to sing. It might be as simple as approaching the mic, or stepping away from it. An experienced performer might give you actual cues, letting you know when it’s time to step up and take the lead or calling out a warning when a change is coming. Use your eyes as well as your ears.
4. Match the singer’s dynamic
A good accompanist shadows the dynamic of the vocal, letting the singer set the tone. If you’re given a solo and the accompaniment changes in intensity to let you open up, go with it, but be aware of when that section might be coming to an end. It’s generally pretty easy to tell if you pay attention. If you’re playing fills, try to keep them between the vocal lines. Be sensitive to the singer’s phrasing, and don’t ever play louder then they sing. In most cases, your fills should be the top layer of the background rather than an equal duet.
5. Play it like you mean it, or don’t play at all.
Tentative playing never sounds good. If you have something to contribute, play with confidence and authority. If you can’t play it confidently, don’t play it.
The skills that allow you to jam along well will make you a better and more musical lead player in every situation. The image of the lead guitar gunslinger might be cool, but it can be misleading. Ultimately, your job is still the same as everyone else in the band: to make each other sound better. Blend into the group and pick your moments. Then when it’s time to shine, let ‘er rip!