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Guitarist Series: 6 Things That are the Mark of a Great Guitar Lead or Solo
I think there is a little part of just about every guitarist that wants to be the in the spotlight wrenching out that perfect guitar lead to a massive crowd of adoring fans. Maybe it's only a small part in some, while it consumes every aspect of some other people's lives, but I think it just comes with the instrument and with the territory. Still, creating a great guitar lead part is not all that easy, especially if you're like me and prefer improvising.
What exactly goes into making the perfect guitar lead?
Too often guitarists get caught up in the work of what other people have done, how other players play and standard licks or riffs. These are all good starting points but will rarely make an innovative guitar part. Instead there has to be some element of creativity involved that demonstrates that maybe this lead is based on the work of others, a particular style or player, but that it is going somewhere new and not afraid to go in new directions. I find that although some lead lines that consist entirely of predefined licks or clichÃ©s work great, the majority of the time, without that little something extra, that creative spark and freedom, they fall flat immediately, or after the first listen and just aren't compelling.
2: Sense of Phrasing
One of the most important concepts in music, and also one of the more difficult ones to pick up on when first starting out, it is important to have a sense of phrasing in your guitar playing. The style of the song and rhythm all lend themselves to specific musical phrases that start and end in specific places. Using nothing but super fast scales and riff to craft your leadss might be exciting, but it will do less for the song and less for the audience in the long run. Instead, a lead part that works within phrasing, uses specific phrases for effect and style will be more effective than the fastest scales and the flashiest technique. A good place to start learning about phrasing is to listen to some jazz performances. Jazz is all about phrasing and can really give you an idea about how musical phrasing can be effective. It isn't even necessary to listen to jazz guitar as saxophone and horn solos can often be copied on guitar.
3: Sense of Feel
Guitar leadss are designed to fit in within a specific context, namely the song they are apart of. When improvising alone, it is easy to play whatever comes to mind, but doing that during a song will almost certainly fail completely, even if you are within the key structure of the song. Instead, it is important to recognize what the song feels like, and work within that framework to create something that fits with the feel, fits with the style and meshes into the song well.
There is definitely something to be said about an absolutely screaming over the top guitar lead, but knowing when a little subtlety is necessary can take a great phrase and push it over the top to spine tingling. It is almost like you need to know when enough has been said in your playing. Going above and beyond with a certain feel in your guitar work can come off as just a little melodramatic or just fall flat. There needs to be a sense of space between the notes sometimes. Recognizing this and having a sense of when only a light touch is needed is one of the marks of a great guitar lead.
5: A Dynamic Feel
One of the major things that makes music like rock and roll so attractive is that it is exciting and dynamic. This is an important thing to remember when playing lead guitar because lead lines can easily sound stale, stagnant or overly mechanical. Keep lead lines especially, dynamic, moving and put the emphasis on them being alive. This increases excitement and pushes the emotional expression and feel of a piece of music even further.
6: Taking the Song Somewhere
This should be the ultimate goal in any guitar lead or solo, whether it be two notes or twenty minutes and a good guitar lead might do everything else wrong, but if it does this it will still be reasonably successful. Once you start to grasp the feel of the song and understand the musical phrasing you can take it to the next step and actually push the song somewhere new. Some songs have lead parts that sound more like filler and are unnecessary to the feel of the music, probably not detracting from it, but could easily have just dropped out. This is because they don't take the song anywhere, instead just maintaining the status quo. A good guitar lead though, will sound like it adds that little extra something to the song that takes it from memorable to classic. Sometimes all it takes to accomplish this is only a few notes, other times you can take it somewhere else entirely with extended jams and improvisation, but the goal should always be to enhance the song in some way no matter style or length.
Everyone's view of a great guitar solo or lead line is a little different. Some people love the twisting progressive and classical shredding of some metal artists, while others prefer the vocal influenced blues style. Each guitarist's style is even more unique, it's a personal thing I guess.
Still, I think no matter what style, each of these 6 things I've outlined are a good place to start when taking your guitar lead melody lines, solos or even just regular playing, to the next level.