You’re comfortable with chords and holding down rhythms, but when it comes to lead playing or taking a solo, you don’t know where to start.
Familiarize yourself with some musical building blocks—scales, arpeggios, and melodic approaches—to write and improvise your own lead lines.
Start with Pentatonic Scales
A pentatonic scale, as the name suggests, contains just five notes. Pentatonic scales are an effective and generally manageable way to get started, and many guitar players derive much of their approach from this basic framework.
Ex. 1a shows the A minor pentatonic scale (A C D E G) starting on the root note of A. You can also think about this as an A minor scale (A B C E F G) that omits the second and sixth scale degrees. Alternatively, these can be viewed as the notes of the C major pentatonic scale—see Ex. 1b. (C major and A minor are relative keys, meaning they share the same notes). To derive the relative major from a minor mode, go to the third scale degree. Conversely, the relative minor is found starting on the sixth degree of a major scale.
Exs. 2–7 show the sequence of notes starting on each note of the A minor/C major pentatonic scale as it moves up the neck into different positions. To take these raw materials and get started, I recommend two approaches: One is necessarily mechanical, the other musical. For the technical aspect, memorize one scale pattern at a time, then work to connect one position to the next. Get familiar with the scales, their sounds, and how they feel under your fingers. Work on playing them ascending and descending, then try different sequences of notes so that you can skip comfortably between scale degrees.
Make It Musical
Next comes the important musical step—creating musical phrases and melodies. Start out sparingly, by picking one shape and focusing on using the notes on only two strings until they become not just fingers at the right spot on a fret, but sounds that are musical. Create short phrases, or melodic or rhythmic motifs. Try bending, slurring, and sliding to notes. Use different note durations and dynamics. Use vibrato. And try to get a limited number of notes to sound expressive.
As smaller sections become comfortable both technically and musically, add notes from adjacent strings until the whole pattern feels familiar. Then work to connect to other shapes in the same way.
Try Some Diatonic Scales
Diatonic scales are made up of seven notes, and give two more note options than a pentatonic scale. You may have heard of the various modes—Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, and so on. While each of the modes has its characteristic sound and specific applications, I encourage guitarists to start with what is most useful to the type of music you play—in many cases, the major and minor modes (Ionian and Aeolian modes, respectively). Of course, you should become versed in all the modes that apply to what you want to do. In any case, start with a manageable amount of material, learn it well, and then build upon that strong foundation that you’ve created.
Ex. 8a shows the A minor scale, which, again, contains the same notes as in the C-major scale (Ex. 8b). Exs. 9–16 show the sequence of notes starting on the each note of the A minor/C major scale as it moves up the neck into different positions. As with the pentatonic scales, work on both the musical and mechanical aspects in smaller sections, then gradually build upon and extend to the entire scale, eventually connecting all the positions.
Work with Chord Tones
An approach that can be quite effective, both melodically and harmonically, is to plan your solos around not just the key of the piece, but the chords over which you’re playing. You can use the correct scale and still encounter dissonances as every note relates to the underlying harmony. Take, for example, the A major scale (A B C# D E F# G#) over the chords A (A C# E) and D (D F# A). If you play the fourth degree (D) over the A chord, you’ll hear a harsh sound, as the D creates the dissonant interval of a minor second with the chord’s C#. Of course, great improvisers can make any note work, but you are focusing on the basics here.
Ex. 17 shows an A major arpeggio followed by a D major arpeggio to outline a I–IV progression (in this case, A–D). Ex. 18 moves toward a more musical approach while sticking mostly to the chord tones and incorporating only a few non-chord tones. These passing tones are of shorter duration and placed on weaker beats, which gives them more of a connecting and color function—the ear hears them as a step along the path to the goal note, which is a chord tone.
Play Themes and Variations
With a foundation of some scales and arpeggios, you can create comprehensible lines. One effective way to do so is to take a clear, concise theme—it can be melodic, rhythmic, or both—and make variations to develop it. Start with a skeletal motif, like in Ex. 19 (which happens to be identical to the first measure of Ex. 18). You can add notes to embellish it, as in Exs. 20a–c. You can change the rhythms, as in Exs. 21a–c. You can fragment it, as in Exs. 22a–c, where an ever-smaller section of the motif is compressed and repeated.
Hear, Sing, Play
Something to work on, both as an immediate and long-term goal, is creating melodies in your mind before applying them to the fretboard. Listen to the music over which you’ll be soloing and try hearing a melody in your mind, even if it’s simple and uninspired at first. The idea is to start encouraging your mind to think of melodies. Sing the melody. Make it memorable—so memorable that you can find it on the guitar and sing with your fingers.
Remember this lesson is only cracking open an enormous subject. But don’t let that deter you. The path of improvisation and composition is endless, and that’s part of its beauty.
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There is always more to learn. Start at the beginning, gather your tools along the way, and forge the path that is right for you.