In order to understand the art of modern lead guitar playing you must be a student of the history of the art form and the instrument -developing an understanding of the music and the musicians that came before you and before your time. The music that originated and still defines the styles we enjoy today is called ‘roots’ music. I can guarantee you that the licks, lines, tricks and melodies of roots music are alive and well in the playing of your modern musical heroes.
This course is obvously about the hard skills of playing lead, so we I won’t let this page morph into a music history lesson, I’ll leave that part up to you but I will be mentioniong bands, artists, styles and eras to point you in the right YouTube direction.
Creating & Understanding Licks, Riffs & Classic Phrases
Your ability to function in any musical situation will be a direct result of the tools you bring to do the job. As an electric lead guitarist those tools are your licks -the tasty little sound bites that the best guitarists effortlessly peel off. Being a good lead guitarist meanings listening to, learning and reproducing hot licks found in your favorite music. This is not to say your focus shouldn’t be on original and inventive playing but it should be on understanding how the great recorded guitar lines were played -so you can take these concepts and run with them. A study of these licks, riffs and classic phrases will make it easier for you to learn new material and create hot, authentic sounding guitar solos.
I call this having the right tools -any professional needs the right tools for the job at hand. Guitarists associate specific instruments to specific tasks, such as the acoustic guitar for a folk song or soft rock ballad, the marshall amp for a metal song, the tele for a country tune and so on. Just as important is your collection of licks, stylistic colors and the ability to speak the shared musical vocabulary of those who have also played your particular style, those who came before you.
There’s no way around it, you must capture and understand the sounds that attracted you to the instrument by learning your favorite and famous lines. This practice is very rewarding and enlightening and has many added benefits, playing and using the licks, lines and ideas of your favorite players in a good thing, its a time honored tradition in fact. You acquire the playing tools, the hard skills you need, through the real work of learning and studying your instrument, a study of rock history and playing all time great and famous guitar parts perfectly.
The Point Of Departure
An impressive, professional, playing sound emerges when you use favorite and famous lines, licks and melodic devices as the point of departure. By point of departure I mean the material, the ideas on which your solo is based. If all you can think of, if the only place you go to for soloing inspiration a scale form or scale pattern, you are very likely to achieve a predictable, sleepy, rambling, dull sound. Scales are your point of departure so your music will sound like someone running upa and down scales, not like some one carving out excellent improvised solos. In this course i am suggesting that in addition to scale playing ability you develop a comprehensive vocabulary of solos, leads, licks and muscal lines as your point of departure. When the basis of your soloing is strong musical content and proven ideas, your soloing sounds more like music.
The Foundation Lick
The earliest rock licks are arpeggio runs which essentially spells out a dominant 7 sound with the addition of a 6 as can be heard in something called boogie woogie piano. This lick is an important and integral part of the rock and blues vocabulary as it appears as the bass line and the solo idea for countless blues and classic rock songs, including Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 which is widely regarded as the first rock and roll record ever made! As a soloistic or compositional device it’s found in all over the map in such diverse songs as Rock Around The Clock (Bill Haley 1958), Birthay (Beatles 1969) and Bodhisattva (Steely Dan 1973). Pay close attention and place a little extra value on this, or any lick, that so clearly and directly expresses the sound of a chord -in this case that chord sound is A dominant 7.
Below is a play along exercise that is just a basic running through the notes associated with the boogie woogie foundational lick, one of the first licks our musical heroes heard, probably the first hard rockin line in the history of pop music I would guess. Again, as you count in and play in perfect unison with me, think A 7.
I’ll Take Mine With A Twist
The above diagram analyzes and illustrates this classic ‘lick of the ages’ in the 5th position (key of A) in both the higher and lower registers. The first three notes ring out, announcing the “A” chord, The 6th and funky flat 7th notes of the scale add their magic and voila: a huge slice of the pie is now on your plate! Practice with me until you have the sound of the musical line “stuck” firmly in your head, and study the analysis in the illustration.
Now that the above study has “stuck” the sound of the musical line in your ear, let’s see what a classic, essential line can do for a soloist. The fingerings for the lines are the same but the feeling and rhythms have been varied and mixed up played with a driving rhythm and a sense of musicality. The melodic structure of the lick and not a dull and lifeless scale or fingering pattern, is the basis of the improvisation, of a musical solo. This exercise is teaching you to take a classic, all-time idea from the shared vocabulary of all guitarists and think of a way to make it your own, to improve upon it and put your own twist on it.
Jazz, Blues, Jive, & Swing Influenced Licks
The ideas to followrepresent the guitar work found on the earliest rock and roll records made in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. The guitarists of the day cut their teeth on jazz, swing and blues records -the most raucous swing was called jump and always featured a hot guitarist. This type of playing is an indispensable part of the modern vocabulary and should be studied and listened to by all serious guitar players, teachers and students.
As the great rock and roll (and blues) guitarists of this 1950’s and 1960’s era laid the groundwork for the guitar explosion that was to follow their work, and the work of their latter day followers, the early rock style demands careful study and attention. Again this is not a listening or music history course but the important players you should listen to and be familiar with are in the graphic below.
The Composite Or Conglomerate Scale
When playing the early rock style, there is one trick you absolutely have to know and that is the fingering pattern created when combining common scales and chord shapes that share as root note, in this case, A. Below is a pattern which you should view as a combination of all usable notes for the Amajor or A dominant tonality in the 5th position. I have also heard this called the master rock pattern or even the ‘bulshonic’ mode. It’s a tried and true juggernaut used for creating rock and roll licks.
Before you continue this study of early rock guitar playing, make sure you all the scales and chord shapes which are combined to form the conglomerate or composite scale.
Chuck Berry Influence
The biggest name in the early rock and roll guitar world was Chuck Berry, all the wailing, rowdy twang of early rock was based on his remarkably influential work. The line below is something most guitarists learned as the break his song, Johnnie B. Goode. I have always treated this guitar work as another foundation lick -one that is used time and time again to give good old rock flavor to countless songs. You must use this simple lick as a basic vocabulary word and become adept at fitting this break into lots of songs and solos, its simply part of the language.
Each time you use a lick such as this you should strive to make it your own by thinking of an interesting embellishment or throwing in a few extra notes. The recording below plays it twice; one fast and one slow. Listen carefully and then reproduce it on your guitar.
This study is a simplification of the intro lick that started it all and made Chuck Berry a living legend and a special favorite of electric guitarists everywhere. The line is played at a slow tempo and then at a fast tempo, listen closely before reproducing the licks on your guitar.
The Charlie Christian Legacy
The first hero of the electric guitar was Charlie Christian who rose to fame as guitarist to the jazz icon Benny Goodman from 1939 to 1941. It is a widwely accapted fact that he was first guitarist to play the electric guitar as a featured solo instrument. He has been called the greatest soloist of the swing era and also wrote many instrumentals now considered to be jazz standards. Charlie Christian has received many acccolades including inductiuon to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990.
His playing style relied very heavily on chord tones, chord shapes and chromatic approach notes. Instrumentas standards such as Air Mail Special and Seven Come Eleven are required reading for any serious electric guitarist.
The Charlie Christian style is heard below in a sweet sounding and bouncy major lick created by playing around with a C natural approach note against the chord shapes for A Major and A 6. This sound, called arpeggiating the chord is a defining feature of, and in truth a necessity to the rockabilly, swing, jump, and blues traditions.
A similar approach to the Charlie Christian sound is used in the lick below which is very closely based on his writings. The line contains the same raw materials as the previous example.
Take It To The House
The A minor pentatonic scale box pattern pictured at left is the bread and butter of electric lead guitar playing. At the upper extreme of the pattern is a nice little extention I call ‘the house’ because it reminds of the simple line drawing for a house shape, the diagram at left has a mouse over option designed to help you visualize this improtant upper extention -the one shaped like a house. If you are in the upper registers of the minor pentatonic scale and you want to go even higher, now you know where to go: take it to the house.
Full Length 12 Bar Early Rock Solo
The two previous Charlie Christian style examples show how major chord forms can introduce a bright, bouncy, jazz like into your rock and blues playing. Obviously, the favorite soloing tool of most rock players is the minor pentatonic scale because it is the most well known scale, has the best rock sound and is easy to think of great sounding improvisations using only the scale.
Knowing the musical mind as I do, it makes sense then that the minor pentatonic vocabulary and the major chord jazz vocabulary could and should be blended together. I often tell my students that great solos are made up of bits of chords and bits of scales. Our next example is a full length solo in the classic rock style over a standard 12 bar blues progression.
Concentrate On 2 Concepts
As you learn to play this solo you’ll be working with and reviewing two key concepts:
The well known upper extension of the minor pentatonic scale as a means of increasing range and avoiding habitual ruts -think of its symmetrical, pointed shape as a house.
Making The Changes.
In other words when the rhythm guitar player changes chords, you change your soloing approach. Making the changes means that you’re treating each chord as it’s own separate entity and adjusting your thinking, changing scales or arpeggios if you must, for each new chord. This type of thinking will make your playing direct, to the point and free of the weak, rambling or questionable notes which are often encountered when sticking to one scale for an entire solo.
60’s & 70’s Blues Rock Explosion
The following ideas and licks point to a musical movement and sound that began in the early 1960’s and got stronger and stronger until the early 70’s: blues-rock. Ths solos were more involved and were marked by a funky quality with sharp lines and hot lead guitar melodies. The playing was at first merely amplified traditional American blues and first rate copies of the great blues men. This early trend is heard in the recordings of The Yardbirds, John Mayall, The Rolling Stones, and later by groups like Cream, Led Zeppelin & The Jimi Hendrix Experience. This blues-rock sound is entirely dependant on the minor pentatonic scale for it’s signature sound and flavor, the box pattern is virtually the backbone of the style.
The 4 bar idea below is a simplification of the intro lick to Crossroads by the legendary Eric Clapton and is a red hot and impressive way to negotiate the last 4 bars of a standard 12 Bar Blues progression. The style and flavor of the lick is definitely electric blues or hard rock. The funky, gut-bucket sound of the A minor pentatonic scale is prominently featured in the first two bars of the example. The final two bars point to the power of skipping between chord tones.
Lower Extension Of The Minor Pentatonic
Before continuing I want to make sure you are comfortable with the lower extension of the minor pentatonic scale, the notes in the scale located on frets lower than the main iconic box pattern. If you recall I named the upper extension “the house” so calling this pattern the “back yard” made a lot of sense to my musical mind. Use the recording for ear training and play along practice, work on it until you are in perfect unison with the audio track.
Blues-Rock Licks And Fills Using The Lower Extension
The following examples have that classic rock sound and of course are heavily blues-rock in flavor. I am featuring a lead guitarists favorite 3 note riff box found in the lower extension of the minor pentatonic box pattern. Short, killer sounding bits like this are a great way to start out a solo or to make excellent background fills and parts.
Multi Position Classic Rock Solo
I have had lots of discussions with teachers and students alike about being able to climb up and down the neck when soloing, to break the rut of staying in the same old box pattern. The example below is firmly rooted in electric blues and gets that nice classic rock flavor from famous blues licks.
Bar 1 begins with he classic interval shake as played in the shot fills above. These notes are the 5th and the b7th or “E” & “G” of the back yard part of the scale -whatever you call them they make a great funky, twangy and bluesy sound. Bar 2 has you sliding that two note double stop up to the 5th fret, the fret you think of as ‘home base’ for the key of A. Bars 3 &4 climb up the neck to the house shape for a bend on the 10th fret -“D” (string one, fret ten). which is bent up 4 times to the pitch of “E”. This “E” is the pitch we hear so it’s the pitch we write, our finger never actually touch the 10th fret however as the pitch is produced by the raising of the pitch during bending. The “E” note, when played in this wailing, bent into fashion is often thought of as a ‘screaming’ or ‘big’ note.
Play Along Track
To conclude this super lesson, use the backing track below to practice the ideas and licks from the previous examples. I suggest you force yourself to compose learn licks from the upper and lower extensions, what I have called the ‘house’ and the ‘back yard’, to avoid the ruts associated with the box patterns.