The Magic Formula


This course is for someone who has already been playing and studying guitar. Ideally, you will already be interested in music theory and of course, and who have a good concept of lead guitar and rhythm guitar. Most of my students have some experience playing leads, licks and picking out melodies on their guitars. As you might expect, the material gets more challenging and interesting as we progress through the lessons, so you might the help of a friend or teacher. You don’t have to be a great guitar player or a music school graduate to benefit from this material, you just need to be someone who wants to play some nice sounding lead guitar and learn along the way.

The Magic Formula


  • Tune: Get in tune, stay in tune, and play in tune! Learn how to tune by ear and invest in electronic tuners as well. Playing out of tune, is quite a common mistake for players of all levels, deeply study this aspect of the guitar and continue with ear training and practice throughout your entire career. Playing out of tune immediately sounds bad to the even the most novice listener.
  • Tempo: Find the time, mind the time and stay in time. The quickest way to identify yourself as an amateur is to rush or drag the tempo. One of my best teachers once told me to always have on a metronome, drum machine, or backing track on when I was practicing. Everyone appreciates a musician with a great sense of tempo.
  • Tone: The best guitarists have the best tone. Luckily because we are guitarists, we can simply buy the best of the best: things like $300.00 overdrive pedals, boutique amps and custom shop guitars. But the truth is tone comes from you, tone comes from the player inside of you, from the way you hold it, the way you hit it and how much flesh you have any contact with the strings and frets. Tone is a science, find players with great tone and learn from them. The tone is in the bone!
  • Rhythms: The rhythms of your guitar solos are just as important as the notes, the flash and the speed. I always ask my lead guitar students to play a solo for me using only two or three notes thereby switching the emphasis completely to the timing and rhythm of their solos.The common ground we all stand on as musicians is rhythm, understanding and being in control of the rhythms you play is critical.
  • Rests: Logical coherent musical thoughts are called phrases. Phrases are the sentences of music. A phrase is caused by 1 1/2 beats of silence or simply a longer pause. When rests and therefore phrases are not included in a guitar solo, the music assumes an incoherent, babbling quality.
  • Repeats: By its very nature, music is repetitious. High quality guitar solos often use repeated ideas, themes and motifs to provide a sense of interest, organization and purpose. Developing your ideas and creating nice little musical hooks makes your playing sound professional and familiar.

Playing Over Chords

The place I like to start this study is not with scales, but with chords: chord qualities, chord tones and learning to control chord and express the sounds of specific chords with a stream of single notes. This approach yeilds fantastic results and gives a lyrical and melodic playing quality to my improvisation students. Playing chord tones, arpeggios, and interesting licks based on the shapes of the chords is where the music is at. This is of course in addition to learning scales, not in place of. If I had write my idea down in one simple sentence it would be this: Good lead guitar playing can be boiled down to playing bits of chords and bits of scales.

Chord Tones

When I improvise the first place I often go to is to the chords, and the individual notes that comprise the chords, called chord tones. Generally speaking, chord tones are the strongest, most powerful and most consonant notes to play. Truly, before I break out my the thesaurus of scales and melodic patterns, or start to blaze around on modes of the harmonic minor scale, I pick a few chord tones and neighbor tones to use as a basis for the first little melodic hook of a longer improvised solo.

Below, I’ve applied this thinking to a C major chord, the I chord, and the most important chord in the key of C major. The musical example to follow is based on a common or stock 4 chord progression, an entire improvised solo could be based on the simple four note cluster, called a “BOX”, that I mentally attach to a standard C major bar chord form. The diagram below represents a common thought process among experienced guitarists:

  1. Ascertain the key, C Major in this case,
  2. Find a familiar chord in the range you want to play in, here it’s Root 5 C major on fret III.
  3. Pick a few good sounding notes to begin your improvisation, below I’ve selected 2 chord tones and neighboring tones derived from the scale.
  4. If possible put those notes into a user friendly pattern such as the “BOX” I have built on the 5th fret below.
  5. As an exercise, practice playing to the background track using only those 4 notes in the “BOX”.


Backing Track

Backing tracks or play along recordings are an invaluable part of the process of learning lead guitar. This track is a standard progression in the key of C and it is easy to play over using the box shape illustrated above. Take this opportunity to develop and perfect a few nice ideas that you will keep in your back pocket and use them the next time you are in a soloing situation similar to this one. By simply focusing on this basic C major chord and the for not box shaped we have attached to it, you can concentrate on the feel and sound of the music you are making, developing your own vocabulary and not worrying about guitar gymnastics or the entire history of music theory.


The compositional genius Igor Stravinsky allegedly said, “Good composers borrow, great ones steal.” Stravinsky was able to see the process of music: one in which we borrow from and expand upon the ideas found in the music of others. As guitarists we adopt, modify and personalize the musical lines and ideas of the players we admire. It’s natural. In this video I am demonstrating the box we have been discussing in this lesson and hopefully, you will find a few things in this video you will want to learn, copy and keep for yourself. Another trait of top quality musicians is that they are good listeners and very observant when they are in any way involved in their craft. Stravisky must have known a few guitarists. (?)

The Takeaway

In this lesson we began our study of lead playing by thinking about the big picture of improvising lead guitar music by following a simple formula: TR3. When we play we are in TUNE, have a great TONE and we are keeping up the TEMPO. Our RHYTHMIC guitar solos are nicely punctuated by RESTS as we REPEAT and develop our more interesting ideas.

To that end we developed a nice little 4 note box pattern based on the common knowledge C major bar chord found on fret III. That pattern, with its accompanying links worked quite nicely on the C major background track that we have been playing over. In my mind, I have linked that pattern to the common knowledge bar chord but I have also linked it to nice sounding major scale licks that I can play in the key of C.

The original idea of playing and expressing the sound of the chord, using chord tones remains intact. The principal stars of the solo were the chord tones C & G being complimented by the next available scale tone above each chord tone. (These are also simply the notes that you naturally reach in that position as well) Think of these types of licks as being tied to, and visualized as part of the common knowledge bar chord. One of the nice things about the guitar, is that licks and ideas like this can easily be transposed to any key.


Backing Tracks

In order to learn to play lead you must play lead, meaning you must apply what you’ve learned to a variety of playing situations. Below, the vamp we have been practicing with has been transposed to the keys of D major and E major. When practicing to backing tracks, develop ideas you need for future use. Sometimes, to keep my concentration up, I imagine myself soloing with my dream band, at a big show.

The Road Ahead

This goal of course is help someone become a competant lead guitarist. In my view, this involves two schools of thought. The first being an academic or educational approach where you would study theory, scales, reading and of course playing with a variety of teachers. It truly is a great approach and experience but is expensive and time consuming. The second school of thought is simply an experiential one, playing and gigging as much as possible and learning from experience, listening to, learning from and copying the players you find on your journey. Both approaches are equally as valid, and equally as necessary. Any experienced lead player will tell you however that sometimes learning a nice little guitar trick, one simple concept, or new and unusual lick will often be the perfect thing for your progress. In the material to follow I am using both approaches.

Hopefully you are also studying my courses in Chords, Theory, Scales and Music Reading to fill any gaps you may encounter here in this course. I have designed this material to interesting, acessable and to give a music school experience to those who hunger for one. Read on there is so much more to come.


“My first experience with the guitar was taking lessons from Karl Aranjo as a high school student. His lessons were more than just a collection of tips and riffs: they were a method. As I look through, I get to take a trip back through those lessons and am reminded about I loved about them. His strong focus on the fundamentals quickly draws a connection between general music theory and the particulars of how that theory can be applied to the guitar, even allowing us as guitarists to use our instrument as an abacus-like tool to enhance our musical insight. In high school, Karl’s lessons got me up to speed to jam with my friends and in the school band almost immediately. In the almost 20 years since I left high school and had my last lesson with Karl, the things he taught me have continued to serve me well; I’ve played almost continuously in a variety of styles (jazz, rock, funk, folk), both as a hobby and as a part-time professional (currently playing with San Francisco’s Smash-Up Derby). If I hadn’t grown up in the same town as where Karl taught, I might have missed out on a lifetime of fun playing the guitar. With, wherever you are, you can benefit from the same quality instruction that I had!

-Grahm Ruby

“Mr. Karl Aranjo is one great teacher to work with. When working with him, he is very flexible, and will teach you all the basics and fundamentals you will need while learning how to play the guitar. From learning basic chords to crazy licks and solo’s. You will become an expert in no time and looking like a professional guitar player. In my experience, I learned to master chord progressions much easier and understand it in a better perspective. In my music career/hobby, it has given me nothing but success to play in a band as a front man/rhythm guitarist, compose my own type of music, and as well as songs that I really wanted to learn how to play on the guitar. Learning through Karl Aranjo was a great experience and has helped me understand the guitar a lot easier, I would not have wanted this learning experience any other way.”

-Julius Isaac

“I had the pleasure of being a guitar student of Karl’s for several years. Karl advanced my playing ability a great deal very quickly by giving me a perfect combination of guitar technique, theory and assigning songs that motivated me to continue learning. I highly recommend Karl for all level of guitar players no matter if you are a beginner or advanced.”

-Tom Hunt

”Karl Aranjo is a great and experienced teacher with an extensive knowledge of guitar playing and theory. His thorough online course, covers the whole spectrum from the first time beginner to advanced.”

Blake Aaron- Internationally Known Recording Artist

”Karl helped me dive into the blues when I was first starting out, and learning how to improvise opened up many doors for me on guitar. He has a vast knowledge ranging many musical styles, and i would recommend him to anyone trying to learn the instrument!”

Eric Cannata Young The Giant