How To Play Lead Guitar

Wondering how to play lead guitar? We’ve got your back. This is the latest in our ‘Ultimate Guide’ series of guitar lessons; these articles are crafted with great care and designed to teach beginner guitarists at lightning speed. Let’s dive in!

How To Play Lead Guitar

In this Ultimate Guide you will learn:

How To Play Lead Guitar: Part 1 – Lead guitar introduction: Understanding the role of a lead guitarist

  • What do people mean when they refer to ‘lead guitar’?
  • What is the role of a lead guitarist?
  • An overview of the 3 most common guitar ‘roles’: bass, rhythm & lead.
  • What does a lead guitarist actually do?
  • A great example of well-rounded lead guitar style (video).

How To Play Lead Guitar: Part 2 – Learn about the lead guitarist’s secret weapon: Keys

  • Understanding the all-conquering importance of a song’s key.
  • Why lead guitarists MUST know the key of a song (& why it makes things easy).
  • How to identify the key of a song.
  • How to find a scale that will work with the song’s key.

How To Play Lead Guitar: Part 3 – Guitar scales decoded: A simple explanation, at last!

  • What is a scale?
  • The two scales every guitarist must know
  • The Major Scale & the Minor Scale
  • The Major Pentatonic Scale
  • The Minor Pentatonic Scale
  • How to play a scale
  • Scales & relative minors

How To Play Lead Guitar: Part 4 – How to use the CAGED system to sound amazing with alternate chord voicings

  • An introduction to the CAGED system
  • Examples of the CAGED system in practice
  • CAGED system made easy
  • How To use triads to sound amazing

How To Play Lead Guitar: Part 5 – The tricks of the trade for lead guitarists

  • Improvisation tips and riff exercises
  • Understanding string-bending (video)
  • How to slide between notes (video)
  • How to use vibrato to add polish to your lead guitar technique (video)
  • Using hammer-ons and pull offs
  • Why root notes rule (and how to use them)
  • Active listening and some classic lead guitar ‘phrases’
  • 3 practice riff exercises & practice backing track

NOTE: This guide is easy to read but there’s a lot here (decades of wisdom and experience!) so you may want to bookmark this page for future reference. This will be a guide you can refer back to again and again.

.


how-to-play-lead-guitar

Part 1 – An Introduction To Lead Guitar And The Role Of A Lead Guitarist

In this section we’re going to give you a basic overview of what a lead guitarist does. (If you already understand this feel free to skip ahead to part 2.)

Ok, if you want to learn how to play lead guitar then we need to cover a few basics first.

What Do People Mean When They Say “Lead Guitar”?

The phrase “lead guitar” refers to a style of guitar playing usually performed by the lead guitarist in a band.

In a group setting, guitarists have different responsibilities. They each have a role to play to contribute to the whole and it’s important these roles are defined.

This is true for groups of all sizes; whether it’s a 16-piece band with a brass section or just two guitarists jamming together.

What Is The Role Of A Lead Guitarist?

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar, you need to understand the role of lead guitarist.

So before we get into specific techniques of how to play lead guitar (riffs, solos, CAGED, etc) let’s define this role a little more clearly, to make sure we’re both on the same page.

The 3 Most Common Guitar ‘Roles’

There are no absolute rules in music and there are infinite ways to combine musical roles, but the most common blend in guitar-based music (rock, country, blues, indie, folk etc) includes 3 guitar players. It looks like this:

Bass guitar

Holding it down with heavy low-end beats. Big fat notes. Very few chords. Only 4 strings.

(Examples: John Deacon from Queen or Flea from the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.)

National Guitar Academy

Rhythm guitar

Compared to lead guitar, this role tends to be based more around chords and strumming.

(Examples: Malcolm Young from AC/DC and Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters.)

lead guitar lessons

Lead guitar

Unlike rhythm guitar, this role is usually more focussed on single note lines and melodies (riffs, licks, solos etc).

But chords remain important. A well rounded lead guitarist has good knowledge of the fretboard and CAGED system so they can play alternate chord voicings to the rhythm guitarist.

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar well, you need great chord knowledge.

(Examples: B.B.King, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, George Harrison.)

how to play lead guitar

So What Does A Lead Guitarist DO?

The most visible work of a lead guitarist is ripping into a solo in the middle of the song, but there’s much more to the role than just solos.

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you need to learn how to contribute throughout an entire song. Not just in the solo!

A lead guitarist can drop in and out with complementary moments and melody lines which add to a song enormously.

[And not just with single notes, but with complementary riffs, licks, arpeggios, triads and effects. Lead guitarists have a wide and varied choice of tools.]

A Great Example Of Varied Lead Guitar

A great way to learn how to play lead guitar is to watch expert lead guitarists. This provides inspiration and ideas. Actively watch (don’t just enjoy the performance washing over you), study it! You’ll spot things you like and then you can learn them.

This is Jimmy Page and Led Zeppelin in 1973. Page does plenty of ‘flashy’ and eye-catching things, but there’s great variety and subtlety here too.

(The solo is blistering of course, but look at what he plays when he’s NOT playing the solo.)

Unsurprisingly, this can seem totally overwhelming for a beginner guitarist…

Learning how to play lead guitar can seem daunting, but it’s great fun and -like any challenge- you just need to break it down into smaller and more manageable steps.

It’s important to remember that there’s no ‘magic’ involved here. Anyone can learn how to play lead guitar. You just need to learn the building blocks of lead guitar technique. These are proven, repeatable steps that anyone can use, so please don’t feel like you aren’t ‘talented’ enough. (This is something I have heard many students say over the years and it’s simply not true. ‘Talent’ is a very small part of the equation.)

“Ok I’m ready, let’s do this! Tell me how to play lead guitar!”

Ok, clear your mind… Go in the zone and take this in! This is the main point of this whole guide:

How To Play Lead Guitar

There are millions of theories on this, and thousands of books on the subject, but essentially, a lead guitarist simply plays stuff that sounds good with the other stuff that’s being played.

That’s it, that’s all.

So how do we know what stuff will sound good with the other stuff?

Well, you need two pieces of information.

  1. You need to know the key of the song.
  2. You need to know the chords of the song.

(You can figure both of these out quickly and we’ll cover this later on in this guide.)

Once you have these two pieces of information you’re in business.

With these two pieces of information you can:

  1. Play notes from a scale that is complementary. (Thus, every note you play will ‘work’ and sound good!)
  2. Play alternate chord voicings, arpeggios and triads based on the chords. (These will all sound good, always.)

Ideally, you will do both of these things!

With these two pieces of information you will KNOW what notes you can play that will sound good. Good lead guitarists are never guessing; they know if a note will sound ok before they play it.

So as you can see, the first step in learning how to play lead guitar is understanding keys. That’s what we’re going to look at now.

Excited? You should be, you’re about to learn about the DNA of music – a huge part of learning how to play lead guitar. Let’s go!

how to play lead guitar

Part 2 – The lead guitarist’s secret weapon: Keys

You are about to learn:

  • Why keys matter
  • How to identify a song’s key
  • How to identify a scale that will work with the key of your song

How To Play Lead Guitar Ninja-Style!

The most important piece of information a lead guitarist needs to know is what key a piece of music is in.

“Why does a lead guitarist need to know the key of a song?”

When you’ve identified the song’s key, you can simply wail away in scale that complements the key. (We’ll cover scales later in this guide.)

When you play in a complementary scale you will know that every note you play within that scale will sound ok. (Some notes will sound better than others, but none of them will sound bad.)

This gives you the freedom to play whatever you want (from within that scale) and be safe in the knowledge that you won’t jam out a bad note. This means you can truly improvise. Huzzah!

How To Identify The Key Of A Song

To learn how to play lead guitar you must be able to quickly ‘diagnose’ keys.

Here’s a super-simple method to identify the key of a song: 95% of the time the key of a song is either the first or last chord.

Some specific examples:

  • If a song starts and finishes with the chord of C, then the key of the song is C. (Or to use its full title, “C Major”.)
  • If a song starts and finishes with the chord of Cm, then the key of the song is Cm.

What if a song starts or ends with a 7th chord?

  • Treat major sevenths (eg Cmaj7, Dmaj7) as major chords.
  • Treat minor sevenths (eg Am7, Cm7, Dm7) as minor chords.
  • Dominant sevenths (eg A7, C7, D7, E7) can sometimes work with both major and minor scales. (Try both, see what sounds best!)

Let’s make this clearer with some specific examples:

  • If a song starts and finishes with the chord of Cm7, then the key of the song is Cm.
  • If a song starts and finishes with the chord of Cmaj7, then the key of the song is C. (AKA: “C Major”.)
  • If a song starts and finishes with the chord of C7, then the key of the song might be C major or C minor. Try both.

Once again: 95% of the time the key of a song is either the first or last chord.

Pretty simple huh? This is vital part of learning how to play lead guitar. You’re off to a great start!

1

Let’s try this out. Can you tell the key of this song?

If we look at this simple progression….

A, D, A, E, D, A

The first chord is A, so we’re already starting to think that the song could be in the key of A. We need to confirm our theory.

If we look at the last chord…

A, D, A, E, D, A

We can see it’s also A.

This tell us the song is in the key of A major. Easy!

This means you can play any notes from the scale of A major and they will sound ok. (They will sound harmonious.)

This is a critical part of learning how to play lead guitar, so I hope you’re following this ok. Let’s look at some more examples.

Bonus Challenge!

Here is a blues chord progression. What key is it in?

E Blues

  • The first chord is E7.
  • The last chord is E7.
  • This song is in the key of E major, but because it’s using bluesy seventh chords a minor key will sound awesome too.

For dominant 7 chords (A7, E7, D7, etc) we can often use both major and minor scales.

So in this example, we could play anything in the scales of E major and E minor here. They would both work.

What if the first and last chords aren’t the same?

Try both!

Try the last chord first, as it will usually be the winner. Either way, you have a 50/50 shot at getting it right and you will quickly eliminate the wrong one.

Are there other ways to work out a song’s key?

Yes. There are more complicated ways to identify a song’s key, but for a beginner, they’re really not worth worrying about. (95% of the time, the first chord/last chord method above will work just fine.)

The acid test to check if you’ve correctly identified the song’s key is to play the scale for that key. (We’ll cover this in the next section.) If each note of the scale sounds ok over the song, then you nailed it. Well done!

Important point: Key’s can change!

While learning how to play lead guitar you must remember this: There are no absolute rules in music.

This means that a song can change key from moment to moment!

In my experience, about 90% of songs remain in one key for their entire duration. (This varies hugely by genre, of course.)

  • In that other 10% there are tons of songs that have ‘black sheep’ chords. These are chords that don’t ‘fit’ into the same key of the rest of the song.
  • Raising a song’s key during the outro is a common technique in pop music, but key changes are usually much more subtle than this type of ‘global’ raise.
  • Sometimes, a song may switch key entirely for a bridge or chorus section and revert back to the established key during the verse.

So there will be plenty of times when you think you have the key of a song nailed down only to find there’s a curveball or one chord in the song where the scale you’re playing doesn’t work.

This means that learning how to play lead guitar can seem more difficult than it actually is.

But stick with the principles we’ve covered here and you’ll pick it up quickly.

Every piece of music is different and that variety is a big part of the joy of music. It’s all part of the fun! 🙂

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again. Click here to download your copy.

CHECKPOINT: Consider your amp tone!

exclamation mark (60x60)Before we move on to discuss scales, it’s important you take a moment to think about what sound you want from your amp.

Even the best lead guitarist in the world can sound bad if their amp tone doesn’t blend well with the rest of the music.

Think carefully about this! It’s a huge part of learning how to play lead guitar.

  • Do you want to use a clean channel? Or do you need a distorted/overdriven tone?
  • Would some reverb help your sound ‘sit’ better in the mix?
  • Does your guitar blend in or stand out more if your tone is bright and sharp? What happens when you turn up the bass and lower the treble?
  • How does boosting the mid alter your tone?
  • What pickup will you select and how will you dial your tone and volume controls? Try them in different positions.

One of the best things about learning how to play lead guitar electrically is the almost infinite tone combinations we can create. But most beginners fear experimenting with their amp tone in case they ‘mess it up’ or ‘lose’ a decent tone that it took them ages to stumble upon. Don’t be that guy or gal! Play around with your amp and experiment. Jump in with two feet! (You will be a much better guitarist for it.)

Ok, let’s move on and look at scales. This is going to be fun! 🙂

consider amp tone

Part 3 – Guitar scales decoded: A simple explanation, at last!

Understanding scales is essential if you want to learn how to play lead guitar. (In the mind of lots of guitarists, scales ARE lead guitar.)

You don’t need to be a master. You just need to know the basics. Don’t worry, I’ll make it really easy to understand.

What is a scale?

A scale is simply a group of notes. That’s all.

You could pick a bunch of random notes and christen them the ‘random scale’ if you wanted. (Hey presto, you invented a scale!)

But there are two established scales that prevail and that music theory is based on. If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you need to know both.

The two scales every lead guitarist should know

There are two scales that you MUST know if you want to learn how to play lead guitar:

  1. The major scale
  2. The minor scale

Both of these scales have 7 different notes in them.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

To make things easier for ourselves, we often play these two scales in a simpler form.

In these simpler forms, we take out 2 of the 7 notes.

1,2, 3, 4, 5

As you can see, this leave 5 different notes. And for this reason, we call the simpler scales ‘pentatonic’. (This is latin for “5 tones”.)

A pentagon has five sides:

lead guitar lessons

A pentatonic scale has 5 notes.

This makes things a lot easier for you!

Why? Because instead of playing these two scales…

  • The major scale
  • The minor scale

…we can make life easier for ourselves by playing the two easy versions of those scales…

  • The major pentatonic scale
  • The minor pentatonic scale

In our quest to learn how to play lead guitar these two scales will be our best friends.

The scale we’re going to focus on today is the Minor Pentatonic scale.

The Minor Pentatonic Scale is one of the most commonly used scales in all popular music and is the easiest and most versatile scale to get started with.

For 99% of guitarists this is step one in learning how to play lead guitar.

Ready? Let’s do it! 🙂

Getting Started With The Minor Pentatonic Scale

For today’s lesson we’re going to use the minor pentatonic scale in the key of A.

That means the full name of the scale we’ll play here will be the “A Minor Pentatonic Scale”.

That’s a bit of a mouthful, I know. (But we’re stuck with it!)

Minor Pentatonic Scale

This is ‘box 1’ of the minor pentatonic scale.

So what are guitar scale ‘boxes’?

You can play all guitar scales in 5 different ‘boxes’. A ‘box’ is simply a segment of the fretboard. (We have lots of frets on the guitar neck, so we have to divide them up.)

Just forget about boxes 2, 3, 4 and 5 for now. For your first 6 months of learning lead guitar, focus solely on box one.

Scale patterns stay the same, we just move them up and down the fretboard

One of the coolest things about guitar scales is they stay ‘fixed’ as you move them up and down the fretboard. This makes learning how to play lead guitar much easier!

The scale pattern doesn’t change. The only thing that changes is WHERE you start the pattern on the fretboard.

Let me explain. This is the minor pentatonic scale in all its glory:

On this image below, the thickest string (the 6th string) is on the far left. The thinnest string (the 1st string) is on the far right. If you don’t know how to read chordboxes like this, you should check out our article “How To Read Chordboxes In 60 Seconds“.

Minor Pentatonic Scale

See the root note at the top left of the above picture? This is your starting point. This should be the first note you play.

  • If you play this scale starting on the 1st fret, you will be playing F minor pentatonic. (Because the first note will be F.)
  • If you play this scale starting on the 2nd fret, you will be playing F# minor pentatonic. (Because the first note will be F#.)
  • If you play this scale starting on the 3rd fret, you will be playing G minor pentatonic. (Because the first note will be G.)
  • If you play this scale starting on the 4th fret, you will be playing G# minor pentatonic.(Because the first note will be G#.)

Can you see how the scale we’re playing is ascending with each fret?

  • The pattern that we move our fingers in remains the same.
  • The only thing that changes is what fret we begin the pattern on.

This is crucial for learning how to play lead guitar. Let’s recap!

  • Scale patterns are MOVEABLE.
  • You can play them anywhere on the fretboard.
  • What decides the tonality of the scale is WHERE you start playing it.
  • Play the first root note (the farthest left root note on the scales shown above) to choose.

Here are the notes of the 6th string (the low E string):

Notes of the 6th string

  • So, for example, if you start playing the minor pentatonic scale pattern on the 7th fret you will be playing the B Minor Pentatonic Scale.
  • If you start playing the major scale pattern on the 10th fret you will be playing the D Major Scale.
  • If you start playing the minor scale on the 3rd fret you will be playing the G Minor Scale.

How To Play Lead Guitar – The A Minor Pentatonic Scale

We’re going to use the A Minor Pentatonic scale as an example. (This means that the starting note of the scale must be A.)

So, we have to start playing the above scale patten on the 5th fret.

Hopefully, you can see why. (Because the note on the 5th fret of the 6th string is A.)

The correct fingers to use with the minor pentatonic scale

When we play the minor pentatonic scale we only ever play two notes per string. Easy!

  • Fingers 1 and 4 on the E String.
  • Fingers 1 and 3 on the A String.
  • Fingers 1 and 3 on the D String.
  • Fingers 1 and 3 on the G String.
  • Fingers 1 and 4 on the B String
  • Fingers 1 and 4 on the E String

You’ll notice that this is one-finger-per-fret. While you learn how to play lead guitar you should try and establish good habits. Good technique makes things easier! 🙂

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you must get comfortable with this one-finger-per-fret hand shape.

minor pentatonic tricks

This is me playing the Minor Pentatonic Scale. Click on the player below to listen.

Here’s the tab for what I just played. Can you see how it matches the chordbox pattern I showed you earlier?

Minor Pentatonic Lick

This exact scale would sound fantastic with a piece of music that had a key of Am.

Understanding which scales to play with which key

Most of the time you will simply want to match the key of the music.

If the key is E major and you play the scale of E major, that will be a perfect match. It will sound great.

You can often play a minor scale over a major scale and it will sound awesome. (This works particularly well for rock, indie and blues.)

It doesn’t work the other way around. If you play a major scale over a minor key it will sound pretty weird. Go and try it! 🙂

We’re really getting into the heart of how to play lead guitar now, so let’s look at some specific examples.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again. Click here to download your copy.

If the song’s key was Bm, what would you do?

You would simply match the key. Play starting on the 7th fret (instead of the 5th) and this will make the root note of the pattern ‘B’. So the scale you would be playing would be B minor pentatonic.

Over time, we want you to memorise the notes of the 6th string (low E string):

Notes of the 6th string

I tell all my students to just remember the notes of the 3rd, 5th and 7th frets to begin with. These spell out “G.A.B”. These frets also have dots on them that help you get your bearings. With “GAB” in mind, you have a foothold on the fretboard and can work out other notes from there.

So you simply move the minor pentatonic scale pattern up and down the neck and begin on the root note that corresponds to the key.

Hey presto, you will be playing in a key that sounds great!

Ok, so the minor pentatonic scale sounds great over minor keys (and SOME major keys), but what about the others?

If the key is major then your minor pentatonic scale might not work. (It will work over lots of rock and blues though.)

In this case, the easiest thing to do is to ‘convert’ your minor pentatonic scale into a major pentatonic scale by moving it down 3 frets.

“What? That sounds crazy!”

Yes, I know, but this is a ninja tip, so concentrate and stay with me here!

This is an incredible timesaver for beginner guitarists.

It allows you to play in both minor AND major keys using just one scale pattern:

Minor Pentatonic Scale

“That sounds great, but how does it work?”

Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say the key of an example song is C major. (One of the most common keys on guitar.)

You need to play in C major too. (C minor MIGHT work, depending on the style of music.) But C major WILL work.

If you play the above minor pentatonic pattern starting on the 8th fret, you will be playing C minor pentatonic. (Remember our notes from earlier.)

Notes of the 6th string

If you start playing this pattern on the 5th fret, you will be playing A minor pentatonic.

But, here’s the twist. There’s a weird thing in music theory where scales can be ‘relative’ to one another.

These two scales share the same notes:

  • A minor
  • C major

Don’t try and figure it out right now, it will make your head explode.

Just accept that it’s true! And be grateful for it, because it saves you a TON of extra work (and makes learning how to play lead guitar a lot easier).

This means you can play along to a song in the key of C major, by playing in A minor! (In reality, you will be playing C major, but you are just perceiving it as A minor.)

Let’s look at a real example

Find ‘C’ on the 6th string (the low E string).

Notes of the 6th string

As you can see, it’s on the 8th fret.

So we need to go DOWN 3 frets, to the 5th fret.

Going DOWN 3 frets is how we find a major key’s ‘relative minor’.

In your eyes, it would seem that we’re now playing in A minor. And that’s true.

However, we now know that the A minor scale shares the exact same notes as the C major scale.

These two scales are ‘relative’ to one another.

CRUCIAL POINT: You can play in ANY key, using this one pattern:

Minor Pentatonic Scale

If we play the A minor pentatonic we will also be playing the C major pentatonic.

This 3 fret ‘space’ between a major and its relative minor applies for all chords and scales.

Relative majors and relative minors

He’s a quick overview of them all:

relative minor

It’ll take you a while to get comfy with this concept.

During this time, it’s important not to get these the wrong way around!

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar, you must understand this. So let’s make it really clear….

If you want to play in a minor key…

Find the corresponding root note on the 6th string. Start playing the minor pentatonic scale there.

Easy!

If you want to play in a major key…

Find the corresponding root note on the 6th string. Move down 3 frets and play the ‘minor pentatonic scale’ there. Easy! (You will actually be playing the major pentatonic, but you will perceive it as the minor pentatonic – initially, at least.)

The relative minor to a major key is ALWAYS 3 frets lower.

(Conversely, the relative major to a minor key is ALWAYS 3 frets higher. But to work it out this way, you’d have to use a different scale pattern -the MAJOR pentatonic scale- and we won’t go into that here. You have plenty enough to get your teeth into already!)

I hope you’ve found this useful?

This is is really mind-blowing stuff for people who encounter it for the first time.

In my experience it takes EVERYONE a few weeks to wrap their heads around this concept.

If you are confused right now, please trust me that A) it’s normal to be confused and B) this knowledge will teach you how to play lead guitar. It really is all you need to know.

  • Don’t worry if this doesn’t make sense initially. That’s normal.
  • Play around with the concepts I’ve explained above and let it sink in. Return to this guide again and again.
  • It will take time for you to internalise these concepts. You internalise them by playing.

You will need to read and play, read and play, read and play, several times before you internalise all this.

Most people need to see, think and do all of this from multiple perspectives before they truly understand how it fits together.

You may want to bookmark this article so you can return to it again in the future to revisit these concepts.

Ok, let’s move on and look at the next part of learning how to play lead guitar, the CAGED system!

free lead guitar lessons

INTERLUDE: Matching a scale to a key – one more example!

This is such an important point, I thought we’d include another example here.

Let’s say we want to play some lead guitar over a piece of music in the key of “D Major” (i.e., the first/last chord is D). In this situation what scales can you use?

Either the D Major Scale or the D Minor Scale.

It’s easiest to play these scales in their pentatonic form. So our options are:

  • D Major Scale
  • D Minor Scale

Or the abridged (and hence easier) version of the above scales:

  • D Major Pentatonic Scale
  • D Minor Pentatonic Scale

All these scales will work well over a piece of music in D major.

Learning how to play lead guitar means you need to be able to quickly diagnose keys. Practice this lots! 🙂

Ok, let’s move on to the CAGED system. This is so cool, you’re going to love this.

lead guitar lessons for beginners

.


.

Part 4 – How to use the CAGED system to sound amazing with alternate chord voicings

Learning how to play lead guitar is, at heart, very simple. Play stuff that sounds good with the other stuff.

So far we’ve looked at keys and scales. These things are note-based. But now we’re going to look at something chord-based.

For most people who want to learn how to play lead guitar, this is much more straightforward than understanding keys and scales. Let’s do it.

What is the CAGED system?

The CAGED system is one of those things that lots of guitar learners hear about, but in my experience, they rarely understand it.

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar, you need to ‘get’ this!

Like all of this technical stuff, it sounds very confusing, but it’s actually pretty simple.

A simple way to understand the CAGED system

A chord is a shape. (A shape we make with our fingers.)

We learn open chords first. We press these shapes down and strum.

Some of these shapes are ‘fixed’ in place. We can only play them as open chords on the first 1-3 frets.

But not all chords are ‘fixed’.

In fact, many chords are what we call ‘moveable shapes’. They can be moved up and down the fretboard to play other chords.

We just slide the chord from it’s starting position to another place and play it. Hey presto, we hear a new chord, even though we’re still holding the shape of the original chord.

Our hand may be making the same chord shape, but because we’re applying the shape in a different part of the neck what we HEAR is a different chord.

Using how these shapes move is a powerful part of learning how to play lead guitar. Let’s look at some examples:

Examples of the CAGED system in practice

If we take an ‘A’ chord….

A-Chord-On-Guitar

…and move it up the neck 2 frets it becomes a B chord…

how to play lead guitar

We sometimes move these shapes around by putting a ‘barre’ behind them. These chords are then called ‘barre chords’.

But we can play plenty of moveable shapes without the barre if we choose too. In fact it’s sometimes easier.

There are five main moveable shapes. To learn how to play lead guitar you need to at least be aware of all 5.

The five moveable shapes are based on the following chords: C, A, G, E and D.

And for that reason, we refer to this as the ‘CAGED system’.

It’s not really a ‘system’ at all, it’s just an acronym we use to remember these 5 shapes.

So you know now that you can slide C, A, G, E and D chords up the fretboard to make other chords.

In your mind, you will always perceive them as C, A, G, E and D chords because that’s how you first learnt them. But as you move them around the fretboard they become other chords.

Earlier, we distilled the essence of how to play lead guitar by saying ‘play stuff that sounds good over the other stuff‘.

Well one of the things you can do that will ALWAYS sound good over the other stuff is to play along with the chords of the song.

But of course, if you literally just strum along and replicate exactly what the other musicians/instruments are playing, that will be pretty boring. It won’t add much to the track at all.

But if you play the same chords, but with a different voicing, that will sound awesome.

This is a critical point for learning how to play lead guitar, so stay with me here!

If you want to play a G chord, you could play it in 5 different positions using C, A, G, E and D chord shapes.

  1. If you play a barred C shape starting on the 7th fret, that chord is G.
  2. If you play a barred A shape starting on the 10th fret that chord is G.
  3. If you play an open G shape, that chord is obviously G!
  4. If you play a barred E shape, starting on the 3rd fret, that chord is G.
  5. If you were to play a D shape on the 7th fret that chord is G.

Can you see our CAGED system in the above examples?

Let’s make this easy!

Now of course, some of these shapes are very fiddly to play, so most of the time we don’t play them!

But we DO play the shapes that are easier to play. And these can be a lead guitarists best friend. 

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you must get comfortable with the E, A and D shapes from ‘CAGED’.

By a long distance, the E shapes, A shapes and D shapes are the ones that get used most often.

When we play the A and D shapes, we can just play the triads and abandon the barre. This sounds fantastic!

How to use triads to sound amazing

Learning how to play lead guitar means having plenty of tricks in your toolkit. Triads are a brilliant tool. Let’s look at an example:

So instead of playing our G like this (as a barred A shape)….

G (A shape)

…we can play like this, as a pure triad:

G (A shape triad only)

Can you see that this is the same as the above chord, but we just omitted the notes from the 10th fret?

Now this is EASY to play. We can play it with one finger!

This type of TRIAD shape is the distilled essence of the chord. It is the sound in its purest form.

It can sound a little lost when played by itself, but when used in a complementary setting as lead guitar over a rhythm guitar, it sounds fantastic.

How could you use this?

If you want to play over a G chord, but you don’t want to simply strum a G, then you could play this triad.

Or you could pluck the notes out, arpeggio style. This will complement what’s already being played. With some effects added, triads can sound devastating. Try it!

Let’s look at the D triad

It would be pretty hard to play G like this (as a barred D)…

G (D shape)

…we can play it like this as a triad and make things easier…

G (D shape triad only)

Again, this sounds fantastic as a secondary guitar piece. It’s very high-end and that treble can cut through and really balance out a chunky and full sounding rhythm guitar.

If one person plays a bass-heavy power chord and another play a high-end D triad, you create a very full and well-balanced overall sound.

Listen to something like ‘The Bucket” by Kings of Leon to hear how cool simple triads can sound as lead guitar.

Can we used CAGED with minor chords too?

Yes. We simply use the minor chord shape and move that up the neck as we did for the major shapes.

A quick summary of the CAGED system

To learn how to play lead guitar, you must know and use the CAGED system. Let’s recap.

  1. We can play all chords in 5 different shapes.
  2. We do this by moving the open chord shapes of C, A, G, E and D up the neck, as moveable shapes.
  3. The easiest ones to use are E, A and D.
  4. Triads sound amazing.

Ok, let’s move on and look at some specific tricks you can use to learn how to play lead guitar, like riffs, string bending and vibrato.

Facebook Tile for in-articles

.


.

Part 5 – The Tricks Of The Trade For Lead Guitarists

So far we’ve talked about lots of ‘conceptual’ stuff in this guide – and that’s important because understanding these concepts means you will understand the instrument!

But now let’s look at some specific practical techniques.

Here’s what you’ll find in this section:

  • Improvisation tips and riff exercises
  • Understanding string-bending (video)
  • How to slide between notes (video)
  • How to use vibrato to add polish to your lead guitar technique (video)
  • Using hammer-ons and pull offs
  • Why root notes rule (and how to use them)
  • Active listening and some classic lead guitar ‘phrases’
  • 3 practice riff exercises & practice backing track

How To Play Lead Guitar – Technique 1: String Bending

String-bending

This is where we bend the string up (or down) to make the pitch of the note go higher. If you want to learn how to play lead guitar this is an essential skill.

When we bend the strings it’s really important that it’s nice and relaxed. You don’t want to feel any tension/pain when doing this. It should feel absolutely comfortable.

Important points for string-bending

  • Be relaxed, you don’t want to feel any tension or pain when doing this.
  • Always aim for a note, our bends should always be in tune! (To help with this, we can pick a note higher up and bend up to it. By aiming for the note, it allows to improve our bending technique.) You’ll see an example of this in the video below.
  • Make sure you have a smooth turning motion in your wrist when bending.

Check out this video from Jack:

How To Bend Guitar Strings Correctly

A couple of final points on string bending

Note that you can bend strings in quarter, half and full tones. You don’t have to bend all the way every time! (A common beginner mistake.)

Bending strings with one finger will make your fingers ache and your bends will lack control. Use 2 or 3 fingers when you bend strings. This will add strength and control to your bending.

You’ve got four fingers so experiment. A big part of learning how to play lead guitar is experimentation; this is how you develop a feel for the notes. In this instance the more fingers you use, the greater the bend. Develop that feel. Try it now! 🙂

A string-bending practice lick

Here’s an example of a lick which contains bends.

Bending Lick

As a simple exercise, now try adding bending to your solos and here how it sounds.

How To Play Lead Guitar – Technique 2: Sliding

This can often add a slippery sound to our solos, which can be really cool and add an element of fluidity that juices things nicely.

  • When sliding always make sure it’s nice and smooth going to the target note, we don’t want to over slide. Target your note and nail it with confidence.

How To Slide Notes Correctly

Sliding between notes is a really cool technique. (Learning how to play lead guitar can seem complicated at times, but this is a cool, easy technique that sounds great immediately.)

Here’s an example of a common sliding lick that you can practice as you learn how to play lead guitar.

Sliding Lick

Now try to solo using some sliding!

How To Play Lead Guitar – Technique 3: Vibrato

Vibrato adds a little bit of movement to the note. By doing this it adds a little bit of character and polish. (This technique is used a lot by violin players.)

When using vibrato technique, we use a similar motion to bending but with an important difference: When bending we use our wrist to bend up and we tend to move it at a larger angle. But with vibrato we use the same technique, but with a much smaller movement.

We usually use vibrato at the end or start of our phrases.

An important point about vibrato

You must keep pressing down with your finger for the vibrato to continue ringing. (You ‘shake’ the string, but you have to keep pressing down too!)

Vibrato is a great way to finish phrases. It’s subtle, but it adds a classy touch and makes everything sound more polished. This level of refinement and attention to detail is important when learning how to play lead guitar. Little things matter!

Watch this video of ours to see vibrato in action:

An example vibrato lead guitar lick

Can you hear the vibrato at the end? Try playing it without the vibrato and listen to how much more abruptly it ends.

Vibrato Lick

Now try to solo over a backing track using vibrato technique.

How To Play Lead Guitar – Technique 4: Hammer-ons and Pull-offs

If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you must learn how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs. These are essential techniques.

The key point here is that we pluck the note only once, at the start. When our finger hammers-on we hear the second pitch. So we pluck once, but hear two pitches. The second note uses the force of the first pluck.

A pull-off is a hammer-on in reverse. And again, we only pluck once.

Hammer-ons and pull-offs video

To see these cool lead guitar techniques in motion, watch this video:

To learn how to play lead guitar we must practice this technique.

A cool lick to practice hammer-ons and pull-offs

Hammer on Lick

Now try and use some hammer-ons in your solos.

Bonus Challenge! Can you solo with all 4 techniques?

Try a practice solo and use all four techniques. The most important thing here, as ever, is to have fun and enjoy it.

Techniques like these are the icing on top of the cake when we learn how to play lead guitar. In isolation, none of them seem hugely important but when they’re combined they make a huge difference.

How To Improve Your Improv

A huge part of learning how to play lead guitar is learning to improvise.

The best way to learn how to improvise is to try and make something musical. It might not be perfect the first time (or the 101st time), but we learn by making mistakes. (So make lots!)

Using ‘active listening’ to pick up extra tips

An important aspect of learning how to play lead guitar is listening to your favourite genres. Actively listen. Try and notice what gives a piece of music it’s character.

It’s hard to do, but sharpening your ears like this is a key part of learning how to play lead guitar.

For example if you want to learn how to play blues music, you should listen to that genre and try and pick out its idiosyncrasies. By doing this you are learning how the genre sounds and FEELS. I call this ‘active listening’. It takes practice, but it rewards you richly.

Classic lead guitar phrases

Getting some classic lead guitar phrases under your belt can give you some good tricks to fall back on. This is a very practical way to learn how to play lead guitar.

When we want to play a certain genre or style, it’s a good idea to have a couple of suitable phrases or licks under our belt beforehand.

If we learn a few musical phrases which are in that genre, we immediately begin to sound like that genre.

Here a few licks I’ve prepared which use the trusty A Minor Pentatonic scale. I decided to make them bluesy, as blues is great for soloing.

Riff example 1

Lick 1

Try this out. Can you repeat it after me?

Here’s another:

Riff example 2

Lick 2

What did you think of that one? A little harder?

Riff example 3

Lick 3

What do I do with these riffs?

Remember, a key part of learning how to play lead guitar is learning how to improvise.

Try playing these licks over a backing track in A minor. There’s loads of them on YouTube. Try this one:

I also like to use the smartphone app “Jam Tracks”. You tell it what key you want to jam in and it will play an appropriate backing track.

This is a brilliant way to improve your improvisational skills and solo ability. You tell the app the key and then you can wail all over it in an appropriate key.


A powerful tip

exclamation mark (60x60)We learn the most about music by trying out different ideas.

Practice with different genres and jam with other musicians as much as possible.

This is by fay the quickest way to grow as a musician.

.


The Importance Of Targeting Root Notes in our lead guitar work

The last thing we’re going to look at is targeting root notes. This is another crucial part of learning how to play lead guitar, so pay attention! 🙂

What are root notes?

Root notes are the very first note in a chord or scale. It’s the most important note.

So for example, an A major chord has the notes A, C#, and E in it. But the most important note, at the ‘tonal centre’ is A.

The root note of an A chord is ‘A’.

A Chord

The A string is the first note we play in the chord. It’s the chord’s root note.

There is also an A note on the 2nd fret of the A string and this is also a root note. (Sometimes we have two root notes in a chord. They are the same note, one is simply an an octave higher than the other.)

To understand how to play lead guitar we must use this to our advantage.

The root note is always the name of the chord.

  • The root note of a C chord is ‘C’.
  • The root note of C minor is ‘C’.
  • The root note of C minor 7 is ‘C’.
  • The root note of “C minor 7 diminished 5th added 9” is ‘C’.

Why does that matter to a lead guitarist?

Because it applies not just to chords, but to keys and scales too.

If you play the A Minor Pentatonic scale, the root note will be ‘A’. This means you should finish your licks and phrases on an ‘A’ note. If you don’t do this, things will sound ‘unfinished’.

Learning how to play lead guitar means you must understand how to finish your licks or riffs. The root note will always sound great at the end.

The A Minor Pentatonic Scale has these notes in it:

Minor Pentatonic Lick

A C D E G

The very first note of the scale is A. (This is the 5th fret on the E String.)

This means that the root note in an A Minor Pentatonic scale is A.

It’s the most important note in the scale. It will always sound good! Use it a lot. Finish your phrases on this note.

Is there only one root note in a scale?

Yes and no. The root note, in this example, will always be ‘A’. But there can be multiple ‘A’ notes in there. They are all root notes, but they sound different to one another because they’re octaves apart.

(They’re higher and lower than one another.)

In our above example you will spot the other root notes on the 7th fret of the D string and on the 5th fret of the high E string.

This will make it clearer:

how to play lead guitar

These are your hero notes, use them lots!

How to play lead guitar: Tension and resolve

When we solo we want to try and target root notes to finish our phrases and licks.

Why? Because they bring a sense of ‘resolution’.

Great lead guitar work has both tension and resolve. If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you must be aware of this.

Light and dark. Rise and fall. We need both otherwise things become one-dimensional.

By targeting the root note, it allows us to hear that the phrase has finished. This is good for the listener. It feels ‘right’.

Root note finder exercise

Here are a few simple exercises you can do to help you with this.

  1. Pick a scale.
  2. Find all the root notes in the scale.
  3. Play a lick which starts on a root note.
  4. Play a lick which ends on a root note.
  5. Play a lick which starts and ends on a root note.

By targeting these notes, it allows our licks to sound strong and defined. If you want to learn how to play lead guitar you simply must know this.

Sometimes, you will deliberately not do this. This ‘plays’ with your audience. They are anticipating the resolution of the root note. If you don’t give it to them this drives tension.

Good lead guitarists use tension and resolve to their advantage. Develop this technique as you learn how to play lead guitar.

Download our lead guitar cheat-sheet to make things easier

It can be disorientating for guitarists to understand which scales work with which keys.

With this in mind, we created a cheat-sheet; a key and scale-finder that you can use again and again. Click here to download your copy.

Find Out What You Should Learn Next With Our Guitar Map

If you want to understand where you’re up to in your guitar journey you should take a look at our Guitar Map. It will show you what you ‘should’ know by now (and also what you need to learn next to move forward as a guitarist).

Most people find that the Guitar Map shows them how everything fits together and best of all, it will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that are holding you back.

(There is often just one piece of information that holds people back, 1 key insight that they need to know so they can continue moving forward and improving in their guitar journey.)

I made the Guitar Map so people like you can quickly identify what you don’t know, that you need to know next. I hope that makes sense!?

NOTE: The Guitar Map is now included in our free special report: 'The 7 Steps To Guitar Mastery'.

Want free guitar tips and video lessons delivered to your inbox?

Join over 30,000 other guitar learners and subscribe to our guitar-tips-by-email service. (It's free.)

We'll send you a series of lessons that will move you to the next level of your guitar journey.

Learn how everything fits together quickly, easily and effectively. We share ninja tips (for instant fun!) but also timeless fundamentals that will deepen your understanding.

NGAEM

Popular Lessons

How To Learn Guitar: An 11-Step Programme For Beginners

10 Easy Songs For Beginners

How To Strum A Guitar

How To Choose The Perfect Beginner Guitar

Guitar Notes Explained: A Guide For Beginners

How To Play Lead Guitar

3 Easy Ways To Play Bm

 


More Cool Stuff

Learn about me & the National Guitar Academy on the About Us page.

Check out some of our free chord lessons.

We'll be launching a new Podcast soon, exciting!

I will love you forever if you 'like' our new Facebook page.

Thanks for stopping by, speak soon! 🙂

00. Mike Kennedy Profile Pic (Circle)

Mike Kennedy - National Guitar Academy Director

PS – One Last Bonus Tip

This Rolling Stone article is a great place to find inspiration and ideas (and an epic list of incredible guitar songs) that will help you in your journey to learn how to play lead guitar.

Enter your email address to learn our best guitar tips and tricks today!