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Playing Lead Guitar Solos

Improvisation and chords

If you're interested in learning lead guitar quickly and easily, which I'm going to assume is the case, there are some things to avoid spending time on.

  • Modes - forget it, you don't really need this theory to play well.
  • Shredding - also largely a waste of time, as it doesn't really sound that nice. I'd file it under circus tricks!

Let's start with the key of C - reading across the top line of the chart below.

You'll find seven different diatonic chords, 3 major, 3 minor, one very odd m7b5 chord that you'll only encounter in jazz tunes. Most songs in C will definitely use chords I, IV and V, or C, F, G7. Sometimes chords ii, iii, vi, the minor chords. Am, Em, Dm.

See my other hub Guitar tab for chord diagrams of all these chords, plus a useful C major scale in tab.

These chords imply the use of C major or C pentatonic scale - which is basically the same thing with two notes removed. (It's also known as Am pentatonic ) These two scale shapes are grouped together, so you can mix and match them as you like.

The advantage of using the 5 -note pentatonic scale is that is it much easier to use.

Good news! - all the other keys work exactly the same, just moving the same pattern up or down the neck. Compare the scales for C,D,E and you'll see the same pattern, just starting from a different fret position. This makes improvisation on the guitar a breeze, relative to some other instruments.


Other keys

Looking at the diagram - your little finger should be playing a C, at fret 8, for any song in the key of C. Assuming you haven't taken fright yet. As a general rule, your little finger plays the tonic note of the key (C) and then the 4-fret box that contains the pentatonic pattern goes down the fretboard from there. This works for all keys.

As C to D is 2 frets,moving your little finger up 2 will put you in the key of D, (chords all move up 2 frets too, but with the identical pattern so we have D, Em, F sharp m, G, A7, Bm, Csharp m7b5 D) another 2 frets up and you'll be playing in E. (chords will be E, F sharp m etc)

If you moved up one more fret, to fret 13 (little finger) you'd be in F - or Dm, which is essentially the same thing. What would be the chords now? Try to work it out.

So what works for F works for Dm (the relative minor) - use this to play over Sultans of Swing

What works for E works for C sharp minor

C and Am

D and Bm

G and Em

Notice a pattern here? - Relative minor chords are always 3 frets down from their major brother.

Harmonic minor

If you want a more exotic, Spanish/Eastern European scale, try harmonic minor. The A harmonic minor scale shown at the bottom of the chart will work a treat over Bm7b5, E7, Am sequences.

Look up my other hubs for further info.

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A typical progression might go |Bm7b5 | E7 |Am |Am |

Note: there are lots of close 1 fret intervals in this scale.

Another Spanish-sounding progression would be Am, G, F, E. repeat for a while then take a sangria break, maybe followed by a little siesta.

Impro tips

Don't see the scale patterns as any more than a map of notes that will work. To really sound good, you need to develop a vocabulary of riffs,think about a vocal phrasing where you're leaving some breathing space between ideas, using slurs, hammer-ons etc. Singing along with the lines you are playing should really help with this.

I've tried to keep things simple - but some smart-guy or gal songwriter is bound to complicate things. They might put an A7 instead of Am or an E7 instead of Em (both examples in the key of C)

Work out the note that changes, and play that instead, so play a temporary C sharp instead of C over an A7 chord. Assuming it sounds nice.

Another thing that might help - though you don't want to rely on it, some amp distortion will give you more sustain (think Santana) and make it easier to play some good solo lines. Playing along with backing CDs is a fun way to practice.

Chord tones are important - let's assume you can play an Am in three places. All the notes in the chords are going to fit when you play lead, and extremely well, because they are exactly the same as the chord underneath. So when you play them with gusto, people listening will think (maybe subconsciously)- Aha! they know what they're doing. Which, of course, you will.

Blues theory

Blues theory is covered in my other hubs - keep it separate from this stuff. You can identify blues tunes by the use of 7th chords such as E7, A7, B7.

Pentatonic scales still work, but you'll need to move them up 3 frets from where they would normally be. So an E blues would use the pentatonic from frets 12 to 15, or just stay at frets 9 to 12 for a more country sound, which is also very useful.

Playing the blues - a few riffs or predetermined patterns are going to help a lot. Especially if those riffs are from the great BB King, recycled a bit. Robben Ford is also a great inspiration.

It's good to refer to chord tones constantly, even triad notes with repeated patterns can be very effective.


All this material can help with songwriting. You could think of composition as being the same as improvisation, only slowed down a bit. Software like Garageband, from the i-life 09 suite bundled with Apple Macs, can make all this more accessible and more fun. Especially when you can plug your guitar in with just an interface cable and it all works!


OK - in a nutshell

  • Use chord tones
  • Use riffs from your favourite players
  • Use scales
  • Mix these up anyway you like, but with a vocal phrasing, meaning you leave gaps for breathing and don't try to play too many notes. Listen to Miles Davis - the silences are just as important.
  • Learn melody lines, especially for jazz and rock standard tunes. If you memorize melody lines it will help you in creating interesting and relevant solos - if I had to pick one area that all guitar players tend to neglect, this would be it. A good place to start would be Summertime by Gershwin - not too hard but very often something that is requested.
  • Learning melody lines will train your fingers to play interesting things, as opposed to just following predictable scale patterns.

More info

Check out Robin Nolan, Youtube videos that are very useful for improvisers. Although they concentrate on gypsy Jazz styles, most players can learn a lot from these videos.


Jon Green (author) from Frome, Somerset, UK on January 10, 2013:

Thanks guys.

jimbo on October 31, 2012:

rock & roll

greenguitar on June 18, 2010:

Great post. Its an informative one and will assist a lot in learning the guitar. It will surely ease the task of learning the guitar.

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