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I can play rhythm guitar half-decently, but my friend would like me to play lead for his band. How should I start learning? (we'll probably be playing worship music)

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closed as primarily opinion-based by Jason W, Sergio, VarLogRant, Michael Scott Cuthbert, Dr Mayhem Oct 24 '13 at 10:18

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

    
practice. goals. –  JimR Oct 18 '13 at 2:26
    
Wow! Thanks for all the awesome answers! It was hard to decide the best one and you all deserve honorable mention! –  nick Oct 19 '13 at 21:00

6 Answers 6

up vote 3 down vote accepted

A simple-but-quite-effective technique is to just double the melody line. Sing the song through the instrument.

For practicing solo, you probably still want to hit the chords on the downbeats or when they change, so your sub-goal here is a comfortable sort of combined rhythm/lead or chord/melody style.

So when choosing a chord voicing, pick one where the top note matches the melody, then play the melody real nice until the chord needs to change; repeat.

A good example of what I mean is the guitar solo from Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit. It's just the melody again, and it's awesome.


A second technique that can be practiced separately or combined with the above is fills. Unless the lyrics have a strict tetrameter, there's going to be a rhythmic gap between the lyrics and the chord movement.

In (almost) every gap, you can play a tiny little guitar solo. It doesn't have to be much, if you only have the space of a beat or two. A nice ringing arpeggio of the chord, a little line of a few notes connecting two chord tones, etc. You can echo something that just happened or anticipate something from the next line (the musical director might have advice on when (not) to do this, too much and it can steal punch from the ensemble).

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It's all about goal setting my man.

When you say lead do you mean in the sense that Joe Pass played lead, with chords and melody at the same time. Do you mean you want to be the lead instrument, more than the voice, or that you want to be the main instrument behind the voice?

I can't tell you how to sound, but some suggestions I'd like to offer, pertinent to both lead playing and being in a band:

Don't be afraid to imitate.

Every note and Idea has been permutated in one way or another. you can't escape copying someone, so pick who you want to imitate and learn some of their music. John Petrucci is Steve Morse pushed further. Yngwie Malmsteen learned every Deep Purple guitar part at 14. Vai = John McLaughlin+Allan Holdsworth. Slash = Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Hendrix etc. Once you have a scale and a simple lick you'd be amazed how far you can take the sound.

learn what to play, why and how all together.

If all you have is other people's licks, you have no idea how/when to use them. If all you learn is theory, you have no Idea what to play to get it across.

Get your digits up to scratch.

No matter what style you play, there's no excuse for poor technique.
A well practised shredder can play punk, but a poor practiced punk can't play metal. There is nothing lost by learning to play well, and it makes you far more versatile

Be an Equal Team Member

This is specific to joining a band. Don't be the jerk that goes on an ego trip. Great lead players are nothing without the rest of the band. Don't ever forget that. If the rhythm section play a 9th chord while you're hitting a sweet high root note they're the ones creating the great sound, but you're getting the praise for it. Listen to another brick in the wall part 2's solo. that sound is coming not from the solo, but from the backdrop to the solo. I.e the rhythm section. If you're a Vai fan, For the Love of god's sound comes from an Em9 and an F major 7.

Always Listen

Have fun, don't let pride get anywhere near the opportunity to learn. when someone says 'why not try x' give it a go, and if you don't understand ask them how they mean. If they say something that sounds dumb it could just be the way they've worded it.

Have your own voice

Sounds Obvious, but your biggest asset is the voice and style you have as a player. It's a combination of everything you've learned but it's uniquely yours. I've been in so many situations where I'll jam with a band and feel like I need to play a certain way. Fact is that's what causes those blocky jams that go nowhere(I believe).

Learn The Material

You can be a brilliant guitar player, but a big problem I've found is just getting people that will practice the stuff you're working on. If you can find people that do that it makes things soooooo much easier. You learn faster, the band can move forward and you'll actually be gigging in less time, which is when the band really starts so solidify member wise.

I've tried to cover both lead playing and being in a band, specifically where the two overlap. Here's a great video that sums up how I feel about being in a band:

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My teachers (way back) started me with two scales: the major scale and pentatonic (i.e., blues) scale.

I'm greatly simplifying here, but you'll ultimately be able to play lead/solo for most worship songs with these scales once you find the root note. There of course is an art to it, which comes through practice and feeling free with the scales and their different positions.

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Of course the answer is practice, but your question is more about how to get started now for an opportunity now. You actually don't mention if you are doing all original material, but I will presume you are. In some ways, it is easier to do this because you can work to your strengths.

You will need to focus solely on the specific songs you will be playing. You aren't working toward Musicianship, you are working on this thing right now, and you are writing it. Record the songs you need to work on without you playing: have the rest of the band do a run through. Don't worry about recording quality, just get a track you can then focus your energy on in your own time. Something you can pause and loop and play over and over again.

On your own time, focus on a single song at a time, and just find a subset of notes which you think sound good with the song patterns. What the scale is is far less important than what it sounds like. Since you will be playing "lead" you will be working toward adding "accents" such as individual notes, "extending and emending" the rhythm chords by playing higher up the neck, using a different chord form etc.

You should now have an understanding of the material, and a rudimentary plan on what to do. Take what you worked up and go in with the band and practice the hell out of it. Find what is broken and take advice from your band about changes.

Repeat.

Eventually, you will begin to get a better understanding of the mechanics and the why of what you thought sounded good, but true understanding of the fret board takes many years. Remember also that too much analysis is like dissecting a frog: few people really care, and the frog dies.

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A good practical understanding of what scales are and what notes they contain is to me critical in playing lead. You should start with a Music Theory teacher. ABRSM and Trinity both offer excellent theory qualifications. These are also very important if you have aspirations of pursuing music in any academic setting.

You will learn intervals and scales. You will learn what a dominant seventh chord is and how it should be handled and most important of them all you will learn to read notes which would be amazing if you just want to play the lead lines of church music.

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Identify the tonal center of the song, and then identify subsets of scales that establish and reinforce that sound. The pentatonic scale is one such example. The pentatonic scale + the key's "iv" tone is another example. Soloing and improvisation is not about scales: it's about target tones, pieces of scales, and phrasing.

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