Sign up ×
Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for musicians, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I started to learn how to play guitar a month ago, but being in a busy science program in college I have limited time to practice. I would like to eventually play lead rather than rhythm.

I am using online lessons by Adam St James and I want to know if I have to know chords to play lead.

  1. Is it not enough to practice scales alone?
  2. How well should I know chords?
  3. What should I practice everyday?

Say, if I like to be able to play lead of some of my favorite Metallica tracks? will I need to know the scales and chords that are used?

Please help me, I honestly need it! Thanks!

share|improve this question
The solution to this question depends on what your goal for playing guitar is. Do you just want to learn a few lead parts to songs just to be able to play them or would you like to become the lead guitarist in a band? –  Dom Nov 19 '13 at 18:55
I wouldn't worry much about goals, too -- when you are beginning, that is usually an unknown unknown. So, I still think the best advice is: just learn to play tons of songs. You'll end up learning all the rest in the process, and be more prepared to maybe adapt your goals. –  elias Nov 24 '13 at 18:23

11 Answers 11

Is it not enough to practice scales alone?

If you just want to learn the solos of other players, you don't need any theory, and you don't need to learn any chords. I'm just answering because everyone else it saying that you do. It's not true, a lot of people want to learn guitar because they like the lead guitar parts they hear their favorite artists play. You can play the lead parts of a song without even knowing what the actual notes are, and what key the song is in...

When I started playing, I wasn't interested at all in chords, because I thought that all the interesting bits where in the melody, and that people would rather hear the solo played alone, instead of just the rhythm. Imo, you'll want to learn chords pretty soon even if your main objective is to master lead guitar. If you're not convinced that you should learn chords, than don't. You can play lead without them, but I'm convinced you'll learn them sooner or later. Many lead players rely heavily on arpeggios, and arpeggios are just chords played one note at a time.

How well should I know chords?

Unless you want to be able to improvise or compose your own songs/solos, you do not need to know any chords. You just need to pick up the tablature and practice. The only advantage of knowing chords there, is it helps you memorize arpeggios better. For example instead of remembering the fret positions of the notes A C E G, you just remember that it's an A minor 7 arpeggio. If your goal is to compose or improvise, learning all the basic concepts of music theory (chords, scales, keys, rhythm...) is very helpful. In fact it's very hard to do anything without having at least a basic understanding of all of these concepts.

What should I practice everyday?

Again, it depends on your goals: If your goal is just to be able to play you favorite Metallica solos, just practice scales and the actual solos you want to learn. If you're curious about how they work, why they sound nice, or how to make something similar, you probably have to learn all the basic theory (not just the scale) and do some ear training exercises.

Say, if I like to be able to play lead of some of my favorite Metallica tracks? will I need to know the scales and chords that are used?

No, I know a lot of players who have no idea in what key they're playing, or what the chords are ; and yet they play the parts they practice extremely well, and I really enjoy listening to them. However, scales do help a lot because most (if not all) of the notes you'll be playing are going to be part of the scale. So scales help you memorize. Chords won't help you as much in this particular situation, but they can still help you in some areas, like memorizing arpeggios.

My advice: for now, just learn and practice tablature. Learn some of your favorite lead parts. Do just what you feel like doing. Don't worry about chords and theory. In the end this just a hobby, and it's meant to be fun. Why do you want the answers to questions you're not even asking? You're obviously not interested in chords right now. And you also don't need them to learn to play a solo. In the long run, if you're still as enthusiastic and motivated as you are right now, you'll start asking those questions automatically.

share|improve this answer
I agree with this for the most part as a good way to get into guitar but a lot of Metallica is technical enough where if you don't have any knowledge of scales or practice them regularly it will take twice as long to do what you might want to do. Essentially what I'm trying to say is, there are much more effective ways to learn to play Metallica then actually playing Metallica! –  Tony Nov 27 '13 at 17:41
You enjoy listening to those guys who have no idea what they're playing? That is weird. No, in fact I completely disagree with your advice: going this way will not make you a good guitarist, at least not without other input. It might make you a good guitar player, but not a musician. Sure, lots of people only learn by tabulature these days. Many become remarkably proficient in terms of technique. But I haven't met any I much liked to make music with yet. Well, ok, "just for fun"... but what's fun about sitting alone in a room trying to copy a solo by someone who does it yet better anyway? –  leftaroundabout Dec 2 '13 at 21:44
I totally agree with you. Theory, ear training and all that is what makes you a musician. But for a beginner, it's all about seeing results to stay motivated. That's what they're most interested in when they start (at least I was). I tried teaching theory to a beginner once, and it was horrible: it's like I was talking to a brick wall! Theory shouldn't be learnt at the very beginning. Did your parents teach you grammar as a baby? I DO NOT encourage anyone to play TAB all the time. But if that's the way they enjoy it... what the heck! –  Anthony Dec 2 '13 at 22:04

There are several ways to learn the guitar. But you probably have more fun learning through songs.

Don't be too worried about practicing scales, chords and other theory stuff, so that you end up playing few songs. Learn tons of songs! Learn songs you love, learn songs you hate, learn songs you like, learn songs you despise. Play them, play with them -- try changing the time, the rhythm.

You'll end up learning chords, melody, rhythm and harmony in the process.

Don't worry if it takes a bit of time until you can do the solos you want to your heart's content. Keep in mind that learning the guitar is something you never stop. The feeling that right now you can't play what you'd like to play accompany many guitarists their whole lives, because you'll always be wanting more.

So, enjoy the ride. =)

share|improve this answer

I think you have a classic problem for beginner guitarists. Every guy who started to play the electric guitar is thinking about the right time to learn "rhythm guitar" and "lead guitar".

The issue is that they are not able to see the "big picture" of learning. Ultimately, this is no more a problem when they have a guitar teacher. But for autodidacts, it is, for a long time on their journey.

My view on that : you should ask yourself what you really want to do, and what are the steps necessary to be there. You can ask a few questions to a teacher, your friends, read books about guitar learning. Then, you will see that all these steps or tasks don't have the same priority, or can't be finished at the same order. You will have to order them the right way.

At the end, you will see a few things, like :

  • There is no guitarist who can play only rhythm parts or lead parts. Even James Hetfield, who is considered as a "rhythm guitarist" is soloing sometimes.
  • If you want to be a "lead guitarist", that means that you will have to learn easy things to master, more difficult thing later, and that you won't be able to bypass totally the "rhythm" part.
  • To be there, you need to work on a few songs, a few technical things, a few theory stuff. There is no shortcut, like "I can do this without all the least fun part", only good possible paths
share|improve this answer

Every chord is made up of notes in a key - those notes in the key are the notes in a scale. So by learning the scales you are essential setting yourself up for success. With that said I would suggest learning the Essential Guitar Chords first. After you learn the essential chords you will be able to play almost every song on the radio.

Next I suggest practicing your modes. A mode is a variation of a scale and they will be your best friend when it comes to soloing. The modes include:

Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixo-Lydian, Aeolian, Locrian

This image is a great way to visualize and practice the modes:

In order to become a lead guitarist you need to practice these scales everyday. After you understand them and can play through each of them pick a key and practice inside of that key. I also recommend listening to backing tracks (you can find any key and almost any genre of backing tracks on youtube) and soloing along. This can be fun and really help you practice inside a certain key.

Another great tool to help you learn guitar is learn cover songs (like Metallica as you mentioned). You have a plethora of tabs and chord sheets available to you online so go and use it. By learning other materials you will start to get some great ideas of your own.

Learning guitar is not the easiest thing out there and like anything else it takes time and you need to keep practicing daily. If you have the time and money it is not a bad idea to find a local guitar instructor to help you visualize and practice some of the core concepts. Good luck and rock on!

share|improve this answer

You should know chords to play lead. To answer the other questions:

  1. You need scales and chords. Playing chords helps dexterity that will help with chords
  2. Know power chords very well. Only way your going to have fun early on playing at this point.
  3. Practice pentatonic scales and power chords.

if you are looking for a quick way to play solos, there aren't any. It takes years to play Metallica solos the way they sound. Try to learn the guitar so you have options to play any form of music and move to what you like without getting frustrated. Learn the basics and you will eventually play technical solos like Metallica.

share|improve this answer
Power chords ( can be a really good tool to know, but I wouldn't suggest only sticking to power chords. From my experience and other guitar students they have said learning power chords first can get you stuck in a place musically that is hard to get out of. With that said learn power chords, but also learn the essential chords in first position. –  MattCamp Nov 20 '13 at 17:16

A good way to start is to pick up the tablature for the White Album by the Beatles and the album itself.

The White Album is a good starting point because it contains songs that are relatively simple to play while covering a wide range of styles and techniques. Also it is one of the most influential albums around (some say the song Helter Skelter "invented" heavy metal) and the licks you pick up will prove useful in other contexts. These chord progressions crop up time and again (for example Karma Police by Radiohead uses a similar chord progression to Sexy Sadie).

First: listen to the album a couple of times.

Second: train your ear by playing along on the guitar. pick a song you like and try to play the vocal part or the lead guitar part by ear. the idea is to get a feel for where the notes are on the fretboard rather than 100% accuracy.

Third: play along to the song using the chords and the tab, noting how it compared to your initial impression of what was being played.

Fourth: improvise along to the song, using scales / modes you may have learnt or simply by ear. Get a feel for what sounds good and what does not. Try to write down any passages you discover while improvising that you particularly like using tablature with a view to improving these later.

Repeat and by the time you've worked through the album you should have improved your play quite considerably.

share|improve this answer

It would be good to know how to play chords, cos I don't think you'll ever play just solos. Also, knowing how to play chords, will help you play solos.

I would suggest practicing both scales and chords (of the respective scale you are practicing). That would help you get a better idea of the scale and help you play lead.

If you want to play some Metallica songs, get the tab/music sheet/whatever and just start practicing it. Sure, you won't be able to get it right from the first time you play it, but play it over and over again and eventually you'll get it right. It might help you to start playing it a bit slower than the normal speed(if the song is somewhat speedy - Metallica have some speedy songs).

Also,it would be good to find some beginners' guitar exercises that will help you get used to your guitar, help you with scales,chords etc

Might help you to take a look at these:

Need Help in Starting to Learn Guitars?

Lead Guitar : How much chords should I learn?

share|improve this answer

woaaah take it easy

his been playing a month and people are already shoving scale degrees and modes down his throat? no way should any beginner guitarist, especially not after a month should be worrying about modes... maybe scales and knowing the scale formula, practising them, but the other theory is too much for a beginner.

Continue learning your basic cords, practise changing between them, look up some easy songs for beginner guitar players. Don't try anything overly difficult or youll get discouraged.

Don't worry too much about about lead and rhythm guitar at this stage, get your basic down. Learn the chromatic scale and know your notes on the fretboard.

In order to decide whether you wanna play lead or rhythm you need your basics down first. Personally i think its best to practise both. In the long run if you aren't so good with solos (like me) play rhythm more, if your not that great with chords/rhythm, play licks and solos more. It all depends on what your good at.

Sorry I haven't quite answered it properly because I was so shocked about the fact people are expecting someone playing after a month to learn about modes. You don't need to know what scales are used in order to play any song if your are not learning them by ear. Just learn to use tabs :) Its good to know chords so you don't continually have to look up every chord you do. However, knowing these things in the long run will make you a better musician and make you able to understand music and how its created better :)

share|improve this answer

I'm a guitar teacher, to comprehend the guitar you just need a few things, and master them, these are

  1. Major scale (all positions up and down the neck) and all the modes of the major scale and the pentatonic scale (all positions and it's related modal shapes)

  2. Chord progressions and modal progressions

  3. Harmonizing scales licks and riffs into chords (and arpeggios if you want more options)

  4. Technique

  5. Ear training, transcribing

After that you can start using more advanced scales like the harmonic minor and the melodic minor and their modes.

If you want to be ultra advanced after learning the major scale and it's modes, harmony etc, modal and chord progressions, try mastering every chord on the fretboard..

And never give up

share|improve this answer
This is a good answer on what to practice when learning guitar, but doesn't answer the question per se, which asks about the lead guitar –  Shevliaskovic Sep 6 at 9:19

First I'd say that both lead and rhythm are simply part of guitar. Many bands, in both jazz and rock, only have one guitar player. Part of learning guitar is being able to play rhythm when you need to play rhythm and lead when it's time to play lead. Chords feed into understanding of scales and vice versa. Don't listen to the ones saying don't learn theory, even players who "play by ear" know enough theory to get through a solo. They still keep track of what chord they are soloing over, what note they're on, and a few scale patterns that they know can be played over the chord. To train your ear, don't simply listen to individual intervals and chords and try to determine them. Instead look up a simple cadence, record yourself playing the chords you decide on, and play it back on a loop. This sets the sound of the key you are in and lets you keep it in your ear. Then play all the notes in that key one at a time, listening for the unique sound quality that each scale degree has. Then you can figure out any song. Just listen to the bass note of a chord and decide what degree of the major scale it sounds like. If you learn a bit about chord theory that's all you need to determine things by ear. Got a little sidetracked, but seriously if you want to learn lead, play a backing track that goes through a common rock chord progression, find out what scales work over each chord and learn them, then every day improvise over thOse chords. Loop it endlessly and play until you come up with a few lines that you actually like and want to remember, and do it 6 days a week. In a month you'll be impressed with how decent you are at surviving the occasional improvised solo. Dennis Sandole said being able to just improvise a tasteful solo using just a major scale puts you ahead of most musicians. You need some theory, more can revolutionize your playing, but if you are waiting until you know enough theory to be able to solo you'll never get there. When you start soloing, it feels like you're missing something, that's natural and it only goes away by spending time actually improvising and not reading about how to improvIse.

share|improve this answer

First of all, you should be aware that even if your goal is to be a lead player, you will probably find yourself playing just as much - if not more - rhythm as lead. The reason: rhythm guitar makes up the majority of a song.

Having said that, you don't have to know all that many chords to play good rhythm in most styles.

Do I have to know chords to play lead?

Strictly speaking: no, but it helps.

Unless you are playing unacompanied solos - like Van Halen's Eruption - you will be playing lead over some kind of harmony - that is: chords. What chords you are playing over determines whether the notes you play sound good or horrible. Now, as long as you are just learning to play other people's music, you don't really have to know why it works - you already know that it does. However, if at some point in time you begin to create your own leads, you will have to deal with the fact that certain notes work with certain harmony and others do not. You can, of course, just settle for trial and error, but there are two dangers down that path:

  1. You will have to discover what works and what doesn't on your own, so be prepared for a lot of groping around in the dark,

  2. When you discover several ideas that do work, you might find yourself using them all over the place, which runs the risk of having all your leads and solos sounding the same (and thus boring).

Picking up a general knowledge of chords as you go along provides a safeguard against both of these. It will increase your understanding of what you are playing - even if you are just learning other people's songs - and that makes it easier for you to come up with your own ideas that work when you wish to do your own thing.

Is it not enough to practice scales alone?

I would suggest that practicing scales is not that important, overall, even for lead playing.

Why do we practice scales at all? Firstly, to achieve a measure of technical proficiency with single-note melodic lines. Second, to learn the note sequence and basic fingering patterns for a given key. These are important skills, but not in themselves sufficient to create interesting and exciting melodies and leads. Think of it this way: when you learn to write at school you will be practicing your handwriting and spelling just to be able to write something that will be legible to someone else, but a mastery of these two skills is not enough to write an essay or a story. So it is with scales.

In short: practicing scales is only a small part of developing lead technique and style and by no means the most important. I'd go as far as saying you can develop good lead skills without practicing any scales (although I would not suggest this).

How well should I know chords?

You know those chord dictionaries with the weird fingering diagrams and names like F#7b9? Depending on the style you are playing, you can probably ignore 90% of that.

Guitar George may know all the chords, but you probably will only need a small fraction of them and most of the chord shapes you will need will be movable - that is: you'll be using a single fingering which gives you the same type of chord with a different root (C major, D major, E major; A minor, B minor, C minor) depending on which fret you start with. Most of the chords in the dictionary are the same fingerings played in different positions of the fingerboard (the same goes for scales).

In the long run, it is much more important to know at least the basics of chord construction (which notes make up a particular chord) as well as chord relationships (which chords go well together and when) than memorising all the various fingerings.

You will probably want to learn at least the basic open position chords at some point (chords played near the headstock, using open strings), the movable power chord fingerings (since your question suggests you'll be wanting to play metal and rock stuff) and maybe some movable barre chord shapes to complement that.

What should I practice every day?

If you are already following a guitar course, you should stick to it at first and make sure you are really working on all the exercises and drills that it gives you. Every course follows some method and the later, more advanced material assumes you are already comfortable with the skills presented earlier.

What about practice outside the course? Since you are just starting out and don't really have a lot of time to practice, you will probably do best by learning to play some actual music first, before diving into more technical things.

Find some riffs, simple leads and songs that you can begin learning. Take some time to master one and then move on to the next. This will help you stay motivated because you will be playing music, as opposed to going through drills, and it will help you build up a base for more advanced concepts.

The single most important thing: Get a metronome, drum machine or computer equivalent and learn to play along with it. This also means learning note values and rhythm notation, as well as counting while playing.

The metronome is an indispensable tool when learning to play. It will prepare you for playing with other musicians, teach you to play in time - which is an absolute must, whatever it is you are playing - and allows you to pick apart difficult passages by counting them out and playing slowly at first and then gradually increasing the tempo.

Ideally, as you are learning new music you should be looking at what you are playing and thinking about how it relates to other things you already know. You might start noticing patterns about how the music you are playing is put together and see them repeat in different places. Take note of it. If you are following a course, notice how things you have learned show up in the music you are learning on your own.

The goal here is to have an understanding of the music you are playing. With time you should not only be able to play more complex material, but also have an idea of how the elements of the music you play fit together.

Bottom Line

Every guitar player needs solid rhythm skills - even if they are primarily a lead player - because most songs are mostly rhythm accompaniament and the notes in a lead will need to be played with good timining.

Timing is the single most important skill you should be developing when learning to play.

Knowledge of chord fingerings and scale shapes is a lot less important than knowing how the notes in chords and scales work together musically. It is a good idea to gradually gain at least some understanding of how the music you play works - especially if you ever wish to try a hand at writing your own - but, luckily, it is a skill set that can be developed along the way.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.