An aspiring lead guitarist (who we’ll call Joe) starts out learning to play by devouring everything he can find on the Internet and in books related to lead guitar soloing. Joe is motivated and excited and is progressing at a good pace. He studies scales, patterns, modes, theory, and learns a lot of licks and solos from his favorite players. His friends and family are impressed at how fast Joe has progressed and now Joe wants to start his own band and begin recording his own music. Joe’s technique is solid. His vocabulary of licks and knowledge of scales is better than average. He joins a band as the lead guitarist and is thrilled to have come so far in his playing and is ready to get his new band together and start performing on stage. But as the band starts rehearsing Joe is having problems coming up with cool solos for the bands songs. Everything he plays sounds like patterns and exercises and old cliché’s. All the practicing Joe has done does not seem to be translating into him being able to create killer solos. Joe is frustrated and embarrassed! So what does he do? He decides he needs to practice more and learn more stuff—then he’ll be able to come up with better solos. But even after trying all of that it’s still not happening. What is Joe doing wrong and why is he having so much trouble? The problem lies in the fact that Joe is unable to apply what he already knows to an actual musical situation. In short, he has practiced all of the right material; he just hasn’t practiced applying the material.
Hopefully you can see that it’s not enough to just develop your technique and learn a bunch of licks. Whether you want to form a band or create your own CD or even just play for your own enjoyment, investing time into finding ways to implement what you have learned is the key to your success. So, how can you begin applying the licks, scales and techniques you have been working so hard on and start creating cooler solos with better phrasing now? Here are 5 action steps you can take immediately:
1. Get 3-5 backing tracks in a style of music you like. Make sure that at least one track is in the key of A minor. Try and get tracks with different tempos and keys. These tracks should include at least drums and rhythm guitars and should be at least a couple minutes long.
2. Gather 5 of your favorite licks. These licks should be fairly short, 8-15 notes or so. Make sure you can play the licks cleanly and have them memorized.
3. Transpose all the licks into the key of A minor. For example, if you have a lick in the key of E minor try moving it up 5 frets or back 7 frets.
4. Now, beginning with your A minor backing track, play your first lick over the track. How did it sound? Did it fit? Now try playing your remaining 4 licks over the same track. How do they sound? Chances are you are going to have to change something about the original lick to make it “work” over the track. You may have to adjust the way you phrase the lick. For example, the rhythm of the lick may not sync up with the track in which case you’ll need to adjust it so it sounds more natural and fluid. Also, there might be some notes in the lick that don’t sound good over the track. If this is the case you’ll most likely need to change a note or two. Many things will most likely need to be adjusted. Everything from the rhythm of the lick to the width of your vibrato and bends, to the actual notes and speed of the lick.
5. Once you have adjusted all 5 licks so that they work over the A minor track begin playing them over the remaining 4 backing tracks. Now you are going to have to transpose the licks again to whatever key you happen to be playing over. Typical keys for rock and metal are A minor, B minor, C# minor, D minor, E minor and F# minor. Getting familiar with these keys is very important. Go through the exact same process with each lick over each track, adjusting as needed.
This entire process is what is called applied practice. Going through these 5 steps may be slow and difficult at first but the results over time will amaze you. If you practice this way consistently you will eventually get to the point where you can play any lick you know in just about any key or tempo that you want. In our hypothetical example above these are the phrasing and soloing skills that Joe needed. Learning more licks or improving his technique by practicing more was not the answer to creating killer solos for his bands music. And it’s not the answer for you either. Technique is important and broadening your vocabulary is important but they are useless unless you can apply them to real music. Start improving your lead guitar phrasing and soloing today by going through these 5 steps and watch your skills skyrocket.