We’ve all been there: watching in awe as a lead guitarist’s fingers fly across the fretboard, wrenching out notes we didn’t even know existed. And we’ve all thought, I wish I could do that.
But being a good lead guitarist is much more difficult than good players make it look. Sure, you can learn a few scales, do finger exercises religiously, and maybe even build some monster chops. But if you don’t understand the nuances of a style—phrasing, note choice, dynamics—you’re going to come off sounding too mechanical, too much like an exercise—all theory, no balls.
So to help you shine in the spotlight, we’ve pulled together some essential moves for improvising in rock and blues. For each, we’ll explain key elements of the genre, such as which scales are most appropriate, and then demonstrate licks representative of the style before pulling it all together in a short solo.
So get out your guitar and dig in.
Add up all the techniques, phrases and scales required to sound like an accomplished hard rock god, and even the snobbiest jazzbo might start sweating. This lesson breaks down the art of rock and metal soloing, starting with some universal pentatonic rock licks and venturing into the trickier territory of licks modeled after big-name shred heads.
Much of hard rock, classic rock, southern rock, and 70’s metal improvisation is based on the minor pentatonic scale (1-b3-4-5-b7). If when soling with this scale you get stuck in a rut—a disturbingly easy thing to do—try unloading some looping pentatonic licks like the ones in FIGURES 1A–E to take the intensity of your lines up a notch. These patterns, depicted here in E minor pentatonic (E-G-A-B-D), combine hammer-ons, pull-offs, and bends into rapidly repeating note sequences—a staple sound of rockers ranging from Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley and Angus Young to Slash, Kirk Hammett, and Dimebag Darrell.
FIGURES 2A-E contain similar- although alternate-picked licks, this time in the style of fireballers Randy Rhoads, Zakk Wylde, John Petrucci and Paul Gilbert, among others. Break into any one of these patterns at the high point of your solo and the crowd will surely get out of their seats and onto their feet.
The hard rock solo in FIGURE 3 is cast in the common metal key of E minor. As such, you’ll want to use the E natural minor (E-F#-G-A-B-C-D) scale to solo over the E5, C5, D5 and B5 chords—all of which imply an E-minor tonality. To add melodic interest, much of the solo is structured around either the triad or the pentatonic scale relating to the chord of the moment. In other words, a D arpeggio (D-F#-A) or D major pentatonic (D-E-F#-A-B) lick may appear over D5; a C arpeggio (C-E-G) or C major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A) lick over C5. For the B5 chord, we get a little more adventurous, thinking of it as either B major (B-D#-F3) or B7 (B-D3-F3-A), which creates a bit of tension, and therefore strengthens the resolution to Em (E-G-B) when the progression repeats. Use the B Phrygian dominant (B-C-D#-E-F3-G-A) scale- the 5th mode of E harmonic minor over this chord.
In this solo’s opening eight bars, a Mick Mars-inspired unison bend navigates string set 2-3, often coming to rest on a chord tone of Em, C, or D. (Note: Tremolo-picking these notes creates a similar effect.) The eighth bar is punctuated by arpeggiated 4th-fret harmonics outlining a B major triad. Use a whammy bar, if you have one, to vibrato the final harmonic.
In measures 9-10, an alternate-picked 16-note motif—a two-string lick favored by Neal Schon and John Petrucci—climbs the neck. A Steve Morse-inspired sextuplet—featuring chromatic passing tones between E minor pentatonic pitches—on beat 4 of bar 10 caps off the climb, and the phrase climaxes in measure 11 with a compound bend (a bend equivalent to three frets) and, while the bend is being held, a tap.
After a pick scrape and an open-string pull-off lick copped from Randy Rhoads, a blazing yet relatively simple E minor pentatonic pattern á la Tony Iommi unfolds in measure 14. This pattern mutates into a descending D major pentatonic sequence of sliding 5ths and 6ths similar to Joe Satriani’s intervallic legato moves. The exotic sound of B Phrygian dominant spices up measure 16, where unpredictable bends taken from Marty Friedman’s playbook give way to an ascending sextuplet run pilfered from Paul Gilbert and Yngwie Malmsteen.
The solo’s final four bars ride out over an E5 groove. A Jerry Cantrell-style combination of open strings, bends and pull-offs puts the fret hand in prime position for a Van Halen-esque minor-pentaonic flurry in measure 18. An Em7 arpeggio nicked from Eric Johnson makes for a jaw-dropping closer.
Traditionally, blues is based on a I-IV-V chord system and played with a shuffle feel. But unlike traditional diatonic harmony, the blues emphasizes the dominant 7th chord, applying this quality not only to the V chord but to the I and IV chords as well. While this system challenges the rules of traditional music theory, blues harmony has been so ingrained in our pop-music psyche that our ears have come to accept it as normal.
The basic template for the blues is a 12-bar form split into three sections of four bars each. In these three sections, the I, IV and V chords have designated slots. The first section (measures 1-4) introduces the I chord, which functions to establish the key. In the key of A, for example, the I chord is A7. One common variation of this form is the quick change, in which the IV chord (D7 in the key of A) occurs in the second measure. The middle section (measures 5-8) consists of the IV chord (D7) played for two measures, followed by a return to the I chord.
The third section (measures 9-12) contains the most harmonic activity. It begins with one measure of the V (E7) chord, descends to the IV (D7) chord for measure 10, and ends with a turnaround (A7-F7-E7) in the final two measures. This section—the “turnaround”; usually a I-bVI-V cadence—is named as such for the tension generated by the final V chord, which resolves to the I chord when the song “turns around” to begin a new chorus.
Blues soloists draw heavily upon three basic scales: minor pentatonic (1-b3-4-5-b7), major pentatonic (1-2-3-5-6), and the blues scale (1-b3-4-b5-5-b7). FIGURE 4A depicts a two-bar A minor pentatonic (A-C-D-E-G) phrase over the I chord in an A blues. The initial, quarter-step bend sends the minor 3rd (C) of the scale into the bluesy realm that lies between the minor 3rd and major 3rd (C#). (This edgy nuance has been exploited by virtually every bluesman, from T-Bone Walker and Albert King to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan.) The whole-step bends in measure 2 are equally important to the blues. The first is a grace-note bend, where the note is struck and quickly bent to pitch; the second is a pre-bend, where the string is bent to pitch before the note is struck.
FIGURE 4B shows the A blues scale (A-C-D-Eb-E-G) in action. Notice the edgy interplay between the b5th (Eb) and the natural 5th (E).
FIGURE 5A casts a matching pair of A major pentatonic (A-B-C#-E-F#) licks over the I and IV chords (A7 and D7), respectively, whereas FIGURE 5B mixes A major and minor pentatonics for a tonal tug-of-war. The latter, more “sophisticated” approach is particularly evident in the solo excursions of such masters as B.B. King (“Everyday I Have the Blues”) and Freddie King (“Hide Away.”)
Double stops are perennial fixtures in the blues. FIGURES 6A-C offer three such examples, all played on adjacent string sets. The first two are derived from the A minor pentatonic scale, and the third is constructed from the chord tones of A7.
FIGURES 7A–B offer a couple of turnaround licks. The first is carved from the A blues scale; the second is a chromatically descending sequence of double stops.
Our blues solo (FIGURE 8) is improvised over a quick-change 12-bar blues shuffle in A. Each phrase is constructed from the scales, licks and techniques we’ve just discussed and designed to align with the chord tones of the corresponding harmony. As you work your way through the solo, notice that the phrases in each 4-bar section follow a conversational, call-and-response theme.