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6 Ways To Dump Your Boring Lead Guitar Scales

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Scales are the enemy! If I knew how I would put a big X on this pic….

After studying lots and lot of guitar players I find it amazing that even the best stick to playing within scale patterns.

It became so monotonous to see the same Chuck Berry phrases, blues scale cliché’s, and repeating licks littered throughout the best of the best and I’m talking about the guys who are the end all be all of guitar players like Van Halen, Jimmy Page, and Zakk Wylde.

How do the guitar magazines and their followers fail to go beyond these embarrassingly familiar ideas?

My opinion is that we guitar players are trained to think in scales, and then we never get out of it! We play our rhythm parts consisting of powerchords and open chords, and then before the last chorus we throw in as many notes as possible that are often unrelated to the rest of the song. Isn’t this a strange idea?

If you look at guitar solos this way it’s no wonder that lead guitar has taken a beating since the hair metal days.

It’s like stopping all the action in the movie so you can show all the cool tricks your camera can do.

Forgetting about lead guitar techniques is not the answer either.

In fact, I believe that we should stop looking at lead and rhythm guitar as separate studies. They are the exact same thing to me. IMO, every great guitar solo is made up of riffs that are derived from the rest of the song. Ideas that enhance the excitement of the song!

This is a huge idea that I’m going to explore as time goes on, but today I want to give you a few tips on we can start breaking out of the single note-scale format and into the chordal format.

If you’ve been playing lead guitar for a while I’m sure you’re frustrated that it’s really difficult to make interesting guitar solos with just a pentatonic scale.

That’s because that scale can only make the sounds of two chords most of the time, and three if you are really good at working the scale. There are much better ways than shredding through a scale.

Number 1:

My first tip is to play under control! I’m speaking mostly to the guitar players who are getting started playing lead.

Taking that pentatonic scale and ripping it apart is fun for awhile, but once you play in front of an audience it will be obvious that you don’t know what you’re doing. Think your way through every note as you’re playing it.

If you’re playing a constructed solo instead of an improvised one you can ignore this info because you’ll know the notes pretty well. But if you’re making music on the spot you’ll want to control your mind and not let it get ahead or lost in the middle of a jam.

This is a more general than specific tip but it’s very very important. The signs of a great lead guitarist is not his technique but his control over himself.

Number 2:

The next thing is to know where you’re going! This is really how I often lose control while playing lead guitar.

I like to know the chords I’ll be playing over so that I can accent them in the right place and create a solo that’s not based on scales. This is really hard to do and very easy to trip yourself on.

I recommend starting with one-chord songs that’ll be easy for scales, and then move onto two then three chord vamps so that you can start throwing in other techniques.

This is a country and jazz technique more than a rock guitar technique. Most guitar players do not care about sounding like Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins, and that’s all right. I’m not a big fan of jazz or country music either!

My point is that you will eventually get REALLY bored playing scales and single notes because that’s all you will see. If you can see the chords you’re playing over your playing will come alive in a way that you haven’t heard yet.

Number 3:

And now for a more specific tip related to what I just talked about is to use wide intervals and string skipping. Understand that these are really the same thing, wide intervals and string skipping. For an example let’s take a common interval used for both, the sixth interval.

A couple are G# – E (XXX1X0), A – F# (XXX2X2), and C# – A (XXXX25). There are a few more sixth interval shapes but for brevity’s sake just try these out. Can you tell that they are part of the chords?

That’s why I strongly believe in moving to chords because they’ll help you see the fretboard as more than just a jumping point to shred on scales. Connecting these intervals together helps you create chord movement in places other than just scales.

These aren’t the only intervals available either! There are perfect fifths, fourths, major and minor 3rds, diminished and augmented fifths, and so on. There are tons of possibilities out there out of simply looking at the fretboard this way.

Why wide intervals and string skipping? Because playing any scale straight through top to bottom cannot create much musicality if it’s repeated over and over.

It’ll help you even see a new way to use the scales you know if you begin to see how playing this note over this chord or playing this note with that note makes music. That’s the whole point of every guitar technique.

It’s to give us the ability to make music. It’s a simple idea that opens a huge world. Intervals is a huge concept so for now just try playing different notes together over familiar chords.

Don’t be afraid of trying something that might be weird or has little chance of working as beautiful things come out of such situations.

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Number 4:

To take the interval and chord concept even further, I recommend using notes that don’t belong to scales.

This is pretty easy to do because if you take that familiar pentatonic scale shape and start sticking weird notes and removing notes from it you’ll get really exotic sounds.

Just about any combination of notes can be put together in 5 or 7 note groups and given a name.

Almost everything has a name already! Do this as an experiment to make new scales of your own, and suit the chords that you’re playing over. The second part of that last sentence is more important.

If you’re just playing any note you see with a disregard for what you’re playing over your playing will sound like a mess. This isn’t meant to discourage creativity but just to give you a guideline that’ll again break you out of scales and single notes.

Again it’s all about seeing the chords and becoming familiar with how certain notes create different intervals in every situation. Hopefully you can start to see all the possibilities available now.

I’ll admit that this is all great advice for a prepared setting where the chords and the songs will be familiar to you ahead of time. Although that’s not to say that this can’t work for improvised jams. It’s just tougher.

Number 5:

Think in small rhythmic ideas that can be repeated easily.

What I’m saying is take the repeating licks pattern that I’m sure you’re familiar with and apply it elsewhere. Use repetition to accent the intervals you’ll learn and chords you’ll come across.

Take a familiar pattern and break it up in spots with different rhythms and new notes. Play a repeating idea slow in one spot and faster in another. How many times have you heard a solo where the lead guitarist never stopped and let a note sink into the listener?

I’m sure you’ve heard them play constant strings of 6-note patterns and 16th notes to  the point where you just felt dizzy. This is why I personally don’t like lots of shred guitar players. So think in terms of the rhythms you’re playing instead of the notes you’re playing.

Learn how to play in five note and seven note patterns. Be ready to play one note here, a few there, and then really fast in another. Vary everything up and apply your own rhythms. Have fun with the notes you’re playing!

You’re not only creating interesting harmonies and melodies in your music but rhythm.

Number 6:

The last tip is to throw in tremolos, double stops, arpeggios, octaves, harp harmonics, tapping, or whatever else you like as long as they’re not single notes!!! BUT, and this is a big but.

Don’t think in sections where you’ll do some arpeggios, then tapping, and then tremolos because it’s too formulaic and uncreative.

I love it when someone can mix and match the various techniques they have to create some great musical phrases. And I want you to strive for the same! My point is that you don’t want to get stuck with just one or a few tools in your arsenal.

Single notes and pentatonic scales are great and we will never get rid of them entirely, but you should constantly work to avoid monotony and being predictable. I’m almost annoyed now when I hear about some new ace guitar player and he’s just playing scales.

Why am I annoyed? Because as a listener I feel betrayed as the guitar player didn’t put in their best effort. If you refuse to use the options available you’re letting yourself down as well as the people you’re hoping will enjoy your guitar playing.

Do you want to know the easiest way to do all of this? Listen to new music and be proactive about finding it. With iTunes there is no excuse for failing to do this.

If you can’t find anything out there that you like I’m afraid that’s just another sign of how badly you need to change your thinking patterns about the guitar. Again this is not easy.

You’ll have to exercise your mind and face a lot of frustration with applying this new knowledge, but the rewards are extraordinary for anyone willing to do the work. And everyone is capable of doing this work.

Do you have any other ways you like to break out of scales and single notes? Are you troubled by the idea that you even have to do this? Give me a comment and let me know.

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Also, check out this short video I made about Slash’s lead guitar style if you’d like to learn more!

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