10 Moves to Boost Your Lead Guitar Skills

Top 10 Lead Guitar Skills

Note from the editor: The following is a featured article by Rob over at Chainsaw Guitar Tuition. If you enjoy this incredibly useful tutorial, check out his website to find more.

Whether you’ re just getting started playing lead guitar, or you have experience, we all need that boost every now and then to take our playing up a level.

If you’ve tried various lead guitar moves, but can’t quite sound like your heros, read on…

#1 String Bends

One of the first moves that a lot of beginner lead players try, but very few actually get right!

You see, the idea isn’t just to push your fingers against the string so that it changes pitch and shows everyone just the sheer emotion that you’re putting into a solo. You know what I mean- when you see players make one of the ‘faces of rock’ while bending every other note…

Guitarist doing a string bend on a guitar

This may make you FEEL cool, but it won’t sound cool UNLESS you bend properly!

First, the force doesn’t come from your fingers, but your wrist. Your fingers should be held still, gripping the string. Then, make a motion like turning a doorknob.

Now, most people I’ m met have their fingers connected to their wrists via their hands. So the action of twisting your wrist/arm around like this will also move your fingers and bend the string. This is how you should bend.

However, you’ll never get it to sound right unless you know where you’re bending to. If you don’t bend up to another note, you’ll be out of tune, right?

A good exercise to practice this is to play your target note first, and then bend the other note up to the same pitch.

Here is an example of what I mean:

Example of a string bend

Both of those notes should end up the same. This conveniently leads us into the next move…

#2 Unison Bend

This idea is probably a bit cliche for a lot of players. It has been over-used by many, and once you do it, you’ll recognize the sound instantly! Don’t instantly write this move as over-done, though, because it must have been used a lot for good reason.

The ‘unison bend’ is where you play notes on two different strings, and bend one until it forms a ‘unison’ with the other. This is really just a fancy way of saying that the two notes sound the same pitch, and the effect to seemingly amplify both notes as they resonate together.

There are two main ways that this is done- meaning two shapes to memorize. First, using the G and B strings:

Example of Unison Bend on a guitar

The trick is to keep the note on the B string still while bending the G string to the same pitch. This definitely takes some practice to master.

Once you’ve mastered that, try the shape on the B and E strings, which is a wider gap (example 3). This is because of the difference in tuning between the two strings.

This move can be used at any point to emphasize a note or even play a whole line. Just remember that the note on the thinner string is the main note. This is the note that you’ll end up doubling.

Check out the intro to Iron Maiden’s ‘Run to the Hills‘ or Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire‘ to see this move in action!

#3 The Trill

Again, this is a fairly cliche move, but that’s probably because it works well! It’s a great way to add flashiness and speed to a solo, without actually playing anything too fast!

So what is a trill? This is when you pick two notes either one or two frets apart on the same string. Then, you rapidly alternate from one to the other using hammer-ons and pull-offs. The end result is that you get to play something that sounds fast but is fairly easy to do.

The notes usually sound better if they both fit the scale or key you’re using, but you should definitely experiment with different combinations. Just remember to use the strength and movement from your fingers themselves, and not by twisting your wrist!

Here is an example of the trill in action:

Example of a trill on a guitar

Some ideas to get you started with this one include playing up and down an arpeggios (like Randy Rhoads often did). Notice how the trill is written in the tab:

Example of a guitar trill within arpeggios

You can also use this is a lick to add to the energy and excitement. Here is the trill combined with a bend:

Example of a guitar trill and bend combined

Or, you can use it in the more ‘classical’ way (as in ‘Classical Music’ on a classical guitar) where the trill is used on one single note to hold the tension. This one works especially well for those huge, 1970s rock’n’roll endings, where nobody seems to want to actually stop playing.

Playing lead guitar riffs

#4 Tremolo Picking

This one is also used by many guitarists (noteably Eddie Van Halen) to add speed and excitement to something that would otherwise be pretty boring. You can use this with any melody or lick that you already know to make it ‘faster’ without it actually being faster.

So, ‘tremolo’ is the technical term for when you quickly change the volume of a note. In real life, this is done by very quickly picking the same note over and over.

You’l probably want to use alternate picking for this, as just down picks may just cause your arm to fall off, mid solo (and I’ve heard that can be bad luck!).

So, here is an example line where each note is tremolo picked:

Example of tremolo picking

The lines going through each note tell you to tremolo pick, and the number of lines tell you the speed. So, the above lick could also be written like this:

Example of tremolo picking written out

…but that is more difficult to read, and looks a bit messier.

#5 Slides

For many guitarists, slides are one of the first moves they want to learn on guitar! If you’re looking for something to add energy to a more boring solo or riff, then maybe you should try sliding to the notes.

There are three main types of slides, and each has a slightly different effect.

  • Into a note
  • Out of a note
  • Between two notes

First, sliding into a note is a great way to build energy and inject life into any note. For example, here is a simple riff with no slides:

Example of a riff with no slides

…and here it is with some slides:

Example of the same riff with slides

This is just one way to add personality into your playing. Be careful not to overdo it, though! If you’re sliding into every note, you might want to step back just a bit.

Secondly, you can slide out of a note at the end of a phrase. This sounds pretty cool on it’s own. Here is the same phrase with and without this kind of slide:

Example of a slide to end a phrase

It’s really up to you how much and where you slide.

#6 The Double Stop

This is your classic ‘Chuck Berry’ rock’n’roll sound! It’s been used in almost every genre since his time, including thrash metal.

Technically, when you ‘fret’ a note, it’s called ‘stopping’. You’re ‘stopping’ the string at a certain point, right?

Now, ‘double stopping’ is just ‘stopping’ (i.e. fretting) two strings at once. It sounds more technical than it really is.

The most famous lick involving a double-stop is what I like to call the ‘Chuck Berry’. Check out any of his songs to hear what I mean:

Example 12

You can replace the bend with a slide, if you’d like. Either way, you’ll hear this kind of lick in anything from Chuck’s ‘Johnny B Goode‘ to Pantera’s ‘The Badge’- so definitely one to try out, whatever your style.

#7 Pinch Harmonics

Almost the holy grail for every beginner metal guitarist and Zakk Wylde wannabe: the pinch harmonic. This is where you pick the string in a certain way to produce a harmonic squeal, and it can really make your notes pop out (especially with distortion!).

However, this technique originally started in the blues-rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ-Top. If you listen to their earlier tracks you might even begin to see how this magic is achieved.

The ‘pinch harmonic’ is just a normal note picked more aggressively. The idea is that you dig in more with the pick and catch the string with your thumb at the same time. If you think of it like this, and don’t worry about the harmonic so much, it might become easier.

Try this out with a low gain setting first, before adding the distortion and harmonics. Remember that picking different parts of the string will produce different harmonics:

Example of pinch harmonics

#8 The Dive Bomb

Made famous by Eddie Van Halen on the song ‘Eruption’, the ‘dive bomb’ is a classic sound of every 80’s metal guitarist in one technique.

Essentially, you’re playing a note, and then pushing the whammy bar towards the body of the guitar. This can be done with single notes to createa legato-like effect, or- my favourite- at the end of a solo or song.

Example of the dive bomb technique using the guitar whammy bar

#9 Two-Handed Tapping

If there is one technique that can take your solos from ‘fast’ to ‘shred’, this is it. Two handed tapping is when you use the fingers of your picking hand to hammer-on notes that would otherwise be difficult to play.

Some players like to hold the pick between their thumb and middle finger, leaving their first finger free to tap. Others hold the pick between their thumb and first finger, tapping with their middle finger.

It doesn’t matter which way round you do this, just find something that works for you. I do a combination of both, depending on the situation.

The most common way to do this is to play arpeggios, although it can be used for more complicated riffs. Here is an example of an A major chord arpeggio using tapping on one string:

Example of A major chord arpeggio using tapping on one string

…and here is the minor version:

Example of A minor chord arpeggio using tapping

For both of those shapes, the root note is under your first finger. This means you can play other arpeggios by just moving the shape around the neck to start in different places. Just make sure you also move where you’re tapping with the other hand!

Check out ‘Spanish Fly‘ from Van Halen II for more on how these shapes can really be used!

#10 The Scale Run

This one is pretty much what it says on the tin: you ‘run’ up (or sometimes down) a scale. You can use these to add a build-up or increase the tension for a certain point in your solo.

Now, playing a good scale run is far more than just running up and down a scale like an exercise! The notes often sound better if you sequence them in some way.

For example, here is a starting scale. We’ll already assume that you’ve sorted out a scale that fits the key of your song etc. I prefer to use ‘three note per string’ scales:

Example of a scale run for the guitar

There are various ways you can play this, that aren’t just straight up like that. For example, here is the scale sequenced into groups of four notes at a time:

Example of a scale run sequenced into groups of four notes

…and here the same scale played with more hammer-ons:

Another example of a guitar scale run

See how that makes things much more interesting? Sometimes it’s also a good idea to start the run with a bit of palm muting- that way you get louder as you go up!

Now you just have to get it to lead to somewhere!

So, those are my top 10 lead guitar moves. I could add Many more techniques to this list, but then it would no longer be a ‘Top Ten’. I hope these have given you some ideas for your own playing! If you liked this lesson you might also want to check out Rob’s website at Chainsaw Guitar Tuition – Turn up and Rock out!

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