Being the lead guitarist in a band is a fun position to fill. The lead’s job is to add flavor to the band’s tunes, usually playing technical and melodic notes instead of rhythmic chords. They’re also often responsible for the shredding guitar solos that raise goosebumps on your arms and add shameless air-guitar to your repertoire of dance moves.
Here are 5 key practices to improve your lead guitar performance:
- Practice as much as possible!
- Gain experience playing on stage.
- Communicate with your bandmates.
- Know your audience.
- Mind your appearance.
With these five practices a part of your lead routine, you’re bound to improve your performance skills and make a lasting impression onstage. This article will talk in greater length about why each of these practices benefits your performance.
1. Practice as Much as Possible
The first thing to remember when improving your lead guitar performance is that to be great at something, you must first be good at it. That means practicing guitar playing is essential to getting even better at lead guitar than you already are!
Practice can take on many forms, but what’s most important is that you’re doing it. This is because repetitive behavior, such as consistently playing an instrument, creates neural pathways in the brain that are strengthened when in use. That means that the more you practice, the better you’ll get!
Here are a few practices you can make your own:
- Practice solo. Beneficial for independent learners, a solo guitar practice could look like playing along to your favorite tunes, practicing scales in your bedroom, or experimenting with solo routines.
- Schedule a jam sesh. A jam session is a universal way to freestyle and still gain some practice. It’s also an excellent way to practice your lead while learning to play with your bandmates or friends. Playing with others requires a slightly different skill set than playing solo, so both are good to incorporate into your routine.
- Record and listen. Recording your practice session and listening to it is an objective way to spot areas of improvement in your playing.
In the end, as long as you’ve got an instrument in your hand, practice can look however works best for you!
2. Gain Experience Playing on Stage
A nerve-wracking part of playing in a successful band is undoubtedly attributed to performing in front of an audience for the first time. There is both vulnerability and courage in putting a live show on for others. Still, the experience is pivotal to your presence as a lead guitarist.
When music lovers go to a concert, they expect to see and listen to a flawless set. This isn’t to say that mistakes are a huge deal when they happen, but consumers pay to hear their favorite music, livelier versions of all the best tracks on the album.
That’s a lot to live up to.
Nonetheless, playing in front of an audience will help your overall performance, and here’s why.
- Once you start playing the set your band has rehearsed for weeks, those new neural pathways will fire up. Onstage experience teaches you how to comfortably play amidst the pressure of an audience. (Bonus: continuous onstage expertise will create new neural connections to turn you into an even stronger musician!)
- Playing live also teaches the musician how to interact and engage with an audience, which includes reading the room and matching the viewer’s energy.
- Live gigs also strengthen a band by teaching them how to play collectively in front of an audience.
The more experience there is on stage, the more comfortable you and your bandmates will be in creating exciting performances and feeling confident enough to execute them.
3. Communicate With Your Bandmates
Being a good bandmate means, first and foremost, knowing how to work collaboratively with others. A band member that is demanding, narrow-minded, or dismissive likely won’t last long in the group. When musicians get together to play music, they need to be able to communicate effectively about what they think is and isn’t working–for themselves and the music.
Lead guitarists play melodies and technical parts to a song, while rhythm guitarists play the chords that make up the song.
An excellent example of what this sounds like is the 9-minute masterpiece of the song Free Bird by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It begins with the gentle strumming of the rhythm guitar followed by the lead guitarist’s introductory solo, which comes before the vocalist.
Like any additions or alterations to a song, all bandmates need to know what they are to be able to play the music properly.
Being a lead guitarist does not mean stealing the spotlight with long-winded solos or surprising your bandmates with a change mid-performance. How a song is played is communicated to everyone involved.
Communication amongst bandmates is necessary for other reasons, too.
Take a look at a few below:
- Your bandmates are the one group who has likely heard you play more than anyone else. Open communication allows for feedback between members.
- All band members must be on the same page about events, rehearsals, opportunities, and jam sessions.
- Band members should communicate to accomplish the shared goals of writing and playing music.
Overall, being on the same page as your bandmates and listening to (and giving) constructive feedback will improve your confidence in playing lead guitar.
4. Know Your Audience
Knowing your audience means a few things. A good band will understand who their listeners are, what songs evoke which emotions, and how to make the entire show a memorable experience. They will also be able to feel and match the audience’s energy.
This connection between musician and listener, sometimes electric, sometimes mournful, yet always human is what comes from truly understanding the collective energy of your audience.
A few ways to get to know your audience are listed below.
- Interact with your audience. Musicians who don’t interact with their audience typically play an open-and-shut show. That’s okay for some types of concerts or a recital, of course, but live performances are precisely that: lively.
- Ask your audience questions. Asking the audience general questions can help break the ice at the beginning of a performance or while tuning or tweaking instruments.
- Listen to their responses. If only a few people respond, the group might be shy or have low energy. Gauge how you think the audience feels by their answers, and then play a song that you believe appropriately matches the mood or amps the crowd to get them where you want them.
Matching the mood and engaging with listeners will foster the sense of connection many people love and search for in music, making a better, more connected lead guitarist out of you.
5. Mind Your Appearance
Naturally, many bands have images they want to maintain. An example is KISS with their classic black-and-white face paint. Green Day was a band with a prominent punk image during their height in 2004; they were the first rock band I’d seen wear eyeliner.
Minding your appearance as a lead guitarist will help your overall performance, but only if it aligns with how the rest of your band appears. Wearing something outrageous while your bandmates are dressed casually will give the band a strange look, which may impact how your performance is perceived.
Appearance also refers to how you look when you play. Do you look relaxed, like you’re enjoying yourself, or do you look like you’d rather be at home? Many aspects of appearance affect the overall skill and performance level of your lead playing.
- Smile! Remind yourself to smile when you’re playing on stage and even in casual jam sessions with just your bandmates listening. A smile is encouraging and optimistic and puts people at ease. If the musicians are happy, the audience will feel happy, too.
- Move with your band as a unit. Match the energy of your bandmates, specifically your frontman. Don’t overdo (or underdo) anything; consumers want to see and listen to a united front.
- Mind what you say. Being the lead guitarist is often one of the more public roles in a rock band, and what you say can also be more public as a result. Ensure your words are true and set a good example for listeners.
Becoming a better lead guitarist requires dedication, passion, consistency, and creativity. It is a position in the band that contributes to the song through melodies and solos.
Practice, experience, communication, knowledge, and awareness are all key characteristics of a successful lead guitarist.
Exercises for the Lead Guitarist
All that being said, how well you play your instrument is what the audience is listening to you for. Lead guitar involves accurate fretting and plucking, at times with increasing speed, so specific guitar exercises that target those skills are good to invest in.
Here are a few starter tips from musician and lead guitarist David Dino White from his band Dino.
- As with any instrument, start slow and clean. Rushing through guitar practice will lead to unintentional mistakes when it counts the most. Learn the notes on a scale and play them from lowest to highest, making sure not to miss or skip any.
- Play the scale in a key. Once you can play a scale, practice the scale in different keys to diversify your playing. For example, learn a blues scale (usually in the key of E or A) and practice playing the scale in both keys.
- Play along to a jam track. A jam track is a form of backup music that lead guitarists can practice over. A quick YouTube search can bring up a blues track in E for you to practice your scales with!
- Learn alternate picking. Alternate picking is a technique that guitarists use to play quickly, which is especially important for the lead guitarist. It involves learning to pick the strings both up and down (versus strumming with a downstroke).
Ways To Fine Tune Your Shredding
Regularly learning and practicing will help maintain and fine-tune your shredding skills. There are so many ways to do so. Along with the five main tips mentioned above, fine-tuning your guitar skills can be done at home, in the community through lived experience, or simply by adding high-quality gear to your repertoire.
Online Resources for At-Home Guitar Practice
Free online resources can be a goldmine. Various unique apps and websites offer jam tracks, sheet music, video courses, and other resources for guitarists to explore.
Below are a few of the most popular online resources for musicians.
Ultimate-Guitar.com is one of the most extensive online resources for guitarists around the world.
With an app available for smartphones, Ultimate-Guitar has a massive song library, offers lessons for multiple instruments, and has a blog and a discussion board for its users. The site also helps to build connections and online kinships between users.
Like most sites, you gain access to unlimited resources and tabs by subscribing to the site. Regardless, Ultimate-Guitar is beneficial for subscribers and non-subscribers alike.
Jambox by TrueFire
Jambox is a backing app available for Apple iPhones and iPads created by a company called TrueFire. TrueFire is another significant online resource for guitarists. Truefire.com offers thousands of video lessons on technical skills, soloing, harmony and melody.
While Jambox is only available for Apple devices, TrueFire.com is extremely useful and functional on many devices, including Windows and Mac computers, tablets, and smartphones.
Jambox is free to download and offers hundreds of backing tracks that guitarists can play with.
National Guitar Academy
The National Guitar Academy is a third online resource for guitarists.
This website offers courses, tutorials, and countless free guides for beginner, intermediate and advanced players. You can access chords, scales, and tabs to hundreds of songs on their website as a lead.
Additionally, the academy has a podcast that answers questions sent in by users about the world and techniques of guitar playing. The podcast is accessible on their website.
Learn From Others Through Lived Experience
Getting onstage experience is crucial, as we already know. But watching other lead guitarists play is an equally plausible way to learn. This is because learning how other musicians adopt their talent helps to create an individual vision about how you want to embrace your own talent.
For example, seeing a lead guitarist that plays a wicked solo and looks great doing it may inspire you to practice your solos in a particular way. On the flip side, experiencing a poor performance will teach you what not to do when you’re the musician on stage.
Some local restaurants and bars will host live music. Checking out upcoming events in your area is a great way to check out the music scene and glean wisdom from other musicians.
Own High-Quality Gear
Specifically, high-quality amps, tuners and instruments are necessary investments for the lead guitarist.
By amplifying your playing, you’ll clearly hear what sounds good – and what could sound better. Playing on a guitar that sounds and looks good will continually improve your overall lead performance, and an instrument in tune makes for happy listeners!
There are so many companies that produce good quality musical equipment. The two most common ones are Marshall and Fender, but many brands exist to cater to every guitarist.
Marshall is a standard music equipment company. With ten brands of amps to choose from, this company has a wide variety of gear with crisp sound quality. The company also sells recording equipment, headphones, drum equipment and accessories like cables, foot pedals, bags, and more.
Like most of these companies’ websites, Marshall serves as a thorough online resource for music enthusiasts and dedicated players.
There is a reason musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain used Marshall amplifiers in their playing days! It is most guitarist’s go-to brand for all things music.
Finally, Fender is another standard company that makes acoustic, electric, and bass guitars, amps, and accessories. Fender also boasts ten different guitar amps and a few bass amps options, along with countless pedals, bags, cases, and merch.
On the company’s website, there are numerous featured articles about instruments, how-to pieces and other tricks of the trade.
Artists like John Mayer and Zac Brown Band have used Fender amplifiers in the past.
Vox is a company that makes high-quality musical gear, not limited to their stylish, vintage-looking amps.
Vox may make amps that could blend into a 1950s living room, but the sound quality is as modern as it can be. The company sells five different amplifiers, all with unique features, tons of portable gear, accessories, and recording software.
Bands like Foo Fighters, Hozier, and Paul McCartney have used Vox amps in their music.
In conclusion, to get better at lead guitar, one should practice often (and develop various playing styles to reach the interests of a wider audience). They should also gain experience playing on stage. Communicating and working collaboratively with bandmates, minding their appearance, and learning to read the room are also essential.
With the right equipment and dedicated playing routines, your lead guitar skills will continue to improve and strengthen over time!