15 Must Know Lead Guitar Techniques

Joe Satriani - A master of Guitar Techniques!
Joe Satriani – A master of Guitar Techniques!

In this lesson we will dive into the world of lead guitar techniques and explore many cool tricks that will make you sound awesome. So far in this course we have covered what guitar solos are and what scales we can use to play them. This lesson moves up a gear and gets us to the cool stuff!

Lead Guitar Techniques are the tools we need to add variety in our guitar solos. Without them, we would be playing straight scales or random notes with little excitement or musical qualities. Guitar techniques enable us to add spice to scales, create dynamics, build excitement and write musically pleasing solos!

Here is what we will cover in this lesson!

Essential Lead Guitar Techniques

  1. Hammer ons
  2. Pull offs
  3. Legato
  4. Alternate picking

God Level Techniques

  1. Sweep picking
  2. Tremolo picking
  3. String skipping
  4. Pedal points
  5. Tapping
  6. Harmonics

Add Some Soul

  1. Phrasing
  2. Vibrato
  3. Bends
  4. Slides
  5. Space!

With this many techniques under your belt, it will be hard not to impress people! The first two sections are technical based and fairly straight forward to grasp and practice. The last section is where you develop as a unique lead guitarist and skills here will come with experience and influences.

Essential Lead Guitar Techniques

Remember, for each of the exercises given, try play them slowly and with great clarity. Let’s dive in with the essential lead guitar techniques and get soloing!

1. Hammer ons

One of the most basic techniques in lead guitar playing is the humble hammer on. Why is it called a hammer on? It’s because a hammer on occurs when we hammer our finger onto a string to sound a note. We do this instead of picking the note.

When we combine hammer ons with pull offs we can start to do some really cool licks and phrasing! Lets first look at some hammer on exercises to get us warmed up;

Hammer On Exercises
Hammer on Exercise 1 - lead guitar techniques
Hammer on Exercise 1
Hammer on Exercise 2 lead guitar techniques
Hammer on Exercise 2 – Remember to pick the E note on 9th fret every time!

The curved line above the notes indicates either a hammer on or a pull off. If the notes were 9 – 11 then we would pluck the 9 and hammer on to the 11. If it were 11 – 9 then we would pluck the 11 and pull off to the 9!

In the exercises above, you should aim to pick the first note and then hammer your finger onto the second note. Moreover, The second note you play should be as loud as the first notes that you picked.

You will find yourself using hammer ons all the time when playing solos. They are a staple ingredient in any guitar solo and when combined with other techniques, as they often are, will create some real excitement in your playing!

Hammer are awesome played both slowly as faster too. In fact, hammer on licks are some of my favourite to play! Use the licks below as fun exercises. Aim to play each one as cleanly as you can. Try build up speed with these too using an online metronome such as this one. Once you have these up to speed you will be sounding god-like!

Hammer on Lick 1
E Minor Pentatonic Hammer on Lick 1
A tougher exercise with hammer ons guitar technique
A tougher E minor exercise with hammer ons
A cool sounding harmonic minor lick!
A cool sounding B harmonic minor lick!

The last two licks are tricky if you are new to lead guitar, and the last one includes two hammer ons after picking the first note. I will leave it here for hammer ons as they will be used a lot more as this lesson goes on. Try build speed and clarity with the above licks and remember to have fun with them!

2. Pull offs

So, Pull offs go hand in hand with hammer ons, the two after often combined and the result is the legato techniques. Pull offs, just like hammer ons are used on their own though and do result in some cool sounding licks.

We call them pull offs because we are pulling our finger off of a note in order to sound the next note. This is the opposite of hammer ons. If you pick a note and then pull your finger away from the string in a way that sounds the next next you will have played a pull off!

Lets look at a couple of simple exercises in A minor for pull offs!

Pull Off Exercises
Pull Off Exercise 1 lead guitar techniques
Pull Off Exercise 1
pull off exercise 2 guitar techniques
A good pull of exercise for building finger strength and rhythm

With the exercises above, make sure that all the notes are sounding evenly and cleanly. Remember to start slowly and aim for clarity. Once you become comfortable with the technique, build up the speed using a metronome.

Just like with hammer ons, we don’t have to limit ourselves to only doing one pull off. It is possible to do two or three pull offs per string. Pull offs will be combined with other techniques in the lesson so we will see a lot more of them before we are finished!

Try going back to the hammer on section and see if you can do similar licks to the ones provided but using pull offs! Lets take a look at some pull off licks in A minor again!

Pull Off Lick 1 guitar solo
Pull Off Lick 1
A minor on one string - Pull Off lick
A minor on one string – Pull Off lick
A Tough Pull Off Lick?
A Tough Pull Off Lick?

Remember, just like everything else in the lesson, clarity and equal volume for each note is vital to success. If you put in the slow and careful practice now you will reap the rewards later for sure!

Legato

This techniques is the combination of what we’ve covered so far; hammer ons & pull offs. The aim with legato is pick as few notes as possible, therefore creating really smooth sounding licks and phrases. This is a way of creating variety in guitar solos and different textures instead of just picking every note!

Also, you can build you speed up pretty fast with legato. I personally have always found my legato playing to be way faster than if I picked every single note. And you can build some serious speed with legato!

Lets check out a couple of basic legato exercises.

Remember, in these exercises pick the first note only and then hammer on and pull off every note thereafter!

Legato Exercises
2 Different but common legato patterns
2 Different but common legato patterns
A cool sounding Legato Exercise
A cool sounding Legato Exercise

The key to success with legato is clarity and timing. Use a metronome or drum machine to help you keep time. Sloppy legato playing won’t impress anybody. But legato played in time and with clarity sounds really impressive!

I will give you four legato licks in the key of E Minor as there is so much you can do with it. Some licks will be simple and the ones towards the end will be more difficult. Just like most techniques there is usually always a pattern that you can spot. Try to see the patterns and the scales that are being used!

Legato Exercise 1
Legato Exercise 1
A good legato exercise for learning scales
A good legato exercise for learning scales
Legato lick 3
Try to only pick first note in this lick. Also, try move this up through the whole scale!
A common legato pattern that can be played both up and down
A common legato pattern that can be played both up and down

So there we have legato. You will start to hear legato in guitar playing a lot. It’s usually easy to spot the difference between legato and the opposite of legato, alternate picking, once you become confident with it!

Check out the legato skills of Iron Maiden’s Dave Murray!

Let’s move on to alternate picking!

Alternate picking

We can take all the exercises and licks we have covered so far and use alternate picking on them. Alternate picking means that we pick every note instead of doing any hammer ons and pull offs.

Also, we call it alternate picking because we are alternating between an up pick and a down pick. We keep this up & down picking pattern going even when we move onto the another string.

Again just like legato, we aim to make each note sound even and in time. The difference between sloppy alternate picking and tight alternate picking is huge. A guitarist that plays fast and clear picking will sound awesome no matter what they are playing!

Lets check out two exercises to practice alternate picking with!

Alternate Picking Exercises
Chromatic scale - play this both in both directions, finishing on the note we started on! lead guitar techniques
Chromatic scale – play this both in both directions, finishing on the note we started on!
3 different finger patterns for this alternate picking exercise
3 different finger patterns for this alternate picking exercise

OK, so now that we have an idea of what alternate picking is, lets take a look at some fun licks and guitar runs to play in B minor with it! Use these to build speed and clarity. Go back through the previous sections in this lesson and try all the licks we’ve covered and use alternate picking on them.

If you have any guitar scales that you want to practice, use both legato and alternate picking to build speed and confidence with the scales.

Alternate picking exercise 1 - a repeating octave pattern
Alternate picking exercise 1 – a repeating octave pattern
A cool lick with a major 7th at the end for that harmonic minor sound! lead guitar techniques
A cool lick with a major 7th at the end for that harmonic minor sound!
Alternate picking exercise for 2 string licks
Alternate picking exercise with a flat 5th for a 2 string licks

Try and concentrate on the continual up & down picking throughout these exercises and licks. It may seems somewhat unnatural at first when you are changing strings. However, over time this technique will really help you build speed and fluidity. After a while of practicing you won’t even think about the up & down picking, it will be second nature to you!

God Level Techniques

Now we move onto the flash stuff! In this section we will cover lead guitar techniques that will impress everyone you show. Some of the techniques in this section can be more difficult to grasp, but again the emphasis has to be on clarity at slower speeds before you start to increase the tempo.

It is worth noting that these techniques tend to be used less within guitar solos compared to the previous techniques we covered. The upcoming chops are really effective when used sparingly. If over used, you may lose the melodic qualities of your solo. On the other hand, rules are there to be broken and it’s not uncommon to hear a guitar solo section made purely of sweep picked arpeggios, and they usually sounds great!

Sweep picking

This is a great technique for practicing arpeggios and sounding flashy! Sweep picking and sweep arpeggios are given this name because when we play them we are sweeping the plectrum across the strings, almost like a slow motion strum.

Sweep arpeggios are played across many strings and we rarely play more than one or two notes per string, usually one note. Once you get more advanced it is possible to add legato or alternate picking to the beginning, middle or end of sweep arpeggios.

When sweep picking remember to keep the plectrum strumming in one direction until it’s time to come back down the arpeggio.

Lets look a a couple of exercises in the key of A minor;

Sweep Picking Exercises
A good sweep picking exercise for locking you picking and fretting hands together
A good sweep picking exercise for locking you picking and fretting hands together
A minor sweep arpeggio
A minor arpeggio. Sweep the pick up and then down the notes!
Sweep picking exercise 2 - lead guitar techniques
Sweep picking exercise 2 – try not let the notes bleed into each other!

Hopefully you can see why we choose to sweep across the strings rather than trying to play all of these notes with alternate picking. It is up to you how you play the legato notes of the high E string. I usually find it better to do a pull off each time. You may prefer to do it all legato or pick each note. Do what feels best for you!

I will give you some more ideas of how we can use sweep picking and arpeggios. Some of these licks are more advanced so break them down in to small sections and take things slowly!

A big sweep covering 2 different positions
A big sweep covering 2 different positions
Another lick with a quick position change - lead guitar techniques
Another lick with a quick position change
A technical sweep picking lick - lead guitar techniques
A technical sweeping lick – start slow!

Go steady with these licks and see if you can come up with your own too. Try and convert to licks from minor to major and master those shapes too. Also, the diminished sweep arpeggios sounds killer too!

Diminished arpeggios
Diminished Sweep Arpeggios - lead guitar techniques
Diminished Sweep Arpeggios – Use 3rd finger to fret notes on G string and then use little finger to slide into the next position
A fun diminished exercise - lead guitar techniques
A fun diminished lick

Check out this arpeggio sequence from Dream Theaters Glass Prison song!

Tremolo picking

This is sometimes labelled the same as alternate picking. But I wanted to include it here as a separate technique as it is a cool and effective trick to throw into solos every now and then!

Tremolo picking is when we pick a single note really fast. You can join a few notes together to create a melody. It is a good idea to practice this and try build speed and get it in time, although some players don’t aim for specific timings, rather just a great feel when they do tremolo picking!

When doing tremolo picking aim to keep the wrist somewhat locked and strum from the elbow. This will enable a faster technique. Don’t strain yourself though, take time and build yourself up. Just like every other technique in this lesson, you want to be aiming for an even tempo!

Tremolo Picking Examples
tremolo picking guitar lead techniques
The 3 black lines under the note denote tremolo picking

There isn’t much more to say about tremolo here. Just try not to strain yourself! Like all the other techniques in this lesson, this is is good when used sparingly and will add color to your lead playing.

Check out the Michael Jackson ‘Beat It’ solo written by Eddie Van Halen with some tremolo picking at the end!

String skipping

This is another technique that can be used to great affect with arpeggios. You can instantly get that great 80’s classical metal guitar solo vibe!

As the name suggests, string skipping involves playing a guitar lick and skipping a string and going onto the next one. Check out this arpeggio example;

String skipping example lead guitar techniques and solo
String skipping example – A minor and E major arpeggios

In the example above we skip the B string in the first arpeggio and then the G string in the E major arpeggio. Try to learn the major and minor shapes with the roots on the D and A strings like in the examples above. Once you know these shapes you can rip out a classical arpeggio like this in the middle of a solo.

Write your own…

Try to come up with your own chord progressions based around this technique. Here is one I came up with for one of the first guitar solos I ever wrote! The chord progression was B, G, D, A. At the time I didn’t know how to work out the chords from a scale. Therefore, in the solo I played two major arpeggios and two minor ones, and it sounded great. It has ended up staying in my arsenal of licks until this day, almost 20 years later…here it is;

string skipping exercise 1
string skipping licks
These are the 4 string skipping arpeggios to one my first ever guitar solos!

String skipping is a useful skill to have; to be able to jump across strings and keep your flow going will really give you that pro edge! I’ll give you another lick that involve string skipping. Try come up with your own!

String skipping licks - lead guitar solos and techniques
G major arpeggio with string skipping involved – can you find other keys for the same pattern?

I recommend learning string skipping lick like the ones above. They do come in handy sometimes and can brighten up a solo if not over used. They are a staple of the essential lead guitar techniques.

Pedal points

This is another technique similar to string skipping where you can get some great sounding classical licks. The idea behind pedal pints, or sometimes called pedal tones, if at we have a constant note playing throughout a riff or lick. This is one example using rhythm guitar;

Pedal point licks and guitar techniques for lead guitar
The A note rings throughout this whole riff

When we use pedal points in lead guitar we tend to do it slightly differently. We still choose a note to focus our lick around, but instead we alternate between the chosen note and other notes within the lick.

This is a great way of adding some class to your solos. It’s also great for improving other skills too such as picking and string skipping.

OK, so lets see some examples of using the pedal point technique in lead guitar solos! Remember, like all other techniques mentioned here, the aim is for good, clean playing!

Pedal point lead guitar example
pedal point guitar solo
Pedal point in G major based around the G note on the 15th fret of E string.

We can also choose to base the pedal point around a collection of notes in lead guitar licks;

pedal point lead guitar techniques
Pedal point lick in E minor based around the notes on the D string

I’ll give you one more pedal point guitar lick. See if you can recognise this from a piece of classical music. If not don’t worry, it makes for a cool lead guitar exercise!

pedal tone lead guitar techniques and solos
Pedal point guitar lick
This is a fun lick that also makes a great pedal point exercise!

Try this technique with different scales and across a variety of strings. It will greatly enhance your knowledge of scales and intervals, as well as sharpen you lead guitar techniques!

Tapping

Now this is a technique that you can truly show off to anyone with! With some classical chord progressions and a tight tapping technique you will blow the socks off any non guitar player that hears you.

The tapping technique involves using our picking hand fingers to tap notes on the fretboard. Guitar player tend to use either their index or middle finger to tap a note somewhere on the neck. The technique involves hammering on and then pulling off with your finger to sound a note.

We can also use more than one finger from the picking hand to tap notes on the neck. This is where licks can get really fun!

Tapping opens up new possibilities for us when it comes to guitar playing, such as;
  • Fast licks
  • Great sounding arpeggios
  • More coverage of the fretboard
  • Up to 8 finger licks
  • wider range of notes

Lets take a look at some basic tapping examples. On the guitar tabs, a note that is to be tapped has a ‘T’ above it!

Tapping examples

Basic guitar tapping example - lead guitar solos
Basic guitar tapping example
Tapping with legato - lead guitar techniques
Tapping with legato!

The examples above start to sound impressive when you build the speed up. Luckily, getting fast at guitar tapping isn’t too difficult!

Tapping can be used in a variety of ways, including using it for rhythm guitar too. Tapped arpeggios sounds awesome and give you that killer 80’s vibe when played with distortion at speed! Trilling a note while bending is a cool trick too.

Get your metronome out and have a blast with the tapping licks below!

A great smooth legato and tapping lick - guitar techniques
A great smooth legato and tapping lick
Tapping arpeggio sequence – Great for finger memory!
lead guitar techniques - tapping arpeggio
lead guitar techniques - tapping arpeggio
bends and tapping - guitar course online
bend and hold note while taping on the 17th fret for a cool blues sound!

And there we have tapping, another one of the essential lead guitar techniques. When you can put together a solo and throw in the occasional tapping lick, or add a tapping section, you will instantly add interest and dynamics to your sound!

Harmonics

This section will highlight the numerous harmonics that are available on guitar. The main types of harmonics are natural harmonics and artificial harmonics.

Natural harmonics are played by lightly touching the strings with a fretting hand finger above certain frets to create a harmonic. Artificial harmonics include techniques such as touch, pinched and tap harmonics, and primarily use the picking hand to generate the harmonics.

All harmonics can be used for both rhythm and lead guitar. When done with style and in key, harmonics can add depth and character to your playing.

Natural harmonics

We play natural harmonics by hovering one of our fingers above a certain fret and lightly touching the string or strings. When we place our finger here and play a string we will create a harmonic. If you damped the string too much with your fretting hand you won’t allow the string to ring out.

The main natural harmonics appear above the 5th, 7th and 12th frets on all strings. We actually need to hover our finger above the fret wire rather than where we would place our finger if we were playing the fretted note.

Take a look at the tab below to see where to find natural harmonics;

Natural harmonics - lead guitar online
These are the common natural harmonics – can be play together or individually!

Natural harmonics can be found in other areas too, but the ones above are used the most. Also, overdrive/distortion helps harmonics ring out, although they can be played cleanly too.

A cool trick to do with natural harmonics and distortion is to place your finger above the 7th fret of the E, A, D or G string and rapidly pick the string and slowly move your finger along the string towards the 3rd fret. By doing this you will hear different harmonics!

Check out the opening riff to Sweet Child O Mine by Guns N Roses…using only natural harmonics!
sweet child o mine guitar tab harmonics
sweet child o mine guitar tab harmonics
sweet child o mine guitar tab harmonics

Artificial Harmonics

This covers a few different lead guitar techniques which all involve artificial harmonics. These are produced by the picking hand and can be a little more tricky to do than natural harmonics….initially!

Touch Harmonics

To achieve a touch harmonic we need to use the index finger of our picking hand to create a natural harmonic. We also use the pick or other fingers from the picking hand to play the string. Sound confusing? I’ll post a video shortly so you can see!

This guitar technique is usually used to create harmonics around a chord. For example, if we fretted an Gm7 chord, we could create natural harmonics for that chord 12 frets higher! Also, there would be harmonics 5 and 7 frets higher, just like natural harmonics!

Touch harmonics around the Gm7 chord - lead guitar learn online
Touch harmonics around the Gm7 chord
Pinched Harmonics

This can be a tricky one to learn, but with time will develop into a killer technique! Pinch harmonics are create by picking a string and then immediately afterwards dampening the string with your thumb that is holding the pick.

This is done mostly on individual notes and sounds good with some vibrato. It does take some practice as the thumb dampening the string needs to be correct.

Check out this video on touch and pinched harmonics;

Tapped harmonics

As the name suggests, this technique involves tapping a note on the fret board with the picking hand. To do this, play a fretted note and then at any point when it’s ringing out tap the same note an octave higher on the same string. And by tap i mean quickly tap it rather than quickly fretting it.

You can also hold down a fretted note and sound it by tapping the octave of it. This becomes effective when you play licks this way or add a couple of tapped harmonic notes into licks!

Show Us Your Soul

The lead guitar techniques we’ve covered so far have been very technical techniques, meaning that it is just a case of learning a technique and then practicing it. Pretty quickly you can rip out some flashy licks and impress people, but without any soul in your playing it will quickly become uninteresting for your listeners.

These next techniques are what you need to master to really bring your playing alive. Without them your playing will be somewhat robotic and monotonous. These techniques help to bring out melody, phrasing and a human quality that people can connect with.

Phrasing

Its a little difficult to talk about phrasing as a technique, I think of it more as a philosophy. This is not necessarily something you can directly practice, it comes more with time and developing your ear for melody.

Of course, there are some things I can show you to highlight the importance of phrasing. Without phrasing our lead guitar playing would just sound like a scale played with a technique. This is OK sometimes but it’s the phrasing that shapes a guitar solo and makes it distinct.

lets take a look at two lead guitar lines. The first is the straight scale with a technique, the second, third and fourth examples have a little bit of phrasing added in;

lead guitar phrasing
Boring lick
lead guitar phrasing - lead guitar
Small changes add character to the guitar lick!
lead guitar phrasing - lead guitar
Another variation – adding some hammer on and pull offs
lead guitar phrasing - lead guitar techniques
Adding in bend and a quick finger slide

Can you see how just a little bit of phrasing helps to create interest and character to an otherwise boring initial lick.

Over time you will build a library of little tricks like this . You may discover them yourself, learn them from an online resource like this, or you might steal them from other lead guitar players you hear.

Learn to transpose vocal melodies and phrases from other instruments. By doing so, you will start to become familiar with melody and different ways to phrase the melodies, such as bends, slides and techniques we’ve already covered here!

Check out Joe Satriani, a master of melody and phrasing!

Notice how much variation there is in his playing. He uses almost every technique from this lesson!

Vibrato

My first guitar teacher spent more time analysing my bends and vibrato than any other aspect of my place. He didn’t care how fast my sweeps were or how tight my legato playing was. It was all about the bends and vibrato within my licks! And for good reason too.

Vibrato happens when we hold a note and then add a slight wobble to it by moving the finger up and down. Aim for an even wobble and try not to sound like you’re strangling a cat!

A player who has a rubbish vibrato will stick out like a soar thumb. A good vibrato on the other hand will add emotion and soul to your playing.

You can choose when to use vibrato on a note. Maybe you start it straight away, maybe you want one second and then add vibrato. Sometimes you may want to do a subtle wobble, sometimes a really wide vibrato!

check out these two player with different vibrato styles;

Gary Moore – Great vibrato and uses the whammy bar for vibrato too!
Zakk Wylde – His vibrato is…wild!

Bends

Bending is another vital aspect of lead guitar techniques. Bends can really add soul to you playing and help create emotion. Learning to bend in key is crucial to success, as is learning to bend to different notes!

It’s easiest to bend a note with the third finger, but any finger can be used;

  • Index finger – good for half bends (bending up a half tone)
  • Middle finger – good for most bends
  • Third finger – best for most bends!
  • Little finger – weakest finger and least practical

Try going up and down a scale with a bending pattern to get used to bending in key;

Lead guitar techniques - bending
G major scale on the B string – bend to every note!

The main thing with bends is getting them in key! It doesn’t matter how fast you licks are, if the vibrato at the end sucks then your licks will sound unprofessional! Also, vibrato is a personal thing. There is no right or wrong way to do it, it will come to you with time. All I ask of you is to start to recognise other players vibrato and start to develop your own!

Slides

There isn’t too much to say about slides other than to be aware of them and remember to use them as and when needed. Slides are another subtle way of adding colour to your lead guitar playing.

Sliding into a note from below is a common way to slide, but so is sliding to a note from above. For example, starting a lick off on the 9th fret of the G string I could slide there from around the 15th fret to create a certain feel. Or I could slide up from the 2nd fret to the 9th. I could slide from the 11th to the 9th or the 7th to the 9th.

Experiment with sliding and play around with the different textures that can be created with them!

guitar slides - guitar playing techniques
E minor scale with slides!

Space!

Is space really a lead guitar technique? Hmm, well when it comes to lead guitar playing it certainly is a skill to leave space!

With so many shredders out there and so many cool techniques to play it can seem hard to want to leave space or know how to effectively. Again, this is not something that can be learned easily, rather it develops with time.

The key to go melody and phrasing is the space between the notes. Miles Davis famously said;

It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.

Now, I’m not necessarily talking about complete silence between notes. Rather, I am referring to perhaps holding a note for longer instead of filling the space with other notes. This helps create melody and gives the listener time to digest whats going on. It is also good for building atmosphere and suspense.

Check out the below lick that I’ve taken notes out of;
lead guitar techniques
A guitar run with little interest or space in between notes!
Notes taken out to add space!
Notes taken out to add space!

Again, like other techniques in this section, learning to leave space will come with time and development. check out these two guitar solos where the space between the notes really drives the melody and feel of the solos;

David Gilmour

Eric Clapton

Conclusion

So we’ve covered 15 essential lead guitar techniques that I recommend every lead player to know. These will form the bedrock of your lead guitar playing. Each techniques sounds great on its own and you can create some great licks and exercises from these.

In order to build complex and soulful guitar solos we need to know how and when to use these techniques. Using any one of them too much could ruin a guitar solo, or it could define it. There are no rules in rock n roll and it’s up to you to pick and choose what you like to do and what you think sounds good.

With a sound understanding of scales and now techniques, you have a lot of tools at your disposal to explore lead guitar playing.

Up Next…

In the next lesson we will go into detail about ……………

Lesson 5. Guitar Solo Phrasing

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