Lead Guitar Improvisation – Part 1

This is the first in a mini-series of posts about improvisation for lead Guitar.
Today the issue is improvising over a song containing vocals and how to make your playing work.  Whether this is practising over a recorded song, or in a live band situation, the ideas concerned are exactly the same.

Essentially, the art to this is understanding and accepting that (in 99% of cases) the vocals are THE feature part of the song.  There is no room for “shredding”, or for clashing with the vocals.  When the Guitar solo comes along, that is your time to shine.  Whilst the vocals are present, the idea is to tastefully compliment and enhance them.  Here are some thoughts and practice tips to help you get to grips with this:

  • Play in the gaps – Your playing should fill the gaps between the singer’s lines, not clash with them.  This sounds very obvious and simple, but the art to this is keeping awareness of these gaps, and not spilling over too much into the next line.  This applies even if you’re just playing at home over a recorded song.  You should play as if you’re playing live with that band.  There are millions of backing tracks out there for extended soloing practice, but doing this properly is great practice for the real thing.
  • Don’t Play Too Much – Save your elaborate, long phrases for your solo.  It’s far more important that what you play fits the gap and the vibe of the song.  It’s tempting to try to cram everything you know into your lead playing, but watch any great guitarist doing this and they’ll be holding back, playing short tasteful bursts to suit the song as a whole.  This is a sign of professionalism.
  • Make Your Playing Relevant To The Vocals – The specifics of this require some judgement in each instance, but typically this means either:
    1) A copy/variation of the vocal line that’s just been sung
    2) An answer, or “response” to the vocal line that’s just been sung
    3) Playing in the same “range” as the vocals – ie.  Playing in the same octave, or roughly the same pitch to compliment the vocals.  Not playing extremely high or low, thereby drawing attention away.
  • Developing “Themes” – Let’s say that during the course of the whole song, you have 20 or so gaps to fill.  Are you going to play a different phrase in every single gap?  Again this is something you just won’t see a professional do.  The best idea is to come up with a handful of effective phrases and then rotate these, varying slightly if you want.  So you create some “themes” or ideas, perhaps at the end of each chorus you always play the same phrase, or after the 3rd line of each verse you play the same bend, and so on.  Your job is to compliment the vocals and to match their emotion and sentiment.  By varying your playing too much, you make it immemorable.

More on improvisation in part 2, coming soon.

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