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.

Take lessons with Bruce Music in London



3 Tips on playing and singing at the same time

Tip 1:  Learn the guitar part inside-out
You need to know the guitar part of the song you’re trying to play and sing like the back of your hand.  The sooner that playing that song becomes second nature, the sooner you can focus on incorporating your singing.

Just like the driver of a car being able to talk to you while they drive, or sing along to their radio for that matter.  Driving is second nature to them, due to all their practice and experience of a repetitive series of actions.


Tip 2:  Isolating Difficult Bits
You’ll probably find that some sections of songs are relatively easy to play and sing and come very naturally.  Other sections seem to make you stumble again and again.  Going wrong in the same place every single time is a very common problem.

The solution is to isolate that bar, or line, or whatever it may be and to break it down.  By far the most common reason that a section is tricky is that the rhythm of the guitar part is contrasting with the rhythm of the vocal part.

So break it down and work out some key points or milestones.  You might discover it’s difficult because the vocal line begins on the offbeat (the space between beats rather than on a beat itself) or it’s “between strums” rather than at the same time as a strum.  Therefore what you do is to use the strum or beat just before the vocal as your cue, and sing in the gap straight afterwards.  You use the unusual features to your advantage by turning them into emphasised cues or prompts.  Practise the difficult section slowly and in isolation and soon it’ll come as naturally as the easier sections.

Tip 3:  Exaggerate The Rhythms
To help rhythms and dynamics become natural, you should exaggerate them slightly during the learning and practising stages.

Playing and singing a song smoothly is generally the aim, but that is an aim of performance not learning.  Particularly in a singer/songwriter style, there is nowhere to hide and glossing over things is not an option.  I’d suggest that until the song becomes second nature, emphasise strongly any rhythms and dynamics, without worrying if it sounds a little clunky, before reining this back in once you’ve learnt the song properly.

Happy Playing and Singing!


Slide Guitar : Getting Started

If you’re new to slide guitar playing, you’ll probably notice 3 basic obstacles.  Below I’ll give you the 3 corresponding solutions, to help you get started with slide guitar playing.

1 – “When I play it doesn’t sound like slide guitar, it just sounds like poor playing”
The key to slide guitar playing, and the main thing to distinguish it from normal playing, is that you should not apply the normal amount of pressure with the fretting hand.  The slide should just touch the strings, lightly making contact, rather than pushing the string onto the fretboard as usual.  The slide should never really make contact with the wood, but rather just “slide” along the string independently.

2 – “Whenever I play a note I get lots of unwanted noise”
Put the slide on your ring finger.  When playing a note, both your index and middle fingers rest on the strings behind the ring finger.  This way, your index and middle fingers “damp”/mute any unwanted noise of strings ringing out that may happen due to the light touch involved in slide playing (as covered in point 1).


3 – “I’ve got the technique, but my slide playing sounds out of tune”
You shouldn’t place your finger in the middle of the desired fret as per usual, but rather above the metal bar at the “end” of that fret.  ie.  If you want to play a note on the 7th fret, the slide should be positioned above the metal bar between the 7th and 8th frets.

Recommended Listening : Derek Trucks, Duane Allman, Ry Cooder

Happy sliding!