Learning to Think Like a Lead Guitarist

Switching from playing acoustic guitar to electric.

So you've been playing acoustic for a few years but the worship leader has asked you to take up lead guitar to fill the need.

You agree confidently thinking it can't be much different than acoustic, turns out you're wrong. Sure you can learn the exact parts on our song lessons, but if you don't know what songs you are doing in advance, you need to understand how to approach a song as a lead guitarist. I'm going to give you some philosophical approaches to playing lead guitar for worship as well as practical examples.

Find Your Frequency

You may have seen my Tasty Tips series on YouTube but I can't stress enough how important this is. The thing that makes a song sound full is a full frequency range. One of the biggest mistakes lead guitarists make is trampling all over a range that is already filled by another instrument. Instead of sounding epic, it just sounds like mud.

So how do you find your range? Look and listen to what all the other instruments are doing. Unless your bass player is playing high up the neck, you usually don't have to worry about them. To stay clear of your acoustic guitarist, watch where they are chording on the the neck and steer clear of that area.  Keyboardists can be tricky because they have so much range on their instrument, but simply talking it over and finding out where on the keyboard they're playing should help you out. Usually you're safe if you focus on the the top 4 strings (D,G,B,E) higher than the 5th fret. Consider it a safe zone.  

Setting Your Tone

A little overdrive and some unobtrusive delay will get the job done nearly everytime. If you aren't sure what to do, it's best to learn to play the parts really well.

But don't get married to a setting, what sounds great in your bedroom may not sound great from a stage. The sound system you play through, the physical structure of the room and the mix of the band all affect the way you sound. You may need to mess with the eq, add some overdrive or dial back your volume to get something that works with everyone else. Don't get frustrated or defensive, just be willing to make adjustments.

To learn more about tone, check out this learning track

Sparkle Guitarist

Lead guitar is kind of a misnomer because we're not really leading. We're sparkling. The song is the beautiful dress and we are the diamond necklace that really makes the outfit pop. Too feminine? How about the song is that amazing steak and we are that little pat of garlic butter sitting on top that takes it to another level? Yeah, that sounds better.

So how do you sparkle? You look for those parts of the song that need a lift. Sometimes it's some single strummed chords over the chorus. If someone else is already filling that role, try playing some triads up the neck to thicken the tone or some octaves to emphasize a specific voicing.

One of my favorite things to do is come up with some kind of counter melody over a section to give it texture. If the chords change a lot, I'll use a simple 3 or 4 note riff but if the chords only change once or twice, I like to play something that really moves. Phil Wickham nails the second verse on "This Is Amazing Grace" and All Sons and Daughters do the same on the chorus of "Hear The Sound".

Another one of my go-to's is to follow a melody or lyric I really want to emphasize like Stu G does in the prechorus of "Majesty" by Delerious. The possiblilities are endless.

Emphasis

Sometimes playing lead is less about adding parts and more about emphasizing ones that are already there. One of my favorite tricks is to double a lead line that another instrument is already playing.  Say your piano is playing a hook and all the other frequency ranges are full, try playing the exact same hook. You can do it in the same range as the piano or you can play it an octave higher or lower. If you really want to get crazy, you can double a with an octave shape. 

 

If you've got an ear for harmony, you could harmonize with the hook to emphasize it. Even if your ear doesn't naturally go there, you can easily add a 3rd but taking the melody note and going up two additional notes in the scale. You do have to be careful with this one, a well placed harmony can be a really nice touch but if you overdo it you can end up sounding like a Best of Iron Maiden album. Just to be clear, that's not a good thing in a worship service! One way to avoid this is to only harmonize certain notes. For example, if the piano is playing an 8 note riff, maybe you only play on notes 2, 6 and 8.  You might be surprised at how a few well-placed harmonies can bring a tired riff to life.

Conclusion

I hope these tips help you with getting familiar with playing lead. If you want more training, the lead guitar learning track will give you the all the tools you need to play any song with confidence.

Jason Houtsma is the co-founder and guitar teacher at Worship Artistry, where he is helping musicians of every level answer the call to worship with passion and confidence. Jason has been leading worship and writing music since he was 15 years old and currently serves as Worship Pastor for Mosaic Church in Bellingham, WA. He is husband to Alli and father to Bjorn and Asher.

Learning to Think Like a Lead Guitarist

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Comments

Lead guitar

I can't over emphasize how important knowing the triads are, they will help tremendously.

Such a simple thing

but you're right. It opens up a whole new world.

Are you telepathic?

You've hit my exact situation, and I'm sure it happens commonly. Same instrument, just electric, right? Um, no. To do it right, you have to relearn the neck to do it well. Excellent topic-I'm waiting to hear what else you have to discuss!
I've already learned a lot from your lessons and appreciate what you do on this site. Understanding why and how is even more important than chipping away at each song.
Thanks,
Dave

Love your site (and insight)!!

I stumbled upon your site from a google search.
I love how you break everything down so nicely. I had originally been checking out only acoustic but I clicked on some lead guitar sections. You make it seem as if anyone can pick it up. I was so encouraged that I've purchased an Epiphone Les Paul, Ebow, IPB10 digital effects pedal board and am learning some of my favorites. Thank you so much for your dummying down these lessons so even a guy like me thinks it's possible.
You sir rock!!

No dummies here!

You're learning the parts the way they're meant to be played so give yourself some credit. You rock for taking on new material and stepping outside your comfort zone. Keep it up!