Lead Guitar Mastery Pt 1: The Only 3 Scales You Need

Soloing is easy. It is the easiest thing a guitarist can do.

By far.

Making your solos sound really awesome, however, takes time. If I were to split out the total number of hours required to master improvisation using that old "10,000 hours of practice = mastery" line, it would look like this:

50 hours: Learning scales and arpeggio shapes
100 hours: Learning licks and other guitarists solos
50 hours: Learning theory to work out how to use those scales and licks
9,800 hours: Actually soloing

However, most aspiring lead guitarists instead aim for something like this:

2,000 hours: Learning scales and arpeggio shapes
7,000 hours: Learning licks and other guitarists solos
500 hours: Learning theory to work out how to use those scales and licks
500 hours: Actually soloing

Way too much time spent thinking and learning scale shapes and not enough time spent doing! This is not an efficient use of time if your goal is to become an awesome soloist. 

Let me put it into perspective for you:

When we're talking about lead guitar, all scales, licks and music theory are there to help you start soloing. They do not replace the creativity, skills and aural training that helps you play awesome solos - that comes from many hours of actual soloing.

Today, I'm going to streamline all of the scales and theory part into 3 scales which you can use over ANY song. That way, you can focus purely on playing solos (next week I'll give you a complete cheat sheet for how to use these scales over any key).

 

#1 The Minor Pentatonic Scale

 Root notes are marked in red.

Root notes are marked in red.

Easy to remember and easy to play, this is (for most of you) going to be the most common scale you'll go back to when soloing.

It's best to use this one with lots of alternate picking or fast hammer-ons and pull-offs, but no matter how you play this scale, it should be nice and easy to remember.

Perfect for rock and blues leads, but really, the minor pentatonic scale is so versatile that you can use it in any style.

Notice that we're working on the root 6 shape and the root 5 shape for each scale, which gives you enough versatility to solo no matter the key. Learn one pattern first, then work on the next.

 

#2 The Major Scale

 Start your scales from a root note when you're playing them on their own, as this will help your ears get used to the major tonality. In a solo, start from wherever you'd like.

Start your scales from a root note when you're playing them on their own, as this will help your ears get used to the major tonality. In a solo, start from wherever you'd like.

This three note per string pattern is also quite versatile, but it's a little trickier to play than the minor pentatonic.

For maximum speed, pick down-up-down on each string on the way up and up-down-up on the way back (this technique is often called sweep, hybrid or economy picking, and is more efficient for your picking hand).

You can use this over almost any style, though you'll probably need to be a bit more choosy with your notes than you are in the minor pentatonic scale as we have introduced more dissonant notes.

 

#3 The Harmonic Minor Scale

 The fingers are only a recommendation, so feel free to use different ones if you'd prefer. Try to be consistent, however.

The fingers are only a recommendation, so feel free to use different ones if you'd prefer. Try to be consistent, however.

Perhaps the hardest to play and use, I include this scale as I use it almost every time I solo. 

This is great in more complex situations, but may be a bit too out there for a normal pop or rock song. 

Watch out for some of the big tone and a half stretches!

 

Using the Scales to Solo

First, if a song is in C major, your go to scale is probably going to be a (you guessed it) C Major Scale.

But that's not the only option.

Without diving into the theory side too much for now, here's some examples of the safest scales you can use over certain keys and chords:

A Minor Scale or Chord

Safest Scales to Use:

  1. A Minor Pentatonic
  2. C Major (which will sound like an A Natural Minor Scale)
  3. A Harmonic Minor

 

G Major Scale or Chord

Safest Scales to Use:

  1. E Minor Pentatonic (which will sound like a G Major Pentatonic Scale)
  2. G Major

If the theory side confuses you, don't worry about it - we'll cover that in more detail in our next post.

To begin with, try sticking to the one scale for the entire chord progression.

For example, if the chords are C - G - Dm - C (key of C Major), stick to the one scale over every chord. Later on, you can start to move between different scales mid-solo if you'd like more variety.

 

So, to summarise:

  • Learn the 3 scales
  • Start soloing using the relevant scale for the song or backing track you want to solo over

Ultimately, you want to learn to relax and start to explore outside of the scale shapes, which will become easy once you have amassed plenty of hours using your ears, fingers and creative brain to play your own solos (I regularly solo over songs without even considering the key - my fingers just know where to land from experience).

For now, if you get a sound you like, give yourself a standing ovation - and an encore - then record it and post it on our Facebook page. We'd love to hear what you've achieved!

Stay tuned next week for a complete cheat sheet which will explain the best scales to use in every key!