Which Guitar Skills Should I Focus On?
So, you’ve set your eyes on the prize - you know where you are headed. But which skills should earn you attention? Does a sound knowledge of chord construction feature on our journey to soloing mastery? And what about theory? Which chords should I learn? Sometimes it’s hard to filter the essentials from the noise - a constant barrage of prescriptive things you ‘need to know’. In this blog, we attempt to give some guidelines as to which core skills you need to develop based on your ambitions.
1. Rhythm Guitar
Sitting at the heart of everything - rhythm guitar playing is a core skill for us all. But if your goal is to be a great rhythm player, which skills do you prioritise? Regardless of your style, some areas are universal.
Beyond our mainstay crop of ‘cowboy chords’ lies a world of potential fingerings for our humble major and minor chords.
Power chords - are a must in all forms of music (not just rock!), so aim at being able to play these in all their guises - roots on the E, A & D strings, their double stop versions and, most important of all their names!
Triads - From Van Halen to Chuck Berry, Django to Pantera; these compact 3 note versions of our major and minor chords are a must. Triads afford you the ability to play chords in an almost limitless form across the neck, but moreover form the basis of so many famous songs they rival our humble power chord. How do I get my triads in gear? The CAGED System is the perfect starting point - giving you a map of major and minor shapes all over the full length of your fretboard. Once you have your CAGED shapes down, triads can be plucked from them by simply choosing any 3 strings adjacent strings from each shape, and hey presto - you got yourself a ton of triads! This also covers us for knowledge of basic inversions (the notes of a chord reordered), but this is a topic for another time.
Extended chords - You know - 7ths, 9ths and the likes. Building a basic vocabulary of major, min and dominant (e.g. C7 or C9) chord shapes and their names is a good use of your study time. Learn their 5 and 6 string shapes, but also learn how to recognise them in their smaller forms, e.g. with the first/root note removed. This will give you access to funk, blues, jazz - you name it! A ton of classic rock songs also use these chords - KISS: Crazy Crazy Nights and Gary Moore: Still Got The Blues practically jump to mind!
All of the chords in the world are arguably redundant if we don’t have a solid sense of timing in the driver’s seat. The larger topic of timing is covered in this blog: https://www.licklibrary.com/news/how-to-play-in-time, but there is a time honoured method of developing your timing which is the truth of every teenage bedroom guitarist the world over - play to music! Sounds simple I know, but we are all guilty of learning riffs and rhythm parts, then practising them without the original music or, at the very least, a drum beat or metronome.
A solid sense of rhythm comes from the impression that we are always ‘locking in’ with the band, so it stands to reason that we need the band behind us every time we play. The truth is, there is a vast difference in the skill it takes to play rhythm guitar unaccompanied (in your own time) and art of syncing with a track or band. This should be your focus.
Whilst in depth explorations of the modes and scales may not be on the menu, you are going to have to make peace with the notion of knowing a little theory. How chords move and fit together can be gained by understanding keys, or diatonic theory as it’s known. Knowing your note names, beyond just the E and A strings is also worth developing. Recognising a key from a set of given chords is vital too - once you know the rules you can recognise when they are being broken, or break them yourself!
Repertoire vs Creative
Whether you’re a die hard strummer or a modern metal riffer, there are few better ways of developing your rhythm guitar chops than gaining an extensive repertoire of songs and riffs. Rather than focus on a handful of songs, your goal should be to consume as many as you can get your hands on! The relationship is simple - the more songs you learn, the more you recognise ideas, shapes, patterns and themes giving you a broader understanding of how everything works. In addition - be sure to allot time for creating your own rhythm parts and progressions. Whether you see yourself as a song writer or not, your ability to put what you know into practice in the heat of the moment is crucial. Try to improvise rhythm parts and strum chord progressions to a metronome or drum machine regularly.
These are unavoidable and any notions of simply ‘playing by ear’ have to be left at the door, unfortunately. A full picture of major scale modes and your pentatonics all over the full neck is a good and viable goal. But don’t worry - its all relative, literally! By learning your major scales, you instantly know your minor scales (C major is A minor, D major is B minor etc), so you only have to learn this map once. Don’t just focus on the guitar friendly keys of E & A either - make all 12 keys your playground by.
The harmonic minor scale is also used in more songs and progressions than you might think (basically every minor ballad that has hit the big time!), so have some basic shapes in your arsenal. If you are going to bust out an impromptu solo over Sweet Child O Mine or House of The Rising Sun, you will need some harmonic minor tricks up your sleeve!
Scales are an essential tool for reading a musical situation and responding appropriately. With this in mind, you need to know which scale goes where. It’s not always the case that a song’s key is given by the first chord, so knowing the chords in any given major and minor key - which ones are major and which are minor - will give you the appropriate scale to pull out of the bag. This knowledge also equips you with the ability to spot the chords which don’t fit the rules - the errand 7th chord or minor chord - and be able the change your scale choice accordingly. Explore how to tackle the chords which suddenly shift your solo out of key (again - this is more common than you may think - any 12 bar blues is effectively ‘breaking the rules’ of keys and their chords).
If you know which notes sound best at any given moment, then the chances of you ‘saying something’ meaningful with your solos is less likely to be left to chance. Every note or interval in a scale creates a sound, mood or gives a feeling of sense and direction. Understand and learn to hear the sound each note creates when jamming to a track. Intervals also give you a blueprint for following the chords - the most memorable guitar solos in history often do this; hitting choice notes (3rds, 7ths and roots for example) from each chord as they pass. Try landing on the root of each chord within your solos as a starting point, before aiming for their 3rds. This practice is known as ‘target notes’.
Timing & Time Feel
Much like our rhythm guitar skills, nothing derails a good solo like wobbly timing. This comes down to holding a steady internal pulse. This can be heard or felt as keeping the beat in your head, foot tap or head nod or, more usefully, a stream of subdivisions (16th, 8th notes or triplets etc) which you keep in mind whilst soloing - commonly referred to as playing to a ‘grid’. This ensures that everything you play sits in time. Once you have this mastered it is much easier to switch off and ‘just play’, safe in the knowledge that you are in time.
Time feel refers your creative use of time and rhythm - starting every lick on beat one is akin to always starting on the same note, so know where each beat is when soloing and target them the way you would your note choice - experiment with the feel created when starting and ending your licks on various beats, and off beats. Another key way to give rhythmic interest to solos is to capture and mirror the feel of a drummer/rhythm section - listen to the accents they play, where the snare drum is etc, and copy this in your solos. Do the same if you are simply jamming on your own too.
Put it into practice
Once again this might sound obvious, but if you want to develop your improvisational skills, you need to put yourself on the spot and ‘live’ in a creative state when practicing. This means dedicating much of your time to improvising with backing tracks or songs; feeling comfortable doing so. Seek out different keys or challenge yourself by trying to land a solo over an unknown track or song. It is also a good idea to become accustomed to creating an actual ‘solo’ with a set number of bars, a beginning, middle and end. Most musical situations will require this at some point and we can become too attached to the idea of endless noodling!
3. Mastering famous solos
So you don’t want to set the world on fire with your improvisational skills or lay down a solid rhythm guitar part; you want to nail those classic solos, and plenty of them! Jumping head first into some of rock’s greatest lead parts without some skills at your disposal is most likely going to leave you chipping away and making slow progress.
Look at the common techniques used in your favourite solos and give them your attention. As a base - bending and vibrato confidence is key. String bending is a dangerous practice, and pushing that string up without the certainty that it will reach the right pitch isn’t going to sound right. Make sure you know how far to bend a note anywhere on the neck (the pressure required changes depending on the fret!) to achieve the common 2 fret and 1 fret bends. Value your bends, as this is ultimately the difference between capturing the feel of your hero or delivering some eye watering licks in their place! If you are learning from a Licklibrary lesson then this is the prime time to employ the AB Looper to cycle a single lick or passage - slowing the video down to a speed which enables you to play along comfortably so you can hear whether your bends are hitting the spot.
Scales and Fretboard Knowledge
This is all about familiarity and memory. Recognising the scale or pattern from which a given solo, and its licks are formed will give you a significant head start. Fingering and movements will feel more familiar and you will spend far less time focused on the process of learning the actual notes and finger placements. The same applies to remembering the licks and solos you have learnt; a healthily awareness of scale shapes will provide you with the ability to remember collections of notes and patterns rather than each individual note of a solo; removing the need to constantly relearn or reach for TAB every time you want to brush up on your favourite guitar solo.
So which scales do you need? The blues scale isn’t just found in the blues; a huge portion of the rock and metal guitar solos you will encounter use this staple scale - from Metallica to Hendrix, Van Halen to Judas Priest - take away the context of the song and what you will find are lots of blues licks! Learn the positions of your blues scale well (particularly that 1st position). Be able to recognise it in any key. This will give you the feeling that you are meeting an old friend when tackling any new solo, rather than an entirely new collection of licks. If you are planning on learning solos beyond the realms of classic rock and blues then a sound knowledge of your full major/minor scale shapes is a very helpful tool to have at your disposal too. Learn to recognise small fragments of these scales in different positions too, as many licks will only use a portion of a familiar scale shape.
Knowing your scales is like being a musical clairvoyant when learning solos; once you recognise the scale, you know whats coming next!
A brief but important point - never underestimate the power of a good lick trick bag! No matter which solo we turn our sights to, there are some licks which always make an appearance time and time again. Developing an extensive bank of common (or even cliched for lack of a better word) guitar licks will enable you to come to the fight fully armed - when you come across any lick in a solo, the chances are you will already have it, or something very much like it, under your fingers ready for action.
Seen a lick used more than a few times across a handful of solos? Steal that lick and add it to your repertoire! Practice it until it becomes second nature and you will be better prepared next time you meet it.
4. Branching out into different styles
Blues, Jazz & Country
The good news here is that the shapes, scales, patterns and even licks you meet when dipping your fingers into the jazz, blues or country world are very similar to your standard rock, metal and blues rock repertoire. Where these 3 genres differ is in their faithful approach to each chord. Us rock guitarists love taking a key or chosen scale and wailing on it without a care in the world, something a true country, jazz or blues player would rarely do. This is why learning licks or trying to create an authentic solo in these styles often gives us the feeling that they don’t fit the standard conventions we are used to.
To follow the chords within a blues, country or jazz progression, or indeed learn a repertoire of licks in these styles, it is important to use small groups of notes rather than entire 6 string scale shapes — triads, single octave scales and arpeggios taken from each chord are all used across these styles so be aware of them. Practice hitting each chord from the backing track or song by simply applying the corresponding scale, arpeggio or triad to each: in a basic blues, for example, solo using a blues scale for each of the 3 chords - A, D & E - rather than using just A is a good starting point.
Another element which unites these genres and takes us out of our rock comfort zone - these styles are … well … happier! It is easy to forget that most rock and metal songs centre around minor tonalities; minor pentatonic riffs and power chords are often the order of the day. In the blues and country world particularly, the dominant 7 chord is king and a knowledge of how to play this chord type in all its forms, as well as the licks and scales which follow it, is vital.
Become accustomed to using your major pentatonic and blues scales over the likes of A7, A9 etc (quick tip - these are the same as the minor versions; its all relative - Am is C maj, Bm is D maj and so on). Within all 3 of these styles, it is also customary to mix both your major and minor blues scales freely; many licks contain a complete mixture notes from both!
Ok, so this has been a sweeping general overview of guitar skills, helping you focus your attention and ease the common sensory overwhelm experienced when trying to practice with a goal in mind. This, by no means, serves as a list of every skill you need but a helpful guide to prioritising. Skills are separate to repertoire so, as always, remember to have fun and keep learning plenty of songs and riffs whilst, in turn, making time to be creative!