The main reason why you can't play great sounding guitar solos is not a lack of technical skill (most likely). Instead your soloing/improvising doesn't sound great because you have not practiced your guitar phrasing skills. Tons of guitarists make this same mistake and go years without being able to play cool sounding lead guitar solos. The bottom line is, having technical skill doesn't translate to being able to play lead parts that sound musically appealing. Rather than focusing on playing fast or playing with great technique you just need to be able to play one note really well (using great phrasing). Once you can do this, you can build from there to play awesome lead guitar solos and licks.
Being great at guitar phrasing means being able to clearly communicate your thoughts and emotions as you play - similar to how you would have a verbal conversation with someone to express yourself. You'll never get the attention of your listeners by speaking in a monotone voice, and this same concept applies when it comes to your guitar playing as well. You must learn how to use various phrasing nuances to express yourself with only one note if needed, and more notes in other situations. The most important thing to understand about phrasing is HOW you play your notes (not the notes themselves). Here are the three critical guitar phrasing elements that truly great guitarists possess:
Vibrato technique is very personal to the guitarist using it, so it is crucial that you create your own unique playing style with this element. Contrary to what many guitarists think, vibrato requires years of practice to perfect (both technically and stylistically). To get started playing with good vibrato for yourself, think about how you want to hear it played. Listen to how vibrato is used by your favorite guitarists whenever they are playing solos. Then go online and find videos of these guitarists playing live, so you can see how they move their hands to create vibrato. Next, do your best to imitate their style in your playing. Eventually, you will begin developing your own style (as you mix together the different styles of your favorite guitarists). As you work on your vibrato, remember this: There is more than one way to play vibrato. For example, Yngwie has a slow and heavy vibrato while a player like B.B. King has a fast and narrow vibrato. Determine for yourself what sounds best to you and work to develop that style. To work on improving your vibrato, practice applying it in musical situations (such as backing tracks or over your favorite songs). To quickly develop a great vibrato technique, work with an experienced guitar teacher. Also, remember that vibrato should be used on both bent and unbent notes.
Any great lead guitarist with good phrasing is also a master of creative string bending. Make sure not to overlook this crucial phrasing element in your own playing. By combining string bending along with vibrato, you will achieve maximum self-expression in your playing. The great part about this technique, is that there are countless ways to creatively bend notes. You can bend a half step, a full step, microtonally, with ghost bends, bend and release, plus countless other variations. Some players, such as Marty Friedman, bend their notes beginning from out of the key (such a half step below a tone of the scale) to a note that is 'in key'. This creates a highly exotic sound. A creative and well-timed bend will instantly grab a listeners' attention, however you must always keep these things in mind:
1. You must make sure you are always keeping your bends in tune. If you release your bends a little too flat or sharp it will be very obvious - and it will not sound good! This is a very common mistake that most guitar players make. Work together with a guitar teacher who can hear whether you are in tune or not and keep your playing on the right track.
2. Don't use the same types of bends all the time. Begin by playing half step bends and move on to include various other types, such as ghost bends and varying the rate at which you bend the string. Work to perfect each type with all fingers on your fret hand. Support the finger that is doing the bending with any remaining fingers you have available, to gain better control.
3. Pay close attention to the bends of your favorite players and copy the licks they use to get a feel for their style. Then work with a guitar teacher to get help with applying your bends into a musical context as creatively as possible.
By using ornamentation in your guitar playing, you can make every note massively more creative and interesting for the listener. Ornamentation is the general idea of using techniques to 'embellish' a note.
One way to do this is to use a trill. Trills are (generally speaking) rapid alternations between one note and another using hammer ons and pull offs. Trills were commonly used throughout the Classical music era and have also been used in rock music by many guitarists. The main idea here is to add more interest to the way you phrase your notes, so that they are always attention-grabbing. Another way to embellish your notes, is to play artificial harmonics with your pick. A great artificial harmonic can create a screaming effect, causing your notes to sound much higher in pitch. This will immediately make any note stand out from any other note you are playing. Additionally, you can use your fingers to produce natural harmonics above the frets to make your playing sound more creative.
For an even more creative application of harmonics, apply them together with a whammy bar. There are endless other embellishing techniques that could be discussed - however, these ones are a good start. It's more important to master a few ideas first, so that you don't overload yourself with too much information at once.
In this article, you've only learned three main elements of great guitar phrasing. In Part Two, you will discover additional elements to help you improve your lead guitar playing.
Learn more about how to improve guitar phrasing using the ideas of this article so you can play better solos.
Nick Layton is a professional guitarist/composer living in Vancouver, WA. His debut CD entitled "Storming The Castle" is available now and features epic metal songwriting and virtuoso guitar playing.
Visit nicklayton.com and join his free newsletter to receive an excerpt from his latest phrasing course "Innovative Arpeggio Phrasing for Advancing Metal Players", including text, tab and mp3s.