The Collaborative Guide to Playing Lead Guitar




Introduction: The Collaborative Guide to Playing Lead Guitar

About: Figured it was high time to give this a quick edit. I was an active part of the K'Nex community from about '08, I still occasionally lurk. I did a lot of dumb stuff on here but I'm past it now. I'm currently...

This is a guide to playing lead guitar. Seeing as I am an active member, and Danny's instructable is unfinished (and in some places really innacurate, eg. his tabs were upside-down), I decided to make one of my own to right his mistakes and offer a larger and more in-depth set of instructions.

Bear in mind this instructable is a guide, not a strict "you must follow this" instructable. Feel free to play how you want, because that is the essence of guitar playing.

I (and my collaborators) will cover basic techniques like reading TAB, to advanced techniques such as squealies.

There is an upcoming sister instructable, The Collaborative Guide to Playing Rhythm Guitar, which will cover techniques used in rhythm guitar playing.

Please take a look at my instructable on guitar solos and improvisation as well!

Step 1: Choosing Your Guitar

Before you start to play, it makes sense to buy a guitar. Whether it is an old battered Fender Stratocaster from your uncle or a brand new Jackson King V from a shop, you need a guitar.

The first thing: don't splash out if it is your first guitar. You don't know whether you will like to play it, or whether it feels good and getting a 1972 Gibson Les Paul sunburst for over a grand won't do you much good if you can't get the feel for it.

The second thing: Get a guitar tailored for your needs. You need to sort out the following:

  • The genre you want to play.
Anything bluesy, you will want a guitar with single coil pickups if possible, but humbuckers are good too when used correctly. Semi acoustic (hollow body) guitars are excellent for the right tone. You won't need too many frets, high notes aren't generally used in blues or jazz. Tremolo/whammy bars are optional, I don't use them for blues/jazz much, but it all depends on your style.

  • Rock/hard rock requires humbucking pickups usually, though single coils on a strat-style guitar will work well. Depending on the style, you may like to have a tremolo bar, and more frets are necessary for rock. 22 is ideal, but 24 is great too, if you like to get 2 octaves above the string root. Solid guitars are better, though some rockers do use hollow bodies.
  • For Metal (all styles; thrash, death, speed, heavy etc.) you will definitely want to have humbucking pickups. Solid guitars are essential. 24 frets are needed too for maximum note range. Locking tremolo nuts are useful if you have a whammy bar, because they keep the guitar in tune. Floyd Rose bridges are also very good because you can push the whammy bar upwards as though you were performing a string bend.

I play metal. I started with a yamaha pacifica 012; a jack of all trades for its versatility. Recently I have got an Ibanez XPT700 for metal. Floyd Rose bridge, locking tremolo, humbuckers, 24 frets and killer looks. A brilliant guitar for metal.

N-Striker wanted me to include these.
1: Fender Stratocaster - used to be dirt cheap, but has raised in price because of Jeff Beck and other famous players.
2: Esp LTD Ex 401 DX - Funny shaped, like an X-Plorer. But it is quite nice sounding with the tremolo system working well too.
3: Gibson SG - Expensive, but a great guitar.

Do's and Don'ts
  • Don't get a flying V style guitar for a first. They are uncomfortable to play sitting down, which put me off straight away. They are meant to be stage guitars, and are competely un-ergonomic.
  • Do try a guitar out out, and don't buy it without doing so. No 2 guitars play exactly the same, so if possible, buy the one you try if you like it.
  • Don't be attracted by looks, but by playability.
  • Always ask for information in the shop. Ask whether there are any problems with that brand of guitar, especially if they are mass-produced. Problems could include a faulty pickup switch, bad string action at first, weak truss rod etc.
  • Never buy a guitar online. You don't know what to expect, when you'll get it, and even whether it will be delivered to the right place. If you pay for it and it is dropped off at the wrong door, likely as not they will keep it. It's free to them, right?

Step 2: Parts of a Guitar

Here I will explain the parts of the guitar, by using a fender stratocaster and a Jackson king V as dummies. You will find most of these on any guitar.

1) Nut. This is important for keeping the strings in place. This is a non locking nut. On the Jackson king V in picture 2, there is a locking nut. Locking nuts/tremolos keep the strings in tune, no matter how agressive you are with the whammy bar (fig 13).

2) Headstock. This holds the tuning pegs (see fig 3) and the truss rod cover. The truss rod adjusts curvature of the neck to adjust the string action.

3) Machineheads/tuning pegs. These tune the guitar when turned.

4) Frets. These mark the distance between notes so that you put your finger behind them and it plays the note perfectly.

5) Neck. This surrounds the truss rod, and holds the fretboard.

6) Body. This houses the electronics and holds everything in place.

7) Jack socket and knobs. The Jack socket is where the lead plugs into so you can connect it to the amplifier. The knobs adjust volume and tone when turned.

8) Pickup selector. Does exactly what it says on the tin. Selects the pickups.

9) Pickups. These convert the magnetic disturbance caused by the vibrating strings into electrical energy, which is processed and amplified through the amplifier.

10) Bridge. This is where the strings end. Often, this comes with tuning pegs on a locking tremolo bridge, and has a whammy bar attachment.

11) Pickguard. This protects the body and its finish from damage from the pick (plectrum).

12) Strap buttons. These just hold the strap so you can carry the guitar easier.

13) Whammy bar/tremolo arm. This allows pitch bends down (and sometimes up) by pressing it.

14) Strings. Pluck any of these 6 strings to produce a note.

Step 3: Tuning Your Guitar

Usually it helps if you use a tuner. However, if you are one of the 1 in 10,000 that has perfect pitch, like me, you could tune it by ear.

The frequencies of the strings are (roughly) 82 Hz, 110 Hz, 147 Hz, 196 Hz, 247 Hz, 330 Hz.

We will start at the 6th (the one that is thinnest and lowest down). Tune this to an E, or 330 hz.

Then the 5th, a B. 247 Hz. Then 4th string G, 196 Hz. Then, 3rd string, D. 147 Hz. Then, 2nd string A, 110 Hz. Finally, bottom string E, at 82 Hz. Multiply 82 by 4, you get 328.

Because the numbers aren't exact, perfectly timesing Bottom E's Hz by 4 will get you the exact figure for top E. Every time you double the Hz, the pitch goes up an octave.

Alternatively, tune the bottom string, and put your finger on the 5th fret from the nut on this string. This will give you A. This works with all strings, except for G string. You have to hit the 4th fret to get the B.

Step 4: Reading TAB

TAB is short for Tabulation. It is made up of 6 lines, with numbers on. Each of the lines represent a string, and the numbers represent the fret, counting from the nut. The bottom line is the thickest string. So, on the bottom line, a number 3 represents the 3rd fret on the thickest (E) string, or a G.


This is the E minor/G major pentatonic scale in Tab.

Often, music and tab are put in the same set of staves so you can tell the timing. Below is an empty tab sheet music. There are no numbers or notes on it. The second image shows TAB with numbers.

Learning sheet music is especially useful. It helps if you know tab and can do both at the same time. Learn to read sheet music and learn how the notes equate to the frets on your guitar. Musical notation isn't that hard, it's just different. It's important to know when moving to professional music. Not every pro reads it, but those that do have advantages over those that don't. For one, you'll easily be able to convert a song played on another kind of instrument. You'll be better able to cooperate with other note-readers and maybe even take direction from a conductor. Best of all, it makes learning NEW instruments easier.
-Thanks to barband

Step 5: How to Fret a Note

Fretting notes is all very simple.
1)First, put your thumb on the back of the neck so that the leathery surface on the front (not on the end) is in the middle.

2)Curl the rest of your hand around the neck so that your fingers are pointing upwards.

3) We are going to fret an F with your first (index) finger. Curve this over so that it is over the 1st fret.

4)You need to push down, not too hard, just so that the string touches the fretboard. You shouldn't do this on the fret itself, do it just behind the fret. Make sure you are using the tip of your finger to do this.

5)Do not move too far from the fret, this will cause fretbuzz, a dull buzzing sound that fails to produce a clear note.

6) Use your 2nd (middle) finger to fret the 2nd fret. This will come up as an F# (F sharp).

7)Now, use your 3rd finger to fret a G on the 3rd fret.

8)Finally, fret a G# with your pinky if you can. You will need to strengthen your pinky finger to play fast passages involving 3rd intervals.

Repeat this exercise until you feel absolutely comfortable, and remember the hand position.

Step 6: How to Use a Pick

Hold the pick between your thumb and first finger, as shown in the picture. Don't hold it too tight or too loose. Make it comfortable, above all things other than position. You should have about 1/2 - 3/4 cm showing past the side of your thumb.

Now, pick up your guitar, and hold your hand over the middle of the space without the fretboard to the bridge.

Move your wrist up and down. Your fingers and hand shouldn't change position. It is all wrist action. Keep the pick level (parallel to the ground), and just pick a string up and down. This is alternate picking.

There is also monodirectional picking. This is mainly used by rhythm guitarists, and isn't useful in fast passages.

Ergonomic picking is hard to explain. When you move strings, the first pick on that string is in the direction you have to move. Otherwise, use alternate picking.

Get used to this action, you will need it.

Step 7: Warmup Exercises

This is important if you don't want to get injured hands, or aches. Your hands have to be in prime condition to play guitar. Doing this will prevent muscle strains. It will also strengthen your fingers, which is important for guitar playing.

Remember the fretting pattern from step 6? We are going to adapt on that.

|--------E------------------------------------------------- ----------------------- -------------- ---------1---2---3---4---------|
|B------D----------------------------------------------1---2---3---4------------------------------ -----------------------------|
|--------A-----------------------------1---2---3---4------------------ ----------------- ------------------------- ---------------|
|--------E----------1---2---3---4---- ---------- ------------ ---------- ----------- --------- --------- ------- ------- ----------|

Play this about 5 times over, and then come back down 5 times (do it in reverse). Make sure you use the tip of your finger, and keep your thumb in the same place. Make sure you use alternate picking. Because there are 4 notes on one string, you can use it without trouble. Learning bad habits at this stage is really unhelpful. Keep this slow, do it at even intervals and keep it consistant.

Now, a second exercise. This one is slightly harder, but it helps with co-ordination.


Play this about 5 times over as well, and then come back down 5 times. Keep using your fingertips and keep your hand position correct. Also focus on your picking. It is the same as last time, but it can be hard to concentrate with the somewhat difficult fretting motion.

This should be sufficient, but you can make up your own too.

If you are experiencing finger/hand aches and pains, do not play. Doing so can and will cause further damage, possibly rendering you unable to play forever. Dave Mustaine of Megadeth couldn't play guitar for over a year because of muscle stress, and eventual ligament tears, and he had to go through physical therapy to get his playing back up to scratch. Do not let this happen to you.

Step 8: Starting Guitar

I can't give you enough tuition in an instructable, but I can reccomend you get these. They were very good for me, and easy to read. Work through the excercises. Try to perfect one a day, and play to the CD. Trust me, they work.

Once you have finished these, and are confident, try and enter a rockschool exam. You should be more than capable of doing the Debut Grade. I don't know about grades 1 and 2, I skipped to 3 without doing Debut.

If you don't want to do exams, just buy the books and learn the pieces. They are good songs, and they will help you advance.

Step 9: Learning Songs

It is useful to listen to the song before you try to play it. It makes reading the music/TAB much easier because you have some base in yout mind of what it sounds like.

A good song to play is Smoke on the Water, by Deep Purple. It is quite simple, yet sounds really good. It is a cliche guitar song, but by knowing this, it makes it easier to learn other songs.

First of all, listen to the music. You have no idea how much it helps. Listen to the guitar part in particular. Then, go to and search for your song, or if you have the music, use that. I recommend with more advanced songs, reading ahead in this instructable about some of the advanced techniques. You will need them at some point.

You will need to be pretty secure with reading music and TAB before you attempt a song, so revise through it if you aren't as good as you would like to be.

It is important that you practice, and practice hard. Even after a week of not playing a song, you probably will have to learn it again at this stage.

Step 10: Practicing

Practicing is unbeleiveably important. Not playing for just a few days will impede your playing severely.
The most important thing is motivation. If you don't want to learn the guitar, practicing is so much harder (and actually quite pointless). Think of the good things that will happen.

You will need to practice for about 1/2 hour - 2 hours a day. Here is my practice schedule (seriously, it does help).

5 mins Warmup
10 mins practicing scales
10 mins practicing complex scales and arpeggios
20 mins practicing each song I have to learn (usually 3 for exams).
10 minutes riffing
20 mins soloing and improvising.
5 mins warmdown

Take a bottle of water next to you, but be careful not to spill it. Now I'll run through each part.

5 mins warmup. Use step 7 to help you through this. Play simple exercises.

10 minutes of scales. If you need to do scales for the next grade, or want to learn scales for soloing, play up and down these about 10 times each until you get the hang of them. Here is an instructable for soloing, but it has scales in it too. Make sure you concentrate, make sure you are getting them right. Learning a scale wrong triples the effort: you need to unlearn the wrong scale, and learn it right.

10 minutes of complex scales and arpeggios. Do the same as you would for normal scales. Play up and down them until you feel comfortable.

20 minutes practising each song. Play through each song a few times to the CD (if there is one). Read the music. Go over any areas you are uncomfortable with, enough times until you feel secure. Keep going after that. You may have to learn it again tomorrow.

10 minutes of riffing. This is simple. Just make up riffs and play through them a few times. You never know, you could be onto a hit song! Play famous riffs as well, this helps with learning other songs too.

20 minutes of soloing. Use this instructable to help. Pick a key, and solo to it. It's dead simple. If you have CD backing tracks, use them. Soloing is very important, especially for a lead player. If you want to learn a solo for a song, use this time to do so, or use riffing time.

5 Minutes warmdown. Play through the warmup exercises again, but slower. Don't exert yourself too much. After you have finished this, you are free to go.

Of course, this is not the only way. You could concentrate on something else depending on your style, for example. Do what suits you.

Step 11: Jamming

Jam. Play with others (especially guitarists) as often as possible. You'll learn new things from them, get practice, and learn to play along with others. Jamming with a full band will round out your experience and skills. Jamming randomly with strangers in public spaces is a great way to make new friends.
-Thanks again barband.

This will give you practice, technique, and most importantly a sense of rhythm. This in turn will get you ready to join a band (if you want to) or just be a jammer. You can also come up with some great stuff when you are in the mood and getting the feel for jamming and playing in a band. Solos come out almost without you noticing; you'll make up new passages you never could have done before. But it will mostly develop your style of playing.

Step 12: Intermediate Techniques: Introduction

Through the next few steps, you will be learning some simple-intermediate techniques with could come in handy for everyday use. These should be used fairly often, so maybe you could dedicate a few minutes in your practice session to learning these. These are the basic techniques in your guitar playing arsenal, so learn all of these accurately.

Step 13: String Bends

You will need fairly strong fingers for this, but you should be fine. String bends change the pitch of the fretted note. I will cover the basics.

Basic bend:

1)Fret a note.

2)After picking it, pull upwards with your finger, carrying the string with it.

Notice how the pitch goes upwards. Also, notice how it is easier to do so on ower strings than higher strings. This will come in handy.


1)Bend up a note without picking it

2)Pick the note, and slowly release the bend.

1)Pick the note, and bend upwards.

2)Bend back down.

Higher bend
1)Pre bend the note

2)Pick, but don't let go.

3)Sustain the note.

Step 14: Slides

A slide is moving your hand up and down, changing the pitch of the note, but in a different way. Using a slide is also useful.

1)Fret a note

2)Slide your hand upward/downward to another fret.

This will come in handy too.

In TAB, a slide is written in these forms.

Slide up to the 5th fret

Slide down to the 5th fret

Fret the 5th fret and slide upwards, then let go.

Fret the 5th fret and slide downwards, then let go.

Slide from the 5th to the 6th fret

Slide from the 6th to the 5th fret

Slide up to and down from the 5th fret.

Slide down to and up from the 5th fret.

You should have got the idea by now. If you haven't, message me.

Step 15: Hammer Ons

Hammer ons are needed for really fast passages, such as those in metal guitar solos.

A hammer on is literally where you use the end of your finger to "hammer on" another note without picking it.

To hammer on a note:
1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Use another finger to hammer on another note. use the bony end of your finger to produce a louder, clearer sound.

3)Repeat if necessary.

Step 16: Pull Offs

A pull off is the opposite of a hammer on. It is a way of fretting fast passages without picking it.

1)Fret a note with a finger (not the first) and use your first finger to fret another note underneath it.

2)Pull off the higher finger , slightly angled so you sort of pick the note as you pull it off.

3)Repeat if necessary.

Step 17: Vibrato

Vibrato can be used in many different ways. 4, to be exact.

Vibrato type 1:
1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Use small string bends up and down to produce a vibrato sound.

Vibrato type 2:
1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Move your hand from side to side within the fret to produce a vibrato effect.

Vibrato type 3:
1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Trying to keep your finger in the same place, move your fretting hand up and down. This produces a weaker vibrato effect.

Vibrato type 4:
1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Push up and down on the whammy bar.

Step 18: Uses for the Whammy Bar

The whammy bar is a useful invention, used to change the pitch of notes. I will describe some uses for it.

1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Push down on the whammy bar until the strings are slack.

1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Push up and down on the whammy bar.

Rising and falling
1)Fret and pick a note, with the whammy bar partially down.

2)Release the whammy bar slowly, and then push back down.

1)Fret and pick a note.

2)Tap lightly on the whammy bar repeatedly.

Step 19: Advanced Techniques: Introduction.

In the following steps, you will explore some harder techniques which will require some experience on the guitar. Some of these should be used sparingly, while others are good to use a lot. You have to find out for yourself.

Step 20: Natural Harmonics

Natural harmonics are great for tuning, or producing bell-like tones. They sound different, and will add accecnts and a nice touch to your playing.

Natural harmonics are easiest to achieve on the 5th, 7th, and 12th frets. They can be achieved on the 9th and 4th, and I can for some reason do them on the 3rd and 2nd. These points are referred to as node points.

To produce a natural harmonic:
1)Place your finger directly over the fret of a node point. Do not push down, just place your finger on.

2)Pick the string, and listen to the sound.

Neat, huh?

Step 21: Pinch Harmonics

These are harder to do than natural harmonics, but they are more versatile, as you can do them anywhere.

1)Fret a note anywhere on the fretboard. Don't pick it.

2)Here is where you use a "digging" motion with your picking hand. Do these in quick succession.
a)Pick the note.
b)Rotate your wrist round.
c)Place the side of your thumb on the string for a fraction of a second.

You need to do this on a node point. Not on the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 12th etc. frets, but over by the pickups. There are about 6 that I can find, but you may be able to do more.

You can't practice this slowly, so you just need to find the right technique.

Step 22: Tapping

Tapping is useful for fast passages with farther apart notes. It is a combination of hammer ons and pull-offs, but using 2 hands. I don't actually know how to write this in tab, but if someone can enlighten me, I'd be grateful.

Basically, you tap and pull off with both sets of fingers to produce insanely fast streams of notes. Your fretting hand goes under the neck around the back, and your picking hand goes around the front over the top.

Step 23: After Learning These Techniques

Well, there are many ways you can go with your guitar; I am, however still learning, so I cannot present all of them.

  • Forming a band can be basically like jamming with the same people, especially if you are creating your own songs, writing it down, and playing it over.
  • Use other websites (I suggest very much)

Oh, and remember the guitar will take you where you want to go, most of the time. So be sure to walk the path that you want.

~This step is Barrax's small contribution ~

Step 24: Conclusion

Thank you for reading this instructable. Feel free to ask to collaborate. Add to my steps (don't change anything without asking) and add your own!

Remember to practice!

If you have any questions, feel free to ask me. I'll answer within the next day or two.

Finally, this is just a guide, do not consider it the only way.

Thanks again!


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    91 Discussions


    8 years ago on Step 4

    Just for the record, I believe it's "tablature"

    The Jamalam
    The Jamalam

    Reply 8 years ago on Step 4

    You're right, but it's just as commonly known as TAB.


    6 years ago on Introduction

    or, if that all seems like too much, a one step:

    1. Buy and use "Rocksmith" (PS3/Xbox360/PC) - its an educational tab based thing sorta like GiitarHero, but uses a real instrument for a controller (any electric guitar or bass) and teaches you from day 1.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    well thanks johnny but ive recently discovered that mine guitar has a humbucking effect when i choose the neck and mid or mid and bridge pickups together

    Max Stryker
    Max Stryker

    10 years ago on Step 5

    Yah that is really called a fret. And the things between are spaceboards. Am i correct?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    The piece of wood on which the frets are attached to is known as the fretboard or finger board


    Reply 10 years ago on Step 5

    The metal strips are called fret. Frets sits on top of the fretboard. But the gap between the the frets is considered a fret when playing.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    what about a jimm brand electric guitar it has 22 frets,a treomolo ,3 single coil pickups can be also used in pairs .so is it good for playing solo of slash album songs?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    What's it like? A strat-style guitar? Slash uses a Gibson Les Paul, which has two humbuckers and a mahogany body, a much different tone than you could get from a strat (which is what your description sounds like to me). However it is possible, with the right amp, effects, and settings on your guitar, to mimic the sound, or at least get close to it.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    I agree with you a lot here, but I can't agree with you on the "you will want a guitar with single coil pickups" part. It really isn't an accurate statement (IMHO). I play mainly blues and hard-rock, and my two main guitars are a tele (which I built myself) and an Epiphone Les Paul (to which I added a DiMarzio Bluesbucker in neck, a Gibson Angus Young humbucker in bridge, and a Bigsby B7). I'd just like to point out that both of these guitars are awesome for the blues, and I really don't prefer one over the other. They are both very tonally different, but which one I play really depends on the feeling of the song I'm playing (if you know what I mean). If you do some research on some reputable blues players you will find that many of them use(d) a guitar with humbuckers (ie B.B. King, Albert King, Gary Moore, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Chuck Berry, Mike Bloomfield, Peter Green, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters).


    7 years ago on Introduction

    check out Michael Angelo Batio his motto is: "Practice Practice Practice"


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Hey can anyone help me out here?


    8 years ago on Introduction

    Actually the G Major/ E Minor Penatonic scale is this=


    You were close.


    8 years ago on Step 20

    Check this out - you can combine the whammy bar with natural harmonics to produce crazy squeals - these are not pinch harmonics. They are sometimes called Dime Squeals after Dimebag Darrell (RIP) who made his mark with them in Pantera. Take time to follow this link, if you're into rock or metal you won't regret it!


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 20

    Yeah! Soooo much fun! :)


    9 years ago on Step 21

    I have a question about pinch harmonics,
    I read somewhere that if you want to do this, you have to hold the pick (plectrum if you prefer) so that it is about 3 milimeters visible. but if I do this, i accidently pick more notes in the pinch harmonic way. do you know how I can prevent this?

    I hope you can understand what i am saying because i am from the Netherlands so my English is not so good


    Reply 8 years ago on Step 21

    I play rock and metal mostly and my pick just peeks out from between my thumb and index finger. If I want to do a pinch harmonic I just "dig in" harder, without changing the position of my pick. I don't like a lot of pick dangling out from between my fingers, a closely held pick helps with speed too, instead of it flapping around because you're holding it at the middle, the pick stays fairly rigid.
    I also use quite a heavy pick size, 1.5 mm dunlop tortex, which works for me and some other guitarists who play metal swear by a thicker pick.
    The King in my opinion is Zakk Wylde:
    Watch the whole thing with other tips, or start from 4mins 45sec.