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Improving Your Lead Playing Pt.2 Rhythm

Following on from part one’s analysis of how to choose the notes you use in your lead playing, I will now take a look at one of the most neglected parts of many lead players’ arsenal. The rhythms they use.

For many people who have just started trying to improvise solos it doesn’t take long before they start running out of ideas. Even when trying to work new scales and arpeggios in to their playing they still find that everything they play sounds the same. A lot of this is due to the fact that they fall in to the same two or three rhythmic habits over and over again. Rhythm and melody are the two most important components of all western music, and in order to be consistently interesting to listeners, and more importantly yourself, you should be able to vary both.

The problem most of us run in to here, is that we’re so focused on variance in melody that concentrating on rhythm as well becomes difficult. But I believe that there is as much, if not more, fun to be had in switching up the rhythms we use as there is in switching scales, modes, arpeggios and other means of melodic manipulation.

Take this as an example. In this recording you’ll hear me playing the way that comes most instinctively to me. Typically I’ll use quick flurries of notes and triplet runs, punctuated by long-ish bends and pauses. Melodically I’ll use occasional variations to an arpeggio, diminished scale or other applicable alternative depending on the piece.

This is me when I’m not really thinking about what I’m playing. Usually I’ll play like this when I’m just absent-mindedly holding a guitar, or if I’m playing a long gig where I’ve taken lots of improvised solos and my attention is temporarily elsewhere. I’ve built up a few default tricks over the years, so there’s still an amount of variation in there, but sooner or later I run out of interesting ways to develop a solo when playing like this.

Now here is a recording where I’ve deliberately put a little thought in to the rhythm. Rhythms are sometimes tricky to think of on the fly. We often fall in to the trap of just replicating the groove of the song, and channelling that in to the rhythm played on the guitar. What I’ve done here to avoid that trap is picked an instrument, in this case the rhythm guitar, and tried to not play in the parts of the bar where it is more prominent. In the case of this song, the rhythm guitar plays a moving chord pattern across the last three beats of every other bar, and that’s what I’ve tried to stay out of the way of.

Playing against other instruments like this has two effects. Firstly it forces me to think more creatively about how I use my phrasing, because I’m limited to where I can play. Secondly it creates a call and response feel between my guitar and the one on the track, repeatedly shifting the listeners’ focus between the two and making for a more interesting piece of music. When improvising I find it helpful to remember that all you’re really trying to do is the same thing as a songwriter, only much more quickly. So where a songwriter can go back and make sure that every note is the best possible one, in the best possible place, you as an improviser have to do the best you can on the spot. With this in mind I find that trying to channel the ideas of songwriters you really like in to your playing is a great way to keep your lead playing interesting.

An idea I use a lot in my lead playing is to think of a memorable part of a song I like, and try to superimpose the rhythm of it on to whatever I’m playing. The idea here isn’t to recreate the melody, but simply to take the rhythmic elements of the piece that make it interesting, and fit those ideas in to a different context.

The track from this example is in a 6/8 time signature, and so I’ll be using a song in a similar metre for my inspiration so that the two match up. In this case I’ll be using one of the violin melodies from Fairytale of New York. I’ve played it at the start of this recording so that you can hear how it matches up to the rhythm, and how subsequently all the other rhythms I play are based on the same structure. Again, the key here isn’t directly to copy the song, simply to use it as a jumping off point to a rhythm you wouldn’t otherwise have used.

With all of these techniques the key is of course to use them sparingly, or in combination with each other to keep your solo varied. Below is a recording over a different backing track. In this one I have used a combination of instinctive playing, a call and response effect with the bass guitar, and taken inspiration from the rhythm of the horn part that appears 50 seconds in to Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition.’

If you have any questions about applying the ideas outlined here, or you have your own tricks for varying the rhythms you use in your lead playing, feel free to share them in the comments below. All backing tracks sourced from Backing Track World

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