Learning how to play electric guitar can be a challenging, yet very rewarding thing to do. It can be fairly easy to pick up the basics though, and actually, with the right guidance, you could be playing some of your favourite songs in next to no time. To fully master the instrument however, can take years of practice and dedication; indeed, it can take an entire lifetime. How far you want to take it is up to you. In this article I'm going to discuss some of the key things you'll have to know if you want to learn how to play electric guitar, and cover some of the techniques that are used by professional guitarists.
The electric guitar is a very versatile instrument, and it can be heard in many different styles of music. Whatever the type of music though, broadly speaking the electric guitar will usually fulfil one of two roles - either that of an accompaniment or rhythm instrument, or that of a solo or lead instrument. First of all then, I'll explain briefly how to play electric guitar effectively as a rhythm instrument, to accompany a solo voice or lead instrument.
The rhythm guitar forms part of the rhythm section of a band, usually along with the drums and bass guitar. The role of the rhythm section is to provide a backing over which the lead instruments or voices can be played or sung. Because of this, it is very important for all instruments in the rhythm section to play together in perfect time, in order to keep a steady tempo to what is being played. If you hear a band with a good, tight, rhythm section, it's a sure sign that they are very competent musicians, whereas one of the biggest giveaways of an amateur band is sloppy timing amongst its rhythm players. To achieve good timing when learning how to play electric guitar you should always use a metronome when practicing. This will make you sound much more professional when you come to play in a band.
You'll find that in a lot of music, the role of the rhythm guitar is primarily to play chords in a rhythmic pattern so, for this reason, learning as many chords as possible, and being able to change between them fluently is an essential part of learning how to play electric guitar. You'll need to learn different strumming patterns and rhythms as well as the chords themselves, but strumming is not the only way chords can be played. Individual notes of the chord can also be picked, one at a time, either with the fingers or a pick, as arpeggios, or broken chords. This is another very common thing to hear rhythm guitarists playing. It is a lot more difficult than simply strumming in time, so will require a lot of practice. Care should be taken to play all the notes cleanly and evenly, and in time, in order to sound professional.
But there is more to rhythm guitar than just chords and arpeggios. Another common type of rhythm guitar playing involves the use of power chords, particularly in rock music. A power chord is basically a two note chord containing just the root note, and the perfect fifth. Sometimes the octave is added to fatten it up, and there are variations whereby the fifth may be diminished or augmented for example. Power chords are usually played with some amount of distortion, and are often moved around the neck in quite fast sequences. It is best to play power chords using down strokes and palm muting to keep it sounding tight. Anyone learning how to play electric guitar should spend time practicing power chords cleanly and rhythmically, in time to a metronome, as a lot of guitar music relies heavily upon their use.
Another important aspect of playing rhythm guitar is learning how to play riffs. A riff is a repeating melodic pattern, chord progression, or refrain which makes up the basis of a composition. Although they can be used in any genre of music, they most commonly appear in rock music. They can be very simple - just a few repeated notes - or very complex and fast, as might be heard on heavy metal records. They can be one of the most technical sides to rhythm guitar playing and, therefore, it's important that you get to grips with playing riffs early on when learning how to play electric guitar, so that you become comfortable and confident incorporating them into your playing.
So that explains a bit about rhythm guitar, but what about electric guitar as a solo or lead instrument. Thanks to the vast array of sounds, and the expressive timbre that the electric guitar possesses, it is perfectly suited to this role. Learning how to play electric guitar as a lead instrument is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling aspects of guitar learning, as it allows you to truly express yourself as a musician. Mastering lead guitar, though, will require you to become proficient in a number of specialist techniques, as well as gaining a thorough knowledge of scales and theory. Let's take a brief look at some of these techniques.
Most of the time, lead guitar consists of single note melodies, runs, and licks, so it is vital, when learning how to play electric guitar as a solo instrument, to master the art of picking correctly. In order to pick cleanly and accurately, you should hold your pick close to the tip, so that only a small part of it touches the strings. This will give you more control when you pick. Try to keep all movements as small as possible, and don't allow your picking hand to become tense. The actual motion for picking should come from the wrist, not the elbow or fingers. As with all guitar practice, picking should be practiced with a metronome, and you should pay attention to the dynamics of the notes as well - try to play all notes at consistent velocities.
The next two most important techniques to master when learning how to play electric guitar are string bending and vibrato. These closely related techniques are a fundamental part of lead guitar playing, particularly if you want to play rock or blues. Having a good vibrato will really make you stand out as a good player - a bad vibrato is the hallmark of an amateur - so it's important to spend time working on yours. Vibrato is achieved by bending a note slightly sharp, and then returning it to its original pitch, over and over again. The motion for this should come from the wrist, not the fingers, so it's a good idea (contrary to what you should do normally) to hook your thumb over the top of the neck, to get a good grip. You should then use a twisting, rocking motion of your forearm and wrist, whilst keeping your fingers straight and still, to produce the vibrato effect. One key mistake made by amateurs is not returning fully to the original pitch after the bend up, making the note sound sharp and out of tune, so pay close attention to your intonation at all times. You can vary the 'width' of the vibrato by increasing or decreasing the amount of bend you apply, as well as the speed. The important thing is to stay in control of the vibrato, and don't let it run away, out of time or too fast. This will require a certain amount of muscle strength to be built up in the wrist and forearm, so you should practice this regularly, and be patient.
String bending uses the same technique, but instead of alternating between two pitches, you bend up, usually a semitone or a tone, to a new note and stay there. You can add vibrato to this new note, or bend it back down as you wish. You can also bend up to the note before you pick it, and then release the bend the bend once it is played. It is best to use either your second or third fingers to do bends with as these are the strongest. Again, it is important to watch your intonation when playing with bends. Another technique, which gives a similar sort of sound to bending, is sliding. This is another very common technique heard in lead guitar playing, so needs to be mastered by anyone serious about learning how to play electric guitar. To play a slide simply pick a note then slide your fretting finger up or down the fretboard to another note. This second note can be picked once you reach it, or left ringing from the original note as you like.
Picking every note you play can sound a bit jaggedy and harsh; sometimes you want a smoother sound. Playing notes smoothly is called legato, and on the guitar this is achieved using hammer-ons and pull-offs. To play a hammer-on all you do is play a note, with your first finger say, then to play the next note you hammer the string with your next finger, say your third finger. You do not pick this note, the sound is produced by the hammering action of your third finger. At first this is quite a difficult technique to master; many beginners find it hard to get adequate volume from the hammered-on note. Therefore, when learning how to play electric guitar, you should practice this technique regularly, as always with a metronome, and pay particular attention to achieving even volume and tone with all hammered-on notes.
The opposite of a hammer-on is a pull-off. This is played by playing a note, this time with your third finger for example, then with another finger already in place on a lower fret, say your first finger two frets lower, you pluck the string with the third finger of your fretting hand by pulling it towards the floor - hence the term, pull-off. Again, the second note is not picked, the sound is produced by the pull-off action. This is a slightly more difficult technique to learn than the hammer-on, but anyone wanting to learn how to play electric guitar as a lead instrument needs to master both. By combining these two techniques you will be able to play very fast, impressive guitar solos.
I've covered the most common techniques used in lead playing, and those are the ones you absolutely have to master when learning how to play electric guitar as a solo instrument, but there are other, more advanced techniques that you might like to look at as well. I must warn you that these can take a lot of practice to get to grips with, and their applications are more limited than the techniques discussed above, but they will set you apart from other guitarists if you do take the time to master them. The first of these is tapping. Tapping is an extension of the legato technique looked at earlier, but this time you use fingers of the right hand to hammer-on, or 'tap', notes that the left hand can't reach. In its simplest form only one right hand finger is used, and often it just taps repeating three or four note patterns at very fast speeds. This technique does produce some very impressive results, and with a little practice it's actually quite easy to master.
This simple, one finger, tapping technique is just the beginning though. Taken to it's logical extreme you can use all four fingers of your right hand to tap, in what's called '8 finger tapping'. In practice, 8 finger tapping often uses only 7 fingers, as the first finger of the right hand keeps hold of the pick to allow easy transition between techniques. Using this technique enables players to play things that would otherwise be impossible, like full scale single string legato runs, large intervals, and very fast arpeggios. The principles of right hand tapping are the same as those for left hand hammer-ons and pull-offs. As I'm sure you'll appreciate, to get really good at this will take a long time, and a lot of practice and, with its limited application, only players who are really serious about learning how to play electric guitar tend to worry about it.
Another advanced technique, one with perhaps more application, and certainly more common, is sweep picking. Sweep picking is used as a more efficient way of moving the pick from one string to another, particularly when you are only playing one note on each string, such as when playing arpeggios. The technique itself is quite simple, but it takes a lot of practice to master it. It involves playing successive strings using all downstrokes, or all upstrokes, depending on which direction you are going, in a 'sweeping' motion, similar to strumming. The key is in maintaining control of the timing of each note played with the picking hand, whilst making sure only one note at a time is being heard by careful muting with the fretting hand. Once mastered, this technique will allow you to play amazingly fast arpeggios with ease, but when done badly it can sound terrible, so you really have to practice this technique before attempting to use it in your playing. It can also be used when playing scales or runs when changing between strings - in this case it is often called 'economy picking'. When learning how to play electric guitar as a lead instrument many people leave sweep picking till late on, as it is very hard to master, but I would advise anyone who is serious about their playing to try and tackle it early on, for precisely the same reason. It's definitely a technique worth having.
All this technique however, as important as it is to develop, is useless if you don't know what to do with it - in other words, what notes to play, and when. The only way you can learn this is by becoming proficient at playing, and understanding, scales. A scale is a group of notes that work well together over a given chord or backing. Examples of common scales include the minor and major pentatonic scales, the major scale, and its modes. When learning how to play electric guitar it is vital, especially if you want to be able to improvise or compose your own solos, to be able to play as many scales as possible, and in any position on the neck.
Scales must be practiced until they are ingrained in your head, so you can play them without thinking, but playing scales up and down is only one way to practice them. You should play them in thirds, melodically and harmonically, fourths, fifths, and all other intervals. Practice different sequences of the scale notes too. For example go up three notes, then down one, up three, down one, etc. Or up six, down three, or up three, down one. There is virtually unlimited number of ways to practice scales; play them all on one string, on two, or three. Play them up and down skipping one string all the way. By practicing scales like this you will become fluent at playing the right notes, without just going up and down the scale, enabling you to improvise and compose guitar solos that are much more musical. Anyone learning how to play electric guitar should make learning scales a priority.
In this article I've given a brief overview of the most common techniques used to play electric guitar, but there is another important aspect to the instrument that I'd like to quickly look at before I'm done, and that is getting a good sound. This will require an amplifier of some kind and, perhaps, some effects. It's very important, when learning how to play electric guitar, to understand the importance of producing a good, professional sound out of your instrument and equipment. Whole books have been written on this subject, so I won't go into too much detail here, but I'll just mention some of the most important things to think about. Of course, the sound initially comes from the instrument itself, so make sure it is well looked after, properly set up, with good strings, and in tune. Take full advantage of the controls on the guitar, as well as the different pick-ups. The real secret to getting a good sound is in the way you play. Experiment with different pick angles, and velocities, and pay attention to the sound of the notes you play. Always try to avoid unwanted string noise.
As for amplifiers, there are so many to choose from, it really comes down to the type of sound you're looking for, how much power you need and, of course, how much you're willing to spend. Whichever amp you use though, you should spend time familiarising yourself with the controls, and experiment until you find some sounds you like. It is worth noting, however, that often a sound which sounds great on its own will be lost in the context of a full band as it fights for space with the bass and drums. If this happens, you usually need to turn up the mids. Also, you usually don't need anywhere near as much distortion as you think you do, as this can also muddy the sound, especially in a live context. Finally, a brief word on effects units; use them wisely. When done correctly, effects can add a whole new dimension to your guitar sound, but when over used, or miss-used, they can ruin it. Often, over-use of effects is a means of hiding bad technique, so don't fall into that trap. If you can play well, you shouldn't need to smother your guitar with effects in order to sound good.