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Ask Paul: The Basics of Rock Guitar in Five Songs

I began to seriously play guitar at the impressionable age of 11 (It would have been earlier if my parents hadn’t discouraged me) by receiving an acoustic and some lessons. Two years later, I had my first electric guitar and joined a band. I haven’t stopped consistently playing live since.

When I started, my intentions of playing guitar were pure; I was perfectly content to be in the background, in the shadows of stage right, as the foundational rhythm guitar player. The Brad Whitford, The Malcolm Young — they were all I strived to be.

But as anyone will tell you after playing in many bands, things change, and you either evolve or be eaten alive. So after the lead guitar player in my first band departed, I was told, “Hey man, you’re the lead guitar player now.”

I was terrified. This was not my chosen path, up front and sharing all the glory with the lead singer. No thanks. But you know what? I rose to the challenge.

So with that, I learned to swim rather than sink, and these are five of the many songs I was playing at the time that I believe carved out the lead player I am today. Even though these songs will teach all you’ll need to know about rock guitar playing, with barre chords, chugging, single-note riffing, double-stops and arpeggios, they also contain all the rudimentary moves that bridge the gap from being just another rock guitar player to being a lead guitar player — and I’ll tell you why:

01." Iron Man" – Black Sabbath

Many of you will say, “Bro! What about "Smoke On The Water"?” To which I will respond, “Sure, the riff is easy, but try playing the solo if you’ve never soloed before,” which is why “Iron Man” is a better starting point. The riff is essentially the same plodding riff as "SOTW," but it has so much more going on.

Outside of the main riff, guitarist Tony Iommi does a break in the middle that was easy to learn and got my fingers used to moving quickly.

The box pattern of the break also revealed how I could connect those notes all along the neck and helped me see how Iommi constructed the solo using that little break as a launch pad for his very measured solo, which is perfect for the overall feel of the song.

02. "Living After Midnight" – Judas Priest

This song was the very first solo, I think, I learned. It’s one of those solos that feels so good under your fingers because it taught me pinch harmonics and some blues bending that AC/DC’s Angus Young hangs his hat on.

Let’s not forget the muscular guitar parts of the verse or the catchy riff that accompanies this song: The barre chords ring out during the chorus while the low E chugs the verses so it sounds muted and aggressive, all of which make this heavy metal anthem so appealing to play as well as a great lesson in playing dynamically.

03. "Rock and Roll" – Led Zeppelin

What can I say about this song that hasn’t been said? This song made me realize I could pedal the A, D and E strings while bouncing off the other strings for the riff. It’s all about the accents and timing, which helped me inject small blues jabs and learn to be on time with a drummer.

The solo is great because Jimmy Page starts in one box pattern, moves to the next position then climbs with some triplets to finally shift into the last box position and end with another cool triplet lick. Now, see for yourself, you don’t need to learn the solo exactly because whether you’re a shredder or a slow-hand, you can do either and inject your own personality into it.

04. "Gimme Three Steps" – Lynyrd Skynyrd

This song is an exercise in double-stops, and it would be years before I even knew what that term meant even though I was doing it. Playing this song correctly involves bending and holding multiple strings in tune.

There are some other cool descending patterns and clever blues riffs that boogie, but the heart of this song is making those double-stops sound Southern and convincing — like you meant to down that whole bottle of Jack Daniels in one swig.

05. "Message in a Bottle" – The Police

This was the song that made me say, “I didn’t know my fingers could do that!” Up until that point, I had lived in a bubble of barre chords, single notes and cowboy chords. This song had propulsion and a finger workout that helped me stretch to notes I didn’t think I could reach previously, and gave me my first taste of learning syncopation.

In addition to its being very progressive sounding, it was an easy song to learn. The whole arpeggio is only a two-bar figure and provides the movement during the verses and ends by giving both hands a break by reverting to simple barre chords and some chugging during the choruses.

Now I know nothing is a greater motivator to putting pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard than a “best Of” list. Just ask Rolling Stone or even us here at Guitar World when a “Best Guitarists” or “Best Guitar Songs” list is created. Some readers freak out because their favorite players or songs always get omitted.

Keep in mind, my list is what worked for me (It’s just for rock, anyway), and I gave you solid reasons why it works. It’s also what helped me approach the guitar in a way that gave me freedom to express my identity. I’m absolutely interested to hear what works for you. So I encourage you all to comment and let me know your five foundational rock songs that changed the way you look at and play guitar.

I try very hard to remain under the radar despite being on camera as gear editor, but in this age of social media it was only a matter of time before it had to come to this. So with that, I will make my blog painless and a quick and easy read so you can get on to more important things like practicing guitar and sweep picking, or if you’re like me, obsessing how to race the Tour De France and trying to be Kristen Stewart’s next mistake. I will use this blog to inform you of things I find cool; like new gear I’m playing through and what I’m watching, reading or listening to at any given moment. So feel free to ask me anything that’s gear related — or if you have a problem with your girlfriend, you know, life lesson stuff, I’m pretty good at that too — and I’ll do my best to answer or address it here.