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Learn 20 rock guitar licks that will elevate your solos

Man playing Les Paul electric guitar
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Welcome to our celebration of rock lead guitar! The aim of this huge lesson is to provide you with some core concepts and techniques which will help you build your soloing vocabulary as we take a look at the styles of some of rock’s legends. From Jimi Hendrix and David Gilmour to John Mayer and Joe Bonamassa, there’s something for everyone.

When creating licks and guitar solos, the major and minor pentatonic scales are a popular starting point for many guitarists, and several of our examples use these as their basis.

As you work through the licks, try to identify commonly used shapes. As you get a feel for these well-used scales, see if you can come up with licks of your own using these ideas as a starting point.

Changing a note here or there, altering the rhythm, using picking instead of legato, or bends rather than straight notes, can colour them in a completely different manner – and it’ll take your playing to the next level.

Ex 1. Jimi Hendrix

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We begin with a look at the style of rock guitar innovator Jimi Hendrix. It’s worth breaking the challenging E minor pentatonic run in bars 1 and 2 down into shorter phrases – it’s a well-known scale, but this lick demonstrates there’s a lot of melodic mileage. The repeating line in bars 3 and 4 is a classic Hendrix trick.

Ex 2. David Gilmour

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A Strat’s neck pickup sounds great for blues-orientated lead work, especially when a compressor is added. Big string bends are also a key component of the Gilmour style and your goal is to get the bends sounding musical and in tune.

Ex 3. Jeff Healey

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Canadian great Jeff Healey had a unique ‘lap style’ playing technique, fretting over the neck with all four fingers and his thumb, and achieving formidable vibrato and string bends in the process.

Still, his phrasing was largely blues-based, with pentatonic scales figuring highly in his solos, so you don’t have to play lap style for our lick!

Ex 4. Joe Bonamassa

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For this example, pump up the overdrive and dig in hard. Joe’s finger vibrato can be frantic and ferocious, and his string bending is fierce. But he’s about as deft all over the fretboard as anyone, so see if you can get near his fluidity and smoothness of execution.

Ex 5. John Mayer

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John Mayer’s blend of pop and blues-rock has inspired a new generation of guitarists. For this example, select a neck single-coil pickup and dial in a creamy blues overdrive. Digging in hard with the pick rewards with a fat, articulate tone, but John plays fingerstyle too, so feel free to experiment.

Ex 6. Robin Trower

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Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower is famed for his Hendrix-inspired guitar moments. Our example combines Robin’s sought-after fuzz and Uni-Vibe tone with an Em7 played in a similar voicing to the Hendrix 7#9 chord.

Ex 7. Joe Perry

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Open strings can be used as pedal tones for creating riffs that incorporate both legato and picking. This Aerosmith-inspired riff combines pull-offs with picked notes and is a demonstration of the octave interval in action.

Ex 8. Brian May

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The pre-bend is a key part of Brian May's technical arsenal. Pre-bending the string allows the Queen guitarist to apply a vocal-like vibrato that dips below and above the pitch. His vibrato and pitching of bends is exemplary, and he’s a master of mixing all this with fast flurries of notes.

Ex 9. Ritchie Blackmore

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The Deep Purple and Rainbow guitarist’s trademark whammy bar work is a key component of our tab example, so make sure to employ a vigorous shake of the tremolo arm in bars 2 and 4. The 16th notes in bar 3 are a formidable challenge, but practicing four-note phrases should help.

Ex 10. Carlos Santana

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This example uses a wah pedal as a tone filter. If you turn the wah on and leave the treadle in the sweet spot, it produces a focused tone that cuts through the mix.

Bars 3 and 4 outline a typical Santana trademark: the repeated three-note line leading into a fast-picked single note. It sounds more complicated than it is, so just spend a little time studying the tab then dive right in.

Ex 11. Frank Marino

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Mahogany Rush guitarist Frank Marino is famed for his chopsy, Hendrix-style lead approach. In this lick we’re using unison bends to thicken the sound. Simply bend the note on the third string up to the pitch of the fretted note.

Ex 12. Billy Gibbons

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Texan guitar legend Billy Gibbons has a beautifully relaxed style, so aim to lay right back on the beat. The phrase in the final bar will sound more authentic if some pinch harmonics are added – let the flesh of your picking-hand thumb touch the string just after hitting it with the plectrum.

Ex 13. Rich Robinson

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This lick in the style of the Black Crowes’ guitarist uses a fast-picked string bend that goes slowly flat to provide a pseudo-doppler effect. The descending run in bar 2 uses pull-offs derived from the minor pentatonic scale.

Ex 14. Luther Dickinson

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The minor 3rd of the G minor pentatonic scale (the Bb note) will sound best if you bend it slightly sharp to emulate the North Mississippi Allstars’ guitarist. You can either bend it up a semitone to B, to fit in with the G chord, or you can bend it up a quarter tone for a darker, more bluesy flavour.

Ex 15. Brittany Howard

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This lick showcases several different ways of string bending in a country and Americana context. As always when bending strings, good intonation is the key, so start slowly and try to memorise the feel and sound of the target pitches.

Ex 16. Warren Haynes

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The blues scale sounds great for runs and adds extra flavour to the minor pentatonic base. We’re looking at the Gov’t Mule guitarist’s approach to rapidfire playing here, but the more expressive techniques like string bends and vibrato also need close attention.

Ex 17. Terry Kath

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Chicago guitarist Terry Kath had bags of ‘right on the edge’ chops, rather like Jimmy Page. However, in this lick we switch over to ballad mode, with plenty of overdrive and delay helping this melodic lead line to soar over the backing.

Ex 18. Slash

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More ballad playing here – this time in the vein of Gn’R’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door or November Rain. The mix of major and major pentatonic scales give a bright, melodic feel. Select a neck pickup and roll off a little of your guitar’s tone control for a typical sound.

Ex 19. Jeff 'Skunk' Baxter

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This lick adds a Steely Dan fusion sensibility to proceedings. Chord tones outline the G7 tonality, and chromatic passing tones are included for that jazzy touch that was de rigeur for bandleaders Walter Becker and Donald Fagen.

Ex 20. Joe Satriani

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Discounting the final slide, there are three different notes on each string here, so you’ll need to use three fingers. Known as ‘three-notes-per-string technique’, it’s a key part of Satriani’s style.