I have been recently getting into playing lead and it just feels like I am stuck with pentatonic shapes and licks and blues scales, all of which sound like I'm just playing a scale or pattern.
My burning question is what do great lead players use. I know it's mostly about phrasing, but for example if you could check out Guthrie Govan's Remember When track, I would like to know what scales or modes he is using, and essentially all that he is doing to create these great moving melodies.
I just feel like I am trapped by shapes. And if it's possible I would like to know if certain players like Hendrix and Clapton make simple use of pentatonics and if it's possible to be greatly expressive with minor and major pentatonic and blues shapes.
The "Secret" to Great Phrasing As Demonstrated by Guthrie Govan
Every guitarist interested in lead should watch/listen to Guthrie Govan. He is a prime example of someone who has grown into his own unique style.
Thanks Landon for the great question and mentioning this powerful little piece of music.
Let's take a listen to the track in question, Remember When...
Note: Youtube now allows you to slow down videos. This is very useful for analyzing a player's technique. Click the cog icon at the bottom right of the video and select "0.5" as the speed.
Scales in Remember When
The first part of the solo (until 1:23) is in F major, using a combination of diatonic and pentatonic phrasing.
First, to ensure you can move seamlessly between pentatonic and diatonic phrasing, learn to visualize both patterns in the same positions.
For example, you could visualize the two scales in the following position (the greyed out intervals are part of the major scale, the rest are part of both major and pentatonic)...
Practice alternating phrases between diatonic and pentatonic.
Fast forward to 0:48 and we're on the ii chord - Gm7. Here, there's a movement between Gm and what sounds like F#dim7 (or an inversion of it). This implies G harmonic minor.
So Govan highlights this F# chord by playing a note from G harmonic minor - F# - for the briefest of moments (0:49 - 0:50).
At 1:13, when this part comes around again, you can hear him play a more drawn out G harmonic minor phrase, before moving back to F major/G Dorian over Gm7.
Watch and listen to how Govan plays into his target notes. How does he approach a lot of the strongest notes in his solo?
Answer: he slides or bends into a chord/scale tone (mainly chord tones).
^ Read that again and again until it sinks in - it's important!
You'll also hear on occasion he bends/slides from a chromatic tone.
Dissonance resolves immediately to harmony.
That's what stirs up a lot of the emotion in his piece.
So you don't want to hold on to or emphasise these chromatic notes, but rather slide or bend them into the closest restful tone - a tone in the scale or (more commonly) the chord you're playing over.
Some examples over the tonic Fmaj chord...
Slide/bend the b3 into the 3 (Ab into A in F major).
Slide/bend the #4/b5 into the 5 (B into C in F major).
Slide/bend the b7 into the 7 (Eb into E in F major).
He also occasionally slides down from raised chromatic tones into the scale/chord tone.
Think about chord tones through each chord change in the progression.
Target these tones in a similar way, sliding/bending into one of the chord tones (the root, 3rd, 5th or 7th of the chord).
To help, use familiar chord shapes you know to play through the progression and then use these shapes as the scaffolding for your soloing phrases. That way, you'll know exactly where to target your slide or bend within the larger scale pattern.
Watch and listen very closely to this. It'll take a while to pick it up in other people's playing as it's often a very subtle, momentary thing. But it's such a cool way of making these elementary scales sound more colorful and expressive, and it's a key part of what makes Govan's solo sound so much more than merely playing through a scale.
By thinking in terms of approaching notes in different ways, you'll feel much less "trapped" by the scale pattern and use it more as a point of rest or melodic stability.
Experiment with playing into your strongest target notes, either from other scale tones or an outside chromatic tone and your solos will sound far more expressive.
3. Combine Different Lead Techniques
As mentioned above, Govan uses fluid combinations of slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs and bends, like most lead players, so make sure you work on these fundamental lead techniques, first individually and then in combinations.
Study how he combines legato (slides, hammer ons, pull offs) and string bends and you'll be well on your way to getting his sound.
Remember, there are many years of practice behind Guthrie Govan's playing, and he's rightly regarded as one of the most technically proficient guitarists alive today.
I hope I've given you a valuable insight into how he creates his sound that you can use as inspiration for your own practice and writing your own solos.