Lead solos have fallen out of fashion these days, but there are still some practitioners of lead guitar as a solo instrument. Not so much for “widdly, widdly” sake; more as a means of expressing a passionate melody.
Lead guitar players play loud, but they tend to play that way to get a particular tone and dynamic out of their instrument / amplifier combination. It usually involves high gain amplifiers or distortion devices that amplify the strings to extremes, driving the circuits into overdrive, where a smooth, sustained tone can be found. Unfortunately, this makes the guitar pickups sensitive to everything, including sounds you don’t want to come crashing out of your speakers.
The better players adopt techniques to minimise these unwanted string, instrument handling and electrical interference noises. They take practice and hence they become habits. Here are seven of them:
- Use the volume knob or a volume pedal – when you aren’t playing a note, develop the habit of turning the volume knob on your guitar down to zero. When you go to play again, quickly open it up again before you hit the first note. Volume knob control is essential to minimise unwanted howls, feedback, guitar handling noises and hum, so that you set your playing against a silent background, instead of an ugly din. If you do not have the dexterity or timing to use the knob on your guitar effectively, a foot-operated volume pedal is the next best thing. Switching to a low gain channel of your amp is another option, but the switching might not be noiseless.
- Damping with the right hand palm – learning to mute the strings that are not played with the palm of your right hand (meaning the hand that you pick with) is a good way to maintain control and tame the beast. You have to get good at moving your hand as you pick different strings. Rest your palm on the bridge so that the notes you don’t want to hear are deadened.
- Damping with the finger tips of the right hand – I wish I could find the YouTube video I saw this on, but Joe Satriani, a master lead guitar technician and soulful player, has a technique whereby he damps strings that are not being played with the tips of his right hand fingers. He describes it as “walking” the strings as he changes which one is being picked. This technique is more precise than palm muting. It allows for more agility, as well as the use of hammer-on and pull-off techniques with your left (fretting) hand, but is much harder to master and habituate. Used in combination with palm muting, you can get excellent results, however.
- Damping with the tip of the left hand index finger – This is another reasonably difficult technique to master. Use your left hand to both fret notes, but also to damp notes on adjacent strings. Fortunately, I found this handy instructional video to show you the technique: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kIEnzboW0Hc&feature=related
- Placing your left hand fingers carefully – It seems obvious, but if you learn to place your fingers on the fingerboard cleanly and precisely, you will tend not to catch your fingers on unwanted notes or strings, so there will be less to damp. Saying it is easy. Learning how to do it is hard. Extremely hard (at least for me)! Practice placing your fingers on the strings, noticing whether or not you are brushing past other strings when you do, making them sound. Observation is the best way to go about this.
- Scrunchies at the nut – I first noticed this technique watching Guthrie Govan play. Scrunchies are those hair bands that girls wear to tie up their ponytails. You can get them in stretch fabric or towelling and they work really well as a string dampener. You put one over your headstock and shift it between the nut and first fret when you want to damp open strings from sounding. It really helps when you are playing legato style or are doing some two handed tapping that doesn’t need open strings. Here is another handy video I found that shows you how: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6feYs2hW2oI
- Use a Smart Gate – Many years ago, Tom Scholz from the band Boston addressed this problem and came up with a pretty good solution. The intellectual property was acquired by Jim Dunlop who also owns the MXR brand (http://www.jimdunlop.com/index.php?page=products/pip&id=255).
This gate is different to normal noise gates because it is frequency-sensitive and it permits long sustained notes to be held, instead of cut off in their prime. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is one of the best kept secrets in lead guitardom. EDIT: There are now two versions of the SmartGate available – a revised pedal http://www.jimdunlop.com/product/m135-smart-gate-noise-gate and a rack mounted, dual channel version with remote footswitch http://www.jimdunlop.com/product/m135-smart-gate-noise-gate.
Congratulations. You are now in the brotherhood and if you acknowledge membership, we must kill you. 🙂