You Can`t Play Lead Guitar Until The Fat Lady Sings

I have a friend who's son is learning the guitar right now - (In fact he's learning on a very nice Fernandez Strat I lent him a few years ago). His father was on the phone to me tonight talking about it. He said:

"Yeah Alexander is in a group now playing rhythm - he's not interested in lead yet."

"Well" I said, "don't leave it too late. There's no such thing as someone concentrating only on the left hand of a piano you know? I got so in the habit of not playing lead, that in the end I had to move back to the piano to write melodies."

People think of Hendrix as a lead guitarist, but of course he was a complete maestro on rhythm. The separation of the two is actually an artificial construction. The idea is to play THE GUITAR - not lead guitar, or rhythm guitar per se.

I believe the truly great, lead players in whatever branch of music they elected to play, understand that the really imaginative, utterly memorable, melodies are an extension of the chords that underpin them and of the different voicings those chords permit. You'll find plenty of very good rhythm guitarists who can't play lead, but I never met a truly great lead player who hadn't also mastered rhythm. They are two sides of the same coin in the end. It may also be the case, I guess the jury is out, (in any event I'm certainly in no
position to pass judgement) that extraordinary rhythm players have under their belt the mastery of lead playing, (possibly their egotism too ;)).

You would anticipate a good guitar teacher would focus on technique for both left and right hands. I would also stress the importance of developing good melodic skills at the same rate that a player develops good rhythmic skills and of course vice versa.

Speaking personally about my own playing, objectively I have to confess that I play rhythm guitar in the same slip-shod get-by sort of fashion I always did, albeit with some passion and personality to accompany my singing and songwriting, but, and as Botticelli might say "it's a big butt", I can't play a note of lead ... and it hinders.

I can describe lead guitar like a blind man might describe an oil painting, but I have no illusions. It's no substitute for getting out the easel and mixing your own paints, putting flesh on the canvas, stepping back to seeing your fat voluptuouie with your own eyes; brought into the light by your own skilled lines. The more craft you have at your command the better you can adapt it to the art of your unique voice. As it happens I'm not a fan of Botticellis, but I trust you're following the, ahem, weight of the argument.

Be open to it all and don't be afraid to make the stretch. Meanwhile, I suppose I'd better just carry on strumming....

"It'll probably work low down in the mix."

"I know... Maybe what we need is a 12 string ..." ;)

David Knopfler is a guitarist, singer and songwriter whose latest album is "small mercies," a fine collection of detailed, touchingly human songs.

He has seven solo CDs for sale on his web site,, including "The Giver" and "Cut The Wire."

David Knopfler

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