Hacking Lead Guitar

Jun 7 · 5 min read

I’ve been playing guitar for a very long time — since the late 80’s to be exact. Back then, I was the rhythm guitar player for a band in my hometown. We played mostly original pop rock, so all I needed was power chords, and if there was a need for it, I could do a bit of lead playing using the pentatonic scale. Quite honestly, I felt really comfortable with my knowledge at the moment.

That was until I was introduced to players like Steve Vai, Vinnie Moore, Joe Satriani, and Frank Gambale, among others. By listening to their music I started looking at the guitar very differently. I loved how their songs sounded more like conversations, with phrases that resembled words and melodies that you could hum or sing.

I started looking at it as a means of expression — Just like a brush for a painter or pencil and paper for an author.

Do you know what I mean?

I realized that one of the issues for achieving full expression was that the pentatonic scale gives you a very specific sound — the sound of rock, blues and blues rock. The sound we all love from the bands that inspired us to pickup the guitar in the first place.

Here’s what gives it that sound.

Let’s use the key of C. The notes on the C major scale are:

C - D - E - F - G - A - B

These could also be represented as

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7

This means that C is the first scale degree, D is the 2nd degree, and so on. This will be important later on, just trust me for now. 🙂

So if you look-up any music theory book or website, it will tell you that the formula for the minor pentatonic scale is

1 - b3 - 4 - 5 - b7

The b3 and b7 are read as flat 3 and flat 7, meaning that it will be a half step lower — instead of the 3rd degree, it will be the flat 3rd. In this example, it would mean Eb (e flat) and Bb (b flat) respectively. (Again bear with me — it will make sense later)

See what happened?

The pentatonic scale uses only 5 notes out of the possible 7! That’s what gives it that distinctive sound.

It’s great for expression within the rock/blues/funk related genres (generally speaking, because you can use the pentatonic scale for other genres).

But if you want to freely express yourself with the guitar, you can’t skip notes.

If this were the actual alphabet, the one we use to write and speak, it’s like losing 2 letters out of every 7.

It’s not that you won’t be able to convey a message, but perhaps there will be some words you can’t use because you don’t have access to their letters. You will be less eloquent.

This got me thinking. I need to learn music theory, I said to myself. So I decided to take a private lesson and in that lesson my teacher said :

“You don’t really need to learn theory — music existed for years before music theory was invented. It’s better to develop your ear and go with what sounds good to you.”

Then I hear Grammy Award Winner Joe Satriani say:

https://youtu.be/_562D-9Qys4?start=310&end=327 (5:10–5:27)

“…it’s better to express yourself, let’s put it that way…that’s the easiest way to do it. And you need to be familiar. I don’t think you really need to know the names of everything...I used to get this all the time — students will come in and say : ‘Why do I need to learn music theory?’ And I say — ‘You don’t!’.”

Ok — so I need to learn the fretboard, and I don’t need to learn music theory to achieve that. So how do I do it?

That’s what this method is about.

I developed this system for my own use and I want to share it with the world. I’ve seen this work for my private Skype students and I’m confident it will work for you!

Here are some highlights of the method:

  1. It’s divided into 6 lessons, each with its own set of exercises
  2. It’s based on intuitive visual patterns
  3. It’s going to be easier than you think. There are 12 frets on the guitar (they start repeating after the 12th), and if you already know the minor pentatonic shape, you already know 4 frets and have only 8 more frets to memorize (and there are 4 other frets that have a similar shape as the minor pentatonic shape)
  4. There are many little patterns that are repeated across the fretboard that you can use to re-orient yourself while you improvise
  5. I use the 80/20 principle — acquire the 20% of the knowledge that will get you 80% of the results
  6. This will develop muscle memory
  7. By delegating the task of “moving your fingers” to your muscle memory, your ear will start to develop, allowing you to predict what the note will sound like
  8. This method is not about picking technique, strumming or anything like that. It’s about understanding and intuitively memorizing the position of every note on the fretboard
  9. Don’t practice by doing boring exercises — practice by making music!
  10. If you learn all the notes, you have all you need not only to create melodic lines but also to understand where chords come from — you will unlock everything you need to be creative with the guitar
  11. Lastly, it’s going to be counter-intuitive at times, but trust me — you’ll get there

Here’s an example, of the kind of melodic control you’ll have at the end of the program.

If this is interesting to you, I hope you follow this series where I will lay out for you the entire system, lesson by lesson. Make sure you follow me here so you don’t miss updates!

Hope you stick around!

Alco — alcomusic.com

I published a book about this method. If you’d like to support me, you can buy the book, but that’s entirely optional.

You can also find me on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, Instagram and Facebook.


Written by


I’m a Developer Relations Guy, Instrumental Guitarist 🎸 and amateur Sleight-of-Hand Card Magician 🃏 based in the San Francsico Bay Area.

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