[Guitar Solo Lesson] How To Play Guitar Licks With Musical Tension

by Tom Hess

The Secret To Adding Fire &
Emotion To Any Guitar Lick
The Secret To Adding Fire And Emotion To Your Guitar Playing e-Book

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Try this:

Think of the most emotional lead guitar solo you know. (Find a recording of it if you can.)

As the guitar solo is playing, ask yourself:

Where does emotion in this guitar solo come from?

Is it the guitar licks?

Is it the scales that make up the guitar solo?

Is it the chords under the lead guitar solo?

The Secret To Adding Fire &
Emotion To Any Guitar Lick
The Secret To Adding Fire And Emotion To Your Guitar Playing e-Book

By submitting your info, you agree to send it to Tom Hess Music Corporation who will process and use it according to their privacy policy.

The answer is:




Musical tension and resolution (of that musical tension).

Great lead guitar players are masters of building musical tension in any guitar solo they play.

And today I show you how to build musical tension anytime you try to create your own guitar solo.

Don’t worry – it’s not hard at all and I’ll show you a lot of lead guitar examples.

Start by watching this guitar solo video on building tension in music:

Now that you know how to build tension in the lead guitar licks of your next guitar solo…

Here are a few more ways to build musical tension using other lead guitar elements and guitar solo techniques.

Try them out the next time you are about to play a guitar solo.

Guitar Solo Musical Tension Builder #1: One-Note Lead Guitar Licks

You know the saying: “So-and-so can say more with one note in his guitar solo than most guitar players can say with 1000 notes?”

Well, believe it or not… there is a step-by-step way to build that level of tension in your next guitar solo.

And the best part is:

Once you can build musical tension with only one lead guitar note…

… doing the same with a lot of notes (so you can play cool guitar licks in your next guitar solo) becomes very easy to do.

And there is no “magic” to it. Anyone can do it. (That includes you.)

Watch this video to see how:

Bonus musical tension building tip that helps you play cool guitar licks with one note:

Improve your lead guitar sustain.

Sustain is one of the keys that lets you play cool guitar licks that build musical tension anytime you set out to create your own guitar solo.

If you want to play better lead guitar – you must have great sustain.

And contrary to popular belief, you can achieve great sustain in your lead guitar playing (anytime you play a guitar solo), without shelling out cash for a sustainer, active pick ups, pedals, new amps or even new strings.

Here is all you need:

  • Your 2 hands,
  • A stiff guitar pick (that doesn’t flex when you hit the string)
  • And a guitar amp with its gain turned up all the way to 10.

(Oh, and you’d better have your guitar volume and “tone” knobs turned up to 10 too… but that goes without saying.)

Then follow the tips in this lead guitar article about sustain and use them the next time you set out to create your own guitar solo.

Question: “Tom Hess, can I really have great sustain without getting new strings?”

Answer: Yes and no. When you play a guitar solo on electric guitar…

Sustain has a lot less to do with the newness of the strings than it does with the elements I described above. That said, if you have a choice to play a guitar solo with new guitar strings vs. old guitar strings, you’ll have better sustain (and build more musical tension) with newer strings.

Guitar Solo Musical Tension Builder #2: Lead Guitar Solo Syncopation In Your Guitar Licks

Here is a quick story:

When I was learning to play better lead guitar (long before I knew anything about musical tension)…

…I developed good guitar technique and learned many scales.

The problem?

When I tried to play any guitar solo, my guitar licks seemed to lack fire and emotion.

And even when I tried to play a fast guitar solo, I had a hard time expressing the emotion I heard from my favorite lead guitar players.

No matter what I tried, I couldn’t seem to express emotion when I played lead guitar.

This went on for while, until my lead guitar teacher heard a recent guitar solo I learned and asked:

“Do you always play your guitar licks starting on the downbeat?”

I didn’t even know what he meant at first…

But then we started talking about building musical tension and he showed me how to inject more fire into my playing using…


What is syncopation?

It’s a very simple lead guitar technique that you can use to express emotion and play cool guitar licks even if you are not an advanced lead guitar player yet.

All you do is play notes in your guitar licks that don’t fall on the beat and boom – you’ll be able to play better lead guitar with syncopation.

Watch this video and I’ll show you how:

Question: “Tom Hess, I thought syncopation was just for rhythm guitar strumming. Are you saying you can really use it to build musical tension in a lead guitar solo too?”

Answer: Yes. Syncopation is simply a musical concept. You can use it in any musical style or lead guitar playing context. And it always works great for building musical tension in a guitar solo.

Guitar Solo Musical Tension Builder #3: Use Rubato In Guitar Licks Of Your Next Lead Guitar Solo

Rubato is a little-known (and simple) lead guitar technique that not only builds a lot of musical tension in your guitar licks…

… but makes any guitar solo sound almost as unique to you as your fingerprints.

Here is how it works:

You build musical tension by stretching and contracting the time in unexpected ways.

Like this:

And unlike most lead guitar phrasing elements (and even vibrato) that you can match when you learn someone’s guitar solo…

Rubato is very hard to copy.

This makes rubato a great lead guitar element to develop for anyone who wants to play better lead guitar, not only to build musical tension in a guitar solo…

… but also to build your unique lead guitar style that sounds just like you and no other lead guitar player.

Tip: Strangely enough, one way to get better at rubato (stretching & contracting time) is by learning to play in time.

You may ask: Does playing in time actually matter for lead guitar playing?

You bet. (Try playing harmonized lead guitar melodies that are not in time and see what happens.)

And the first step of learning to play in time is:

…get clear on how good your timing is right now. Only then can you start to improve this area of your playing.

How To Play Tight Rhythm Guitar

My favorite way to practice lead guitar in time is to focus on the first note of each beat in your guitar licks. This way you will make sure the playing is in time on the downbeat… and the other notes within the beat are very likely to be in time as well.

Bonus tip: rubato works especially well in your guitar licks (for building musical tension) when you combine it with another technique called:

Delayed resolution.

What the heck is delayed resolution?

It’s quite simple:

You just delay the resolution of a guitar lick to build more musical tension.

Here is an easy example of using delayed resolution in a guitar solo:

Play the first 7 notes of a D major scale (D E F# G A B C#).

Notice how your ear craves to hear the next note? (D).

That’s an example of building tension.

To delay the resolution of that tension, simply hold off on playing the D note.

It can be as simple as that.

Another great example of delayed resolution can happen during string bends.

Simply delay the release of the bend. Slow it down and don’t give your listeners the satisfaction of hearing the bent note come down all the way.

Guitar Solo Musical Tension Builder #4: Use Advanced Lead Guitar Vibrato In your Guitar Licks

When your guitar vibrato technique sounds weak, so does the rest of your guitar playing (no matter how fast you play).

When your guitar vibrato technique sounds great, your entire guitar playing sounds great too (even if you don't play anything fast).

So how do you actually use lead guitar vibrato to build musical tension in a guitar solo?

Here is the secret: do vibrato in your guitar licks in more than 1 way.

Here are the main types of lead guitar vibrato

Narrow Guitar Vibrato (less than a half step): Hear It 

Note: Keep in mind that using narrow vibrato CAN sound good if the context is right for it. Narrow vibrato sounds best at a slow tempo. Never make your vibrato fast and narrow at the same time!

Also, avoid only using narrow vibrato. This simply sounds boring and it’s hard to build musical tension in a guitar solo if your vibrato always sounds the same.

Also spend some time practicing wider vibrato, like this:

  • Wide Guitar Vibrato Example (half step): Hear It
  • Very Wide Guitar Vibrato Example (whole step): Hear It

Then combine narrow, wide and very wide vibrato in your guitar licks for contrast and building musical tension.

Note: Using guitar vibrato technique that is a whole step wide isn't necessarily always better than using vibrato that is a half step or less.

Other vibrato options include:

- Instant lead guitar vibrato. Just as the name implies, you play a note and go to the vibrato instantly. This is the way most rock guitar players typically do vibrato. And it can sound good – when you do it right.

However, my personal favorite is:

- Delayed vibrato. I like it a lot because it lets me build musical tension anytime I want in any of the guitar licks I might play in a guitar solo. To do delayed vibrato, you play a note as a regular note (with no vibrato) first.

Let the note sustain for ½ - 1 second. Then, finally add vibrato to the note.

On top of purely delayed vibrato, another great vibrato variation is: delayed vibrato with rearticulation.

All you do is: play a note & hold it without vibrato. Then, about a second later, you hit the note again. And this time – you add vibrato.

Surprisingly, even though I use delayed vibrato (and delayed vibrato with rearticulation) to build musical tension in almost every guitar solo I play…

… I did not learn this technique from guitar players.

Instead, I got it from studying… singers.

Yes, singers.

Singers are masters of building musical tension with just one note.

Take a look at this excerpt from a lead guitar solo master class I once held at one of my HESSFEST live events to see what I mean:

Question: “Tom Hess, what’s the best way to practice building musical tension with my lead guitar vibrato?”

Answer: Transcribe your favorite singer’s vocal melodies on your guitar. And as you do, concentrate on matching the nuances of their vibrato in your playing.

This not only makes your guitar licks sound more melodic (helping you express emotion in your lead guitar playing))…

… it also trains your ear and builds your arsenal of guitar licks you can use when improvising or writing your next guitar solo.

Guitar Solo Musical Tension Builder #5: Advanced String Bending Guitar Licks

Think you can play guitar string bends well?

Let’s find out:

How many 2.5 step guitar string bends did you use in your last solo?

When was the last time you played a sliding chain of guitar string bends?

How often do you play half-ghosted guitar string bends?

Ok, I don't expect you to know these names, but...

...these techniques are advanced variations of basic guitar string bends.

Because they take a lot of control and finesse to play well.

And when you can start playing them in your guitar licks, building musical tension (in any guitar solo) will feel very easy.

Good news is:

Anyone can learn to play them – including you.

And when you do - every lick you play will drip with heart-piercing emotion.

Check out this advanced guitar string bends demonstration and I’ll teach you how:

Now that you know how to create musical tension in guitar licks for your next guitar solo, the next step is to learn even more ways to add fire and expression to your lead guitar playing.

I show you how in my free eGuide “How To Add Fire & Emotion To Your Guitar Licks, Even If You Can’t Play Guitar Fast Yet”. Grab your copy today and discover the lead guitar playing secrets most guitar players will never know.

Tom HessAbout Tom Hess: Tom Hess is a guitar teacher, music career mentor and guitar teacher trainer. He teaches rock guitar lessons online to students from all over the world and conducts instructional live guitar training events attended by musicians from over 50 countries.

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