By: Willem de Boer
It wasn’t until I went to secondary school in 1992 that I found out about Guns n’ Roses. Nearly everyone one in my school listened to them. They were huge. It is also the first time I heard Slash. I wouldn’t pick up the guitar for another two years but already his lead playing captivated me.
Slash has a very unique lead playing style. His style is bluesy and soulful, and sometimes ventures off to include notes that are not part of the standard blues scale. Slash can play very emotional, wailing melodies, but also rough and fast pieces when the song calls for it. There is something unashamed and primal about his playing — it’s almost sexy.
When I was 16, I was absolutely obsessed with copying Slash’s style. I got myself an Epiphone Les Paul and did nothing but play Guns n’ Roses songs and copy the master’s solos for nearly 2 years straight.
In this post I want to highlight some of the things that strike me as being typical of Slash’s style. I don’t want to talk about specific licks as I think ultimately this is a bit limiting. While knowing how to play specific licks can be very useful, what I want to convey in this post are ideas — several ways to approach particular notes to create a certain feel. You can then incorporate these ideas into your own lead playing.
First, let’s start off with the scale that Slash tends to build most of his solos around. It’s the standard blues scale, and in standard position it is given by:
Most of the solos on Guns n’ Roses’ albums Appetite for Destruction, Use Your Illusion 1 and Use Your Illusion 2 are built around this scale. Slash occasionally extends this scale to include more notes if the song calls for it.
Take the standard blues scale in standard position. Now shift the whole pattern down by three semitones. What you are left with is the major pentatonic scale with the addition of the minor third.
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Slash uses this scale a lot in ballads where the standard blues scale would sound a bit too rebellious. The major pentatonic scale sounds more harmonious than the standard blues scale when played against major scale chord progressions. This is perfect for ballads where the melody should add to the mood of the song rather than rebel against it, which is what tends to happen when you play the blues scale.
Listen to ballads like “November Rain” or “Estranged” to hear this scale in action.
The power comes from being able to mix this scale with the blues scale. Each scale adds their own different feel to a solo. Go to the Examples section to see a video that illustrates this idea.
The following chart shows the scale in all its glory with the standard blues scale as reference (semi-transparant). Slash usually adds the perfect fourth, as highlighted in yellow.
Let’s go back to the standard blues scale. In particular, have a look at the perfect fifth.
Slash bends this note by three semitones. This is something that I think is one of those things that really defines Slash’s lead style. That note, when bent by three semitones, followed by picking the fifth, augmented fourth, perfect fourth and minor third sounds absolutely great. It’s like turbo-charged blues.
Have a listen to Slash’s solo on Lenny Kravitz’s “Mama Said” to hear this in action. It’s that one note that really stands out to me. See if you can spot it.
When a song calls for it, Slash is no stranger to playing fast phrases. And when he does he adds the major sixth to the blues scale. This is a note that stands out when added to the standard blues scale and gives the melody a different feel.
Listen to songs such as Guns n’ Roses’ “You Could be Mine” or “Garden of Eden” for an example.
I’ve recorded a little video that illustrates the three ideas. It is roughly divided into three parts. The first part is an example of how you can mix the major and minor scales. The second part shows the use of bending the perfect fifth, and the third part shows the use of the major sixth when playing a fast passage. I play a slow version after each of the last two sections so you can see what is going on.
What is better than to watch the master himself in action. Here’s an excerpt of a live Guns n’ Roses concert during their Use Your Illusion tour. Slash uses the sixth note idea a lot in the first minute or so. For an example, skip to around 0:26, 0:55 or 1:54-1:56 to hear it in action. The perfect fifth note idea is used in typical Slash style around 1:02.
Next time I will write about more ideas that Slash uses for soloing. Ideas that you can incorporate into your own lead playing.
For now, if you have any questions at all about this then please feel free to put them in the comments. I will answer each question as well as I possibly can.
Willem picked up the guitar 15 years ago after having spent a number of years training as a jazz pianist. He enjoys playing any kind of musical style and has made a lifelong promise to himself to always keep improving. Despite being a lifelong student himself he likes to share what he has learnt with other people so that they may become better players themself. Willem writes about guitar advice, tips and lessons on his blog at the Lone Guitarist.