Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Playing Lead

I went to a musicians rendezvous over the weekend and i was playing with some of the older fellows who were playing older country songs. I am playing the mandolin and i am playing chords by watching the guitar players fingers. When it comes to try to play lead I am lost. I know the notes are within the chords, but how do I know which notes of the chord to play? By ear? Is there a lesson on that? Just wondering if I am missing something simple that has not clicked or does it take years of playing? i have been playing for a year. Thanks for any advice.


Hey @swaltner,

I have to admit that I’m not a very skilled mandolin player, but the two main things I would recommend doing when playing a song that you haven’t heard before are:

  1. Make note of the chord progression, especially any less common chords, and
  2. Get the melody of the song established in your head.

Then, when you’re actually taking the solo:

  1. Establish that melody well, and
  2. Play licks that you’ve memorized over the chords when there is the opportunity to do so.

I would recommend playing the notes of the melody, which are typically contained in the chords of the song. You can of course drift from the melody to an extent, but it’s good to help the other players know where you are in the song.

I would also suggest checking out this lesson, as it will help you know where to go on your fretboard for the most common chords, 1, 4, and 5.

Also, you should work on being able to recognize chord changes without looking at a guitar player’s hands or a chord chart. The number one thing here is to listen-- listen to bluegrass music as much as you can stand it and you’ll soon realize when listening, “Hey, isn’t the song about to resolve to a 4 chord?” and sure enough, the 4 chord follows. This is not necessarily something that is easily expressed on paper (although there are specific notes such as a flat 7 that lead your ear to the 4 chord, etc.), but something rather learned almost subconsciously through listening to the music, playing in jams, etc. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to think while taking your solo, “The song is about to go to the 5, so I should get ready to play a lick over the 5 chord”, etc.

Hope that helps!


Oh, and you also might want to check out the banjo make-a-break lesson, because even though it’s a banjo lesson, the same theory and listening principles apply.


Thanks Michael,
So I have the 1,4,5 chords figured out, just don’t have the ear yet to know the sound of each chord yet. I will work on that.
So when playing the solo and the chord progression is D,G, A, you are playing certain notes from each chord, is that correct? So there is a lot of memorization of the notes within the chords and knowing the D scale, G scale, A scale. would that be correct?


It helps to know the triad of each chord. The triad is the root note, the major third, and the major fifth. It’s generally good to stick close to the melody notes your ear picks up, then knowing those three key tones of each chord will come in handy for adding filler notes. Scales are helpful for sure, but knowing the triads is an even quicker way to fake a solo you don’t know!


Thanks Flatpickin, I will work on the triads also.I just watched the Fretboard Geography lesson, good lesson.


Check out the 2 pentatonic lessons Ben has.

Pentatonic scales are magic. They contain only the notes you need to sound like you really know what you’re doing and none of the notes that sound wrong.


Thanks Mark, I have the Pentatonic Scales lesson.

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