The Difference Between Rhythm Guitar and Lead Guitar

One of the most common questions that gets asked by beginners and even some experienced guitarists is the main differences between rhythm guitar and lead guitar. In this post, I am going to explain some of the main differences between the two and the roles each type of guitarist plays while performing as part of a band.

Rhythm Guitar

If you want to play in a band, the ability to play good rhythm guitar is the most essential skill you need to develop. Some bands have two guitarists whose roles are split into lead and rhythm, but it is more common that both players share the roles. In bands with just one guitarist, rhythm playing makes up about two thirds of the guitarists job.

Being a good rhythm guitarist means having a good knowledge of chords and rhythms and being able to lock in with the bass and drums (the rhythm section) and provide a good feel for the vocalist to sing over.

Lead Guitar

The lead guitarist is generally considered to be the most important instrumentalist in a rock/pop group. A group’s ‘sound’ and direction will be influenced by his or her ability and style.

To be a good lead guitarist, you will need to develop the ability to improvise. Improvisation can be defined as being the spontaneous creation of a melody line. That is, when given a rhythm background (i.e. a chord progression) the improvisor is playing a lead melody to blend with it. The improvised lead is spontaneous in that it is not pre-learned (rather, it is done ‘on the spot’), and it is unlikely to ever be repeated in exactly the same way.

Although improvising involves spontaneity and originality, there are certain scales, techniques and ‘licks’ that all Rock guitarists use. Improvising within a song involves special considerations which are not necessary when just ‘jamming’ with a chord progression. These considerations are most important when you reach the stage of forming a repertoire for group performance.

In a song, the lead guitarist does not usually play at the same time as the singer is singing. (When a lead guitarist is not playing lead, they generally play rhythm). Instead he or she may play ‘fill-ins’ in between the singers lines, or play a lead solo during a vocal break. Another common role for the lead guitarist is to play a brief introduction or ending to the song.

An introduction will often involve a short (4 or 8 bars) musical phrase. This ‘riff’ is designed to attract the attention of the listener and help make the song instantly recognizable and memorable. It may be repeated throughout the song (e.g. during the lead break, or at the end of the song). The melody of the introduction is usually played against the chord progression of the song, or some part of it (e.g. it may be based on the chords used in the verses, chorus or bridge). The riff may also ‘borrow’ the melody of either the verses or chorus.

A fill-in is a short lead riff played between one line of the lyric and the next; or between one verse and the next etc. This is the period where the singer usually holds a long note or has a small break. Many of the licks you will learn in this section could be used as a fill-in.

A lead solo involves the lead guitarist playing for a full verse or chorus of the song (or longer), while the singer has a rest. It may occur at the beginning or end of the song, but is more commonly found either half way or two-thirds of the way through the song. The best way to develop your improvising ability is to play with other musicians as much as possible.

If you are jamming with another guitarist, you can take turns at playing lead and rhythm. When you are playing rhythm, listen to the lead player and try to provide a solid base for them to improvise over. When your turn comes to play lead, see if you can use some of the ideas of the other player and alter them to create your own licks.

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