Lead Guitar vs. Rhythm Guitar: What’s the Difference?
Lead or Rhythm Guitar?
Lead guitar and rhythm guitar are two terms beginners will encounter when learning the instrument. The difference between the two can be confusing at first glance, and you may have a lot of questions.
Are they two completely different types of guitars? Or, do these terms describe roles for guitar players in a band? Do you have to learn one or the other? Can you learn both and switch between them? Can you use the same guitar for both rhythm and lead?
For guitarists who have been around the block a time or two it might seem like a silly issue, but I can remember being perplexed about it when I was first starting out, many years ago. Fortunately, this is one of those things that are pretty easy to understand, once someone explains it to you properly.
In this article you’ll learn everything you need know about the difference between lead guitar and rhythm guitar. I’ll even give you some real-world examples of how well-known bands have managed the two over the years. By the time we’re done you’ll know a little more about the guitar, and your path as a new player will have become a little clearer.
Rhythm Guitar Definition
The terms rhythm and lead guitar describe the roles of musicians in a band. They are not separate types of guitars, and you can play both on the same instrument.
To understand rhythm guitar, you need to first understand the role of the rhythm section of a band. The musicians who make up the rhythm section create the foundation of the music. They are responsible for forming the underlying beat and chord progression, atop which other instruments create the melody.
More specifically, a traditional rhythm section may include:
- Drums and/or percussion: The drummer creates the beat of the music and keeps the time. Think of the drums as the bottom layer of the music. Everything else builds on top of the rhythm created by the drummer or percussionist.
- Bass: The role of the bassist is to coordinate with the drums, but also utilize the correct notes to reinforce the chord progression of the piece. Think of the bass as the middle part of the rhythm section, like a connection between the drums and other instruments.
- Guitar or Piano/Keys: This is where you come in. Other instruments, typically guitar or keyboards, play the chord progressions that form the final part of the rhythm of a piece of music. They rely on the drummer and bassist for timing, and they form the top layer of the rhythm of a song. Note: Some musical forms don't even utilize these instruments, and simply rely on drums and bass for rhythm.
So, the traditional role of the rhythm guitar player is to play supporting chords and, along with the bassist and drummer, form the foundation of the music. In addition to chords you may play more complex passages, but always with the intent of forming the rhythm of the song.
Lead Guitar Definition
Traditionally, lead instruments take the role of establishing the melody of a piece of music. For example, a three-piece jazz group may consist of a drummer and upright bassist as the rhythm section, and another instrument as the lead. In jazz that other instrument is usually a piano, guitar or horn, but really it could be anything.
To help clarify this in your mind, think of the words to a song you like. Now, imagine that song played by a three-piece band consisting of a drummer, bassist and guitar player. Without a singer, how would that band play the song you are thinking of?
You might imagine the drums and bass playing a backup role in the music, creating a beat and bassline, while the guitar plays the lead part you would usually sing (the melody). This, in a traditional sense, is a pretty good example of the roles of rhythm and lead instruments in a band.
Lead guitar players also play solos and other embellishments in a piece of music. But what happens when there are other instruments in the band that might play solos? And what happens when there is a vocalist to sing the words to the song?
A lead guitar player usually won’t just sit quietly until his amazing soloing services are required. He or she needs to be able jump in on rhythm duties as well. As we’ll see in a moment, this is especially important in rock music.
The explanations above are traditional definitions of lead and rhythm guitar. As you’d expect, in a rock, country or metal band the lines can get a little blurry. Many bands have a guitar player who takes on both rhythm and lead duties. In a band with only one guitar player, it is a necessity.
Some bands have guitar players who only play rhythm. This is usually the case then there are two guitar players in a band, or when a band is relying on another instrument (such as keys) as the lead. However, you'll also see one-guitar bands with rhythm-only players in genres such as punk and alternative music.
And, some bands have two or more guitar players who share rhythm and lead.
In the examples below I’ve chosen songs by some of my favorite bands and guitar players to better illustrate the roles of different guitarists in their bands.
Example #1: One Guitar Player as Both Rhythm and Lead
In our first example, we’ll look at the song Pride and Joy by Stevie Ray Vaughan, who is widely renown as one of the best blues guitarists ever. SRV is known as a great lead player, but he is also a very creative rhythm player.
Notice a few things as you listen to the song:
- After the rest of the band starts playing, Stevie “locks in” with them. He plays a combination of single notes (which he shares with the bass) and chords, and his playing is rhythmic and synchronized with the drums and bass. Here, he is playing rhythm guitar as part of the rhythm section of his band.
- Notice the embellishments he plays, often between vocal phrases. In the middle part of the song (at 1:38 and again at 3:29) he will play guitar solos. In these cases he is taking on lead-guitar duties.
- If we were forced to define Stevie Ray Vaughn by one term or another we’d probably call him a lead guitarist, but in reality he must do both.
Stevie Ray Vaughan - Pride and Joy
Example #2: Separate Lead and Rhythm Guitarists
In the second example we’ll look at the song Back in Black by AC/DC, a band with two guitar players. Throughout most of the band’s history the brothers Angus and Malcolm Young shared guitar duties, but there was a fairly definitive split in their roles. Angus (the guy wearing the shorts) was considered the lead guitar player in the band, where Malcolm was the rhythm player.
In fact, the late Malcolm Young is regarded by many as the top rhythm guitar player in the history of hard rock. He was not only the driving force behind the AC/DC sound, but a great songwriter as well.
Take note of a few things while watching the video:
- While both guitars play a key part in the rhythm of the song, pay attention to the difference between the verse and chorus. In the verse section of the song both guitarists are locked in with the drums and bass. In the chorus section, the riff they play is complimentary to the bass and drums, but stands on its own quite a bit more. This is common in rock music.
- Notice that Angus plays all of the solos (2:01) and all of the embellishments. But, like Stevie Ray Vaughan in the video above, he has to play rhythm as well. In contrast, Malcolm plays mostly chords.
- If you’re thinking rhythm guitar isn’t as important as lead, imagine how thin this song would sound without Malcolm’s playing.
AC/DC - Back in Black
Example #3: Multiple Guitarists Sharing Duties
For the final example we’ll look at the classic song Powerslave by Iron Maiden. ‘Maiden is one of the best examples of a “twin-guitar attack”, meaning a band with two guitar players capable of playing both lead and rhythm.
In fact, for years Iron Maiden has had three capable guitarists – Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers. They also have one of the best metal/rock bassists of all time in Steve Harris, who holds down rhythm duties in very creative ways.
The music of Iron Maiden is a good place to start if you are interested in learning more about guitar harmonies.
Notice while watching:
- Listen to how all three guitars and the bass come together as one for the verse sections of the song. This chugging “wall of sound” is a hallmark of many metal and rock bands, and a reason it’s a great idea to have more than one guitar in a band.
- Iron Maiden is known as a highly instrumental band, and many people consider them the forefathers of progressive metal. They often have long sections of music without vocals (starting about 2:57).
- Pay attention to the harmonies (4:16) where all three guitars work together. The guitar players’ abilities to harmonize while the bass holds down the rhythm gives this band a huge amount of creative flexibility.
- Notice that Smith and Murray both play solos. Gers is more than capable as well, and does in other songs. With three talents like this it opens up a lot of musical options. This is yet another reason you want to be good at both lead and rhythm playing.
Iron Maiden - Powerslave
I encourage you to learn more about the bands and guitarists I highlighted above. One of my missions is to help young players discover some of the great music of the past. Whether you are a new guitar player or you’ve been playing for a long time, listening to bands and other guitar players is a good use of your time. It sheds some light on the possibilities of the instrument, provides inspiration, and may even awaken your competitive nature.
You’ll notice I tried to use live music for my examples. Please realize that music recorded in a studio may not give you an accurate representation of which guitarists are playing which roles. The recording process allows one guitar player to record multiple tracks. That means the harmony that sounds like two guitarists playing together may actually be the same guitarist playing both tracks.
Here are a few more examples of the types of bands noted above:
Bands and artists featuring one guitarist doing it all:
- Led Zeppelin
- Van Halen
- Black Sabbath
- Jimi Hendrix Experience
- Ozzy Osbourne
- ZZ Top
Bands with multiple-guitar attacks:
- Judas Priest
- Thin Lizzy
- Lynyrd Skynyrd
- The Allman Brothers Band
- Def Leppard
Bands with mostly separate lead and rhythm guitarist roles:
- The Beatles
- Guns N’ Roses (classic lineup)
- The Clash
- Sepultura (classic lineup)
- Children of Bodom
Brushing Up on Your Skills
Since this article is directed at new guitar players, I thought I’d include a section on some of the things you’ll want to focus on in order to succeed as either a rhythm or lead guitar player.
Truthfully, I suggest you learn the skills required for both. It may be tempting to think it is easier to just focus on rhythm guitar, but, as you can see from the videos above, most bands benefit from guitars players with a wide range of skills.
Skills Required to Play Rhythm Guitar
- A deep chord vocabulary: Like Guitar George in the Dire Straits song Sultans of Swing, you have to know all the chords. At the very least you need to have a strong command of the most important open chords and barre chords.
- Good strumming techniques: There are many ways to strum a guitar, and you need to be good at all of them. As examples, look at the different techniques used by the guitar players in the songs above.
- Sense of timing: You’ll need some of the instincts of a bassist to stay in time with the drums. In other words, rhythm guitar players have to have rhythm.
- Some knowledge of music theory: While you won’t need to play solos, you may be called upon to harmonize with the lead guitar from time to time. It is good to know some music theory.
- A strong fretting hand: Spend time working on your chord changes until they are fluid and don’t tire you out. This is especially important for barre chords.
Skills Required to Play Lead Guitar
- Strong knowledge of scales: As a rock guitar player you need to know the pentatonic scale all over the fretboard. It also helps to know the major scale, natural and harmonic minor and have a general understanding of modes.
- Moderate knowledge of music theory: Again, you don't have to be a Berklee graduate, but you should have a basic understanding of music theory.
- Improvisation: Good lead guitar players are able to improvise a solo on the spot. In fact, for me this was a key part of writing a guitar solo.
- Fretting and picking-hand dexterity: While you are working on your scales be sure to practice economical fretting and picking technique.
- Everything a rhythm guitarist needs to know: You can’t just take a break when you aren’t playing solos, especially if you are the only guitar player in the band!
Again, I feel it is important for guitar players to learn the skills required to play both lead and rhythm. A well-rounded guitar player is a better songwriter, and a more valuable member of a band. Who would you hire: A guitarist who can do both or a player who only wants to focus on one?
Guitar players have used all kinds of guitars for both lead and rhythm playing over the years. Most guitars are fine for either, but if you focus on one style you may look for certain attributes in an instrument.
For example, some lead guitarists prefer guitars with thin, fast necks, whammy bars such as the Floyd Rose, and hot pickups for good sustain. That's fine, but it really doesn’t matter what kind of guitar you choose. Make your decision based on the style of music you intend to play.
Finally, try not to feel overwhelmed about all of this. If you are a new guitar player and you’re worried about having to learn both rhythm and lead guitar it may seem like too much. But, remember, there is another way to describe this:
Rhythm guitar + lead guitar = everything
As a new guitar player you already knew you had to learn everything eventually, and surely you know you aren’t going to learn it all at once. Take it a step at a time and it will fall into line in time.
Good luck, and don’t forget that this guitar thing is supposed to be fun.