I'm a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
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 to 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 to 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 renowned 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.
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 complementary 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.
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 he 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.
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:
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!
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it easier to play lead or rhythm guitar?
Most new players will find it easier to play rhythm guitar. In fact, playing rhythm guitar is a good way to start jamming with other musicians and learning the ropes. It gives you a solid musical foundation that will help you as you become better at lead guitar.
Who is the best rhythm guitarist?
Some of the best rhythm guitar players of all time are:
- Malcolm Young
- James Hetfield
- Dave Mustaine
- John Lennon
- Scott Ian
- Izzy Stradlin
- Brad Whitford
- John Schaffer
- Johnny Marr
- Joe Strummer
Who is the best lead guitarist?
Some of the best lead guitar players of all time include:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Eddie Van Halen
- Brian May
- Stevie Ray Vaughan
- Eric Clapton
- Angus Young
- David Gilmour
- Jimmy Page
- Billy Gibbons
What is the best guitar for playing rhythm?
Great guitars for rhythm playing include:
- Gibson Les Paul
- Gibson SG
- Gibson ES-335
- Fender Stratocaster
- Fender Telecaster
- Fender Jaguar
- Epiphone Casino
- PRS Custom 22
- Rickenbacker 360
- ESP Eclipse
Some of these guitars are pretty expensive, but you can often find similar affordable options. For example, Epiphone makes some great Les Pauls, and Squier is a brand known for affordable Stratocasters and Telecasters.
What is the best guitar for playing lead?
Along with the guitars mentioned above, some other guitars that work well for lead playing are:
- Charvel So-Cal Pro Mod
- Charvel San Dimas Pro Mod
- Jackson Dinky
- Jackson Soloist
- Ibanez RG
- Ibanez S
- Kramer Baretta
- Dean ML
- ESP LTD EC-1000
- ESP LTD M-1000
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.
Lead Guitar or Rhythm Guitar?
Michael James (author) on October 10, 2019:
@Donald - Lefties sometimes use right-handed guitars strung in reverse. This was especially common back then, as there weren't as many left-handed instruments available. George is indeed playing the bass line on a Telecaster. Remember that the upper registers of the bass are the same pitch as a regular guitar. It's not ideal, but they did all kinds of weird stuff because, well, they were the Beatles.
There are forums where you can post about music topics if you like. Welcome to the site!
DONALD R MILLER from Florida on October 09, 2019:
Just saw something quite interesting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_uPx5uQ-tw Paul playing a righthanded acoustic in the lefthand position and George using an electric 6 string as bass. Wondered if you had any thoughts on this. Is there a weblog here?
Michael James (author) on October 09, 2019:
@Donald - Thanks for the kind words, and I am glad you found value in the article. Listening to Pete Townshend is definitely a good way to get inspired!
DONALD R MILLER from Florida on October 08, 2019:
I stopped by here because I just bought (but haven't yet recieved) an Epiphone Hummingbird. It's listed everywhere online at $369, but Musician's Friend has a sale going on with Google where it's $299 (or what I call three hundred dollars). Right now, I'm using a $200 Ibanez mahagony guitar, which sounds awesome. But the action is poor.
They mentioned Keith Richards as being a frequent user of it. Then they mentioned "rhythm guitar," and I didn't know what they meant - until I found your excellent article. I've watched a lot of YouTube guitar-playing videos, and not once did any of them explain what you have. (I Ican see I need to learn more about how a band works.)
About your list of guitarists: personally, I'd have Pete Townshend and Neil Young on a list I made. Pete at Woodstock, Leads, and elsewhere just blows me a way. Pete released all of the demos he made for what became known as Who's Next. He played everything and the quality of his musicianship is stunning. (An inspiration for me, since I want to make an album.)
If you haven't already listened to it, I highly recommend Neil's Songs for Judy. He does some things with that acoustic that probably only a good guitarist could figure out. Outstanding work.
I'll be reading and learning more from your articles.
Jose on August 26, 2019:
Thank you very much for helping me to understand the different guitar roles in a musical band.
Nithin on May 27, 2019:
I picked up guitar few years back and gave up on it because i was trying to learn on my own , not knowing where to start and how to progress, even though i made quick progress initially it didnot last long . I gave up guitar for few years . But about 3 years back i found an excellent tutor in my locality and i joined the classes and i have made good progress as you said we try to play all the components of a song and in the class sometimes multiple students are paired together and asked to play different parts of the song . Another important thing that happens in the class is teaching junior students which help clear up lot of musical concepts and self realize some of the simple things which were overlooked while learning them :)
There is no end to learning music specially Guitar is such a versatile instrument , as you grow as a musician your taste in music also changes 3 years back all i wanted to play was metal / rock , 3 years later now i am into blues , jazz and progressive rock (Pink Floyd specially ) . Learning never really stops . A wise friend once told me playing guitar is not easy specially the first year but if you stick with it for one year , you will never be able to live without playing guitar .
Michael James (author) on October 18, 2018:
@Jim -Your first comment did actually go through, and I really appreciate that you took the time to share your insightful thoughts. Sorry for the confusion and frustration. We want readers to be happy coming here, and I've passed your concerns on to the site management team.
Jim Nicosia on October 18, 2018:
I'm not in a band but I think it is almost impossible to describe the roles of guitars in a rock band, but the the article does a good job. Also
in songs like 'Back to Black' there is probably a lot of jamming when doing live concerts. knowing your fellow band members well is probably key
Michael James (author) on October 10, 2018:
@Anonymous - Welcome to the world of playing in a rock band! What you're describing isn't uncommon. Like any member of your band, your vocalist probably has some ideas he'd like to see come to life in the music. Unfortunately, since he doesn't play an instrument he has no idea how to convey his ideas to someone who does.
This is one reason I encourage vocalists to try to learn guitar. Even if they aren't very good, at least they'll know what they are talking about.
Before booting your singer from the band, I agree that you should try speaking with him about your concerns. Let him know you appreciate his ideas, but you're going to have to work them out in your own way. See how that goes and hopefully he will back off. If not, maybe you'll have to part ways and find another singer.
Anonymous on October 09, 2018:
Hi im in a band that i formed together and im the lead guitarist and my lead singer trys to tell me how to play when he doesn't play any sort of instruments i just dont understand how he could tell me how to do my job when he cant show me where the G strings is without laughing or making a joke about it I understand all of us make jokes about the g-string but my point is he doesn't even know where it is located on a guitar so does anyone know what i can do so this could stop i just do want to kick him out i would rather just talked to him and break down some ground rules between lead singer and lead guitarist but if that doesn't work any suggestions.
Michael James (author) on April 03, 2018:
Thanks, Pam! I appreciate the kind words!
Pam Freeman from Honolulu, Hawaii on April 02, 2018:
I absolutely loved reading this article, as I've never known the difference between the 2 roles. I'm looking forward to reading more of your Hub articles.