If you’ve ever gone online to look for a band that needs a guitar player, you may have noticed that some ads ask for Rhythm Guitarists and some ask for Lead Guitarists.
What’s the difference between lead guitar vs rhythm guitar?
Can you be both, and can you go without one or the other?
In this article I’m going to help explain some of the common differences in playing style and tones that often differentiate lead and rhythm guitarists, as well as suggest which playing style you should learn first.
Famous Rhythm Guitarists
- Brad Whitford (Aerosmith)
- James Hetfield (Metallica)
- Malcom Young (ACDC)
- Anyone from the Allman Brothers Band
- John Lennon (The Beatles)
- Nile Rogers (David Bowie, Michael Jackson, etc.)
What Does a Rhythm Guitarist Do?
You might be able to get an idea of what a rhythm guitarists does from the tittle alone, but the role isn’t as simple as that. Rhythm guitarists play as a part of the rhythm section in a band, which means that they help set the foundation for the band and for the song.
The drummer is the backbone, playing percussion instruments, drums and cymbals to establish the tempo, subdivisions, feel, and dynamics. Bass guitars add capability of melody, usually played one note at a time. Some bands also have horn sections, string sections, and piano/synthesizers that can play chords and add texture.
So where does rhythm guitar fit in and what does a rhythm guitar player do?
It changes depending on the band and the style of music, but the guitar can do almost all the above things and more. Guitars are extremely percussive due to their wooden construction and metal strings.
They can play one note at a time or play chords. They can be extremely dynamic and with the use of pedals can create soundscapes, textures, moods and more.
Sometimes the rhythm guitarist has to do all the above. If you’re a solo singer/songwriter you know this all too well.
I would say that the most important thing a rhythm guitarist does is support the song’s melody by establishing a chord structure and establishing or adding to a song’s rhythm.
The rhythm guitarist has to be mindful of the rest of the band and find the perfect way to help the song without stepping on the toes of the other instruments.
Do You Need a Rhythm Guitarist?
Every band or ensemble needs a rhythm section of some kind. Rhythm is a fundamental aspect of music and going without it will leave your music feeling empty.
Whether or not the guitar needs to serve this purpose depends on what other musicians are in the band.
Typically speaking, a rhythm section is usually comprised of two musicians at a minimum. A drummer or some other kind of percussionist is the first choice, and the second can vary from piano, to bass, to trombone and beyond.
If you have less than two rhythm musicians on board, your need for a rhythm guitarist becomes much greater.
One of the most common scenarios in which a rhythm guitarist is crucial is in singer/songwriter solo or duo acts. Think about it – have you ever been to an open mic night at a coffee shop where a vocalist has a leader guitarist shredding away behind them without a rhythm section?
I certainly hope not.
However, if there are two or more rhythm instruments present in an outfit, the need for a guitarist that is dedicated to rhythm may be less necessary. Just get a sense for what role each of the instruments is planning to serve and see where the guitar will fit best.
Just because guitar, especially electric guitar, is often associated with being a lead instrument doesn’t mean that another instrument can be the lead while guitar serves the rhythm section. Most ‘mono’ instruments like woodwinds and reed instruments are fantastic for lead, especially in Jazz.
In this context, a guitar is often better suited playing rhythm parts for its chords and percussive element.
Famous Lead Guitarists
- Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
- Kirk Hammett (Metallica)
- Angus Young (AC/DC)
- Eddie Van Halen
- Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)
What Do Lead Guitarists Do?
Lead guitarists are usually the players that we remember or identify the most, because they play melodies and guitar solos.
While a rhythm guitar player usually plays chord progressions to support the music, the lead guitarist plays licks, melodies, and guitar solos that make the song identifiable and hopefully memorable. Lead guitarists are second only to the lead vocal in terms of the “stand-out” instrument.
Lead guitarists often play notes and lines that are higher in pitch and that require some advanced skill or trickery to pull off.
Sometimes lead guitarists play less often than the rhythm guitarist (if their ego isn’t too inflated), as they will often give way to the lead vocalist. However, it is also perfectly reasonable to expect the lead guitarist to work as a second rhythm guitarist in these moments, complimenting the other rhythm guitar part.
Do You Need a Lead Guitarist?
Much like with whether or not you need a rhythm guitarist, choosing whether you need a lead guitarist is heavily dependent on the band and style of music.
If you are playing good old fashioned rock n’ roll music, you will more than likely want a lead guitarist shredding away to impress and excite the crowd. On the other hand, if you are playing in a Ragtime band, it would be much more fitting to let other instruments take the lead role.
Another good factor to consider is whether or not you have a vocalist in your band. If you play in an instrumental rock band, a lead guitarist is crucial in filling the roll that is left empty by the vocalist.
What Are the Differences Between Rhythm and Lead Guitar?
Now that we know what rhythm and lead guitarists do in general, let’s take a closer look at some of the key differences between the two styles of playing and what you’ll need to know to pull them off.
One of the things you’ll need to keep in mind when playing rhythm vs lead guitar is how each of these types of guitar playing sound in a mix.
Rhythm guitar often utilizes chords, which take up a larger sonic spectrum and are usually played with lower notes. For this reason, you’ll need to assess the band around you and figure out what their sound or occupied frequency ranges are and try to shape your EQ to fit within that.
One way of doing this is to cut some or all of your low-end frequencies out. Anything below 100Hz ought to do the trick. This can be done with a simple EQ pedal, a wah pedal, or a Treble booster.
For more ideas on how to effectively sculpt a good rhythm tone, check out this video below by That Pedal Show.
In comparison, lead guitar is meant to stand out. For this reason, it is common for lead guitar to be louder and to utilize more drastic sounds.
How you approach playing rhythm vs lead guitar are different from one another.
For example, with rhythm guitar, your focus is going to primarily be on sitting with the rest of the rhythm sections. This means you may be listening to the drummer (specifically the kick and hi-hat), as well as the bass, and if there are keys thrown in you have a lot more to wrestle with.
With rhythm guitar you want to compliment and support the rest of the band and the composition. Doing this in a full band can sometimes be challenging as you need to pick chord voicings and rhythms that fit in with the other musicians and avoid getting in each other’s way.
Being a lead guitarist requires mindfulness as well. Not all of your time is going to be spent playing leads and improvising solos, so you will still need to play to the band and to the song.
That being said, when it comes time to solo, one way to approach the style is by being aware of the chord changes and changing your scales based on the chords playing underneath you.
Learning How to Play Rhythm and Lead Guitar
It can be difficult to decide what to learn on the guitar first, as there are so many different techniques and styles, not to mention an endless amount of resources available on the internet for finding great teachers.
So how do you decide between learning Rhythm or Lead guitar styles? Is one better to begin with than the other?
Is Lead or Rhythm Guitar Harder?
At first you may think this is an easy question to answer. Of course, lead guitar is more difficult than rhythm!
There is some merit to this. If you take any Beginner’s guitar course, the first thing that they almost always teach you is chords and strumming. And think of how difficult it looks to play some of your favorite guitar solos. You need years of practice and fluent technique to pull those pieces off.
While the fundamental skills required to play rhythm are easier to learn than those of lead playing, either can be stripped down or made more advanced.
Take the guitar solo from “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones below for example. It’s just one note played over and over, but still counts as a lead part and is really effective and memorable.
On the other hand, consider just about any heavy metal, bluegrass, or funk tune and the rhythm parts that come with those types of songs. These require incredible stamina and control over your right hand. I would definitely say that these are harder than the “I Wanna Be Sedated” guitar solo.
Should I Learn Rhythm or Lead Guitar First?
As I said before, most beginners are going to start with rhythm guitar and for good reason.
The fact is that about 95% of your time on the guitar is going to be spend as a rhythm guitarist, so you’re going to want to have those fundamental skill sets down first. The basics of rhythm guitar playing are generally easier, more rewarding, and can be used over and over again. Have you ever noticed how many songs use the same three chords?
Being a good rhythm guitarist is an essential part of working well with other musicians, too. It doesn’t matter that you can play sixteenth notes at 240 bpm if you can’t stay in time strumming chords to a shuffle at 80 bpm.
Once you have your cowboy chords, bar chords, and a wide array of strumming rhythms down, I think moving onto lead stuff is perfectly fine. Afterall, lead guitar is fun! And when it comes to guitar, especially when beginning, having fun is the best way to ensure that you will keep playing. So go learn your favorite guitar solo!
Which Type of Guitar is Best for Rhythm vs. Lead Guitar?
Is there a certain type of guitar that is better for lead or better for rhythm?
While acoustic guitars are often more associated with rhythm, and electric more often associated with lead, these are generalizations and in no way need to be followed. Just ask any bluegrass player as they flat-pick and shred like the wind.
In the world of electric guitars, any type of electric guitar can be played or voiced to be a perfect rhythm or lead instrument. It all depends on how you play and how you set your tone.
Some guitars, like the Gibson Les Paul, have pickups that are labeled as “Rhythm” and “Treble”. The Rhythm pickup is warmer and was designed for playing chords. This would let you sit in the mix as a part of the rhythm section.
The Treble pickup was designed to sound brighter and works well for leads and solos.
All that being said, you can use either pickup for either style of playing.
Should You Just Pick One Style?
Lead guitar vs. Rhythm guitar… Is one better than the other? If so, should you just pick one to learn?
There are many bands that have a dedicated rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist. If you find yourself in this kind of band, you may find yourself using one skill set much more than the other.
However, most bands end up trading off rhythm and lead rolls.
For this reason, and many others, I think every guitarist can benefit from learning and playing both rhythm and lead guitar styles. It’s a great way to challenge yourself and to make you a more well-rounded musician.
If you think that you are better at one skill than the other, take some time to learn new techniques and to listen to some of the guitarists I mentioned above.
Afterall, many of the greatest guitarists, including those who play one style more often than the other, are great at playing both rhythm and lead guitar.
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Davis Wilton Bader is a professional guitarist/writer based out of St. Louis, MO. He plays in the bands Lumet and The Outskirts.