What’s The Difference Between Rhythm Guitar & Lead Guitar?
When I was growing up the typical rock band consisted of 2 guitar players, a bass player and the drummer. I wanted to be the rhythm guitar player. Why? Because I figured it would be easier.
Then I got a little older… And like many things in life my limited view of how music worked got blown out of the water. The music I listen to changed… and so did the structure of the bands that I most admired.
Along came bands like Led Zeppelin with Jimmy Page, their wild curly-haired guitar player, holding down the groove one minute and then dropping into a guitar solo the next. He even had a guitar with several necks on it (I believe it was a 6 string guitar and a 12 string guitar all in one).
Then to make things worse (or possibly better if you consider growing up a good thing) along came The Who. Pete Townshend seem to play both the rhythm guitar and the lead guitar at the same time. In fact after a while I couldn't tell one from the other.
Of course no one in the audience cared that he blurred the boundaries. It just sounded great. But now I had a dilemma… Did I want to play rhythm guitar, or lead guitar, or both?
Before I talk about how I resolved this dilemma let me explain the difference between rhythm and lead.
Rhythm Guitar For Dummies
So what exactly is rhythm guitar? Is it strumming chords? Is it keeping the rhythm? Is it providing a backdrop for the singer?
The short answer is yes to all three.
The most common form of rhythm guitar combines playing chords along with a specific rhythmic figure that provides the groove. The simplest version would be an acoustic guitar player strumming chords while singing a song. When you're playing acoustic guitar you're covering the entire rhythm section.
In a band the rhythm guitar is one part of the rhythm section and has the additional opportunity to lock with the bass guitar and the drummer to create the groove and harmonic structure. The word “harmonic structure” is just a fancy way of saying the movement of the chords. In a band it's a combination of the rhythm guitar, bass and drummer… As well as possibly a keyboard player and other instruments.
Sometimes Less Is More
This leads me to a helpful distinction that I wish I had learned much earlier. If you are playing rhythm guitar with others you should play differently than when you're playing by yourself. When you play by yourself you're basically covering the entire range of notes. For that reason you'll often play full chords and additional licks like basslines.
In a band the bass player can cover the bassline. The drummer sets the groove and the tempo. It's best that the rhythm guitar player stays away from playing full chords and basic because it is more likely to clash with the bass player and the drummer. It's usually best to stick to chords that use the higher strings of the guitar and make sure you're playing a rhythm that complements the drum groove.
There are many techniques to playing effective rhythm guitar with other instruments. However going with the 80/20 rule I can tell you that much of it can be summed up in the phrase “sometimes less is more”. Add listening to the other players and pay attention to how it sounds combined and you'll probably do just fine.
Lead Guitar… Going For The Solo
Lead guitar, often called improvising or soloing (not to be confused with solo guitar), can be described as playing a type of melody. It can be a set melody similar to an instrumental version of the vocal line. Often when people think of the guitar there thinking about improvising.
One way to think of it is when the guitar player plays a ripping solo in a rock song. That's one example of lead guitar.
Another example is when an acoustic guitar player plays an improvised melody in a folk bluegrass quartet.
There is a wide range of colors and shades of lead guitar depending on the style of music. In this case I think it's better to show rather than tell. Here are some examples that I think you'll enjoy.
Jimmy Page playing his famous “Stairway To Heaven” guitar solo.
This is a tune called “I’ll See You In My Dreams” played by Chet Atkins & Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits). Chet is playing the rhythm guitar and Mark is playing the melody (lead). Notice how he adds some double notes and chords to spice up the melody.
Here’s B.B. King dishing out some classic blues lead guitar with “The Thrill Is Gone”.
Here’s a Spanish guitar tune by yours truly to give you something with a different flavor. I’m playing the rhythm guitar in the top two windows and the lead in the bottom.
I Decided To Play A Different Game
So back to my dilemma. How did I decide if I wanted to play rhythm guitar or lead guitar?
Here's the short version: Instead of trying to fit into a specific role I took myself out of the entire decision. I begin creating my own music. By creating my own music I ended up playing lead guitar (both melodies and soloing), rhythm guitar, solo guitar and often a combination of all of the above. And I love it… Mostly because I feel empowered to truly share the music that I have inside me with others.
You can read my story here if you haven't already.
Not for the faint of heart.
And I'm not recommending it as a place to start.
But if you're up to it I do recommend it as a place to aim for. I'd be happy to support and encourage you along the way.
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