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What Is The Difference Between Lead Guitar And Rhythm Guitar?

One of the common questions beginners have is “what is the difference between lead guitar and rhythm guitar?” I remember thinking the same thing when I first started out. I’ll put it in simple terms first, then explain in a little more detail afterwards.

What Does A Rhythm Guitarist Do And Not Do?

  • Plays chords that outline the harmonic progression of a song.
  • Usually doesn’t play melodies.
  • Doesn’t play solos.
  • Provides accompaniment for the lead guitarist, vocalist, or other soloist. Often referred to as “comping.”
  • Plays “in time” along with the bass guitarist and drummer.
  • Will often strum chords throughout the song.

What Does A Lead Guitarist Do And Not Do?

  • Plays melodies (one note at a time).
  • Plays solos and most likely knows how to improvise.
  • Usually does not play chords, (although chordal style licks can be a part of a solo).
  • Not totally responsible for outlining the chords or chord changes of the songs (although most improvisers DO try to outline chord changes by playing chord tones in their solos).
  • Often plays with distortion/overdrive to be louder and stand out over the rest of the band. This varies of course, depending on what type of music is being played.

Is Lead Guitar Harder Than Rhythm Guitar?

In general, yes. However, this really depends on what exactly we’re talking about when we compare rhythm vs lead. If rhythm means playing difficult riffs throughout an entire song, and the lead guitarist is only responsible for simple, short, ornamental melodies, then it’s entirely possible for the rhythm guitarist to have the more difficult task.

However, let’s assume a more typical scenario. A band that has 2 guitarists…one being the lead guitarist, while the other one is the rhythm guitarist. If the job of the rhythm guitarist is to strum or play chords the entire time, and the job of the lead guitarist is to play difficult/complex solos, then obviously the lead guitarist has the more challenging task.

Do Lead Guitarists Improvise Or Make Up Music On The Spot?

It depends. In music that is heavily driven by improvisation, such as blues and jazz…yes of course they do. You may ask “how do they do that?” Once you learn enough of the fretboard, through scales, arpeggios, and other melodic devices, you are able to express your music ideas on the spot without too much trouble.

It takes a lot time and effort on the instrument to be able to do this. If you have the desire to become an improviser and become a more well-rounded guitarist, you should start learning some scales and arpeggios so you can start building up your vocabulary of melodies (licks) you can use during solos.

It takes a long while on the instrument to be able to accomplish this level of proficiency. After a while, you’ll be able to hear the music in your head that you want to be able to play, and then move your fingers to make the sounds you want to make. It basically turns into a sort of mind-body connection.

One of my favorite quotes regarding this is from Miles Davis…

“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.”

Miles Davis

On the other hand, if you are not improvising, but rather playing a pre-rehearsed solo, that’s not as challenging of a task, especially if you have practiced it many times and can rattle it off without much of a problem. You don’t necessarily need to know any scales or have any advanced knowledge of the fretboard to do that. You just need to know the notes you need to play, and that’s it.

I, however, highly encourage you to explore the fretboard to a great extent. Learn those scales. It unlocks the rest of the fretboard. It’s a bit of a pain in the butt at first, but entirely worth the effort you put into it.

Learning to improvise, and break free form the lower part of the neck is extremely fun. I’m not an expert improviser, but I’m starting to be able to play what’s in my head a little better every day. It’s one of the most satisfying feelings to be able to pick up the guitar and start playing something, not even knowing what you’re going to play, and letting your ear be your guide. It turns into a sort of playground, and it’s fun!

What’s The Difference Between A Rhythm Guitarist And A Bass Guitarist?

A bass guitarist (bassist) is playing an entirely different instrument than a regular rhythm guitarist. the bass guitar is much lower in pitch. A bassist usually isn’t playing chords, but rather, single notes at a time. The bass guitar fills out the lower frequency range of a song. The bassist is usually holding one note per measure, although this is definitely not always the case.

A rhythm guitarist, on the other hand, is (usually) playing a regular 6-string guitar. They are also playing in a higher pitch range than the bass guitarist. As I mentioned above, the regular rhythm guitarist is most likely playing chords or some type of rhythmic riff throughout the song. They are either accompanying a lead guitarist (or other musician), or the vocalist. Often times, the vocalist in a band IS the rhythm guitarist.

How To Become A Better Rhythm Guitarist

Don’t think that since you are playing “rhythm” that you have to be held hostage to the lower part of the neck, simply strumming chords. Obviously, you should know all the open chords, all the essential barre chords, in several major, minor, and dominant forms.

In jazz and blues, you don’t even need to play full chords. You can use “voicings” that will still allow you to outline the harmonic structure of the song. Did you know that you can successfully play the chords of a 12-bar blues song or many jazz standard tunes using only 2 strings? As I said, earlier, this is known as “comping” for a soloist.

These chords only contain the 3rd and 7th intervals of a chord, but that is all you need sometimes. These are sometimes called “shell” voicings. That’s a topic for a later lesson.

How To Become A Better Lead Guitarist

To become a “lead guitarist,” or improviser, my instructions are really pretty straightforward, but not easy…

  • Learn scales. Start with some of the open positions, the minor pentatonic scale, the major scale on a single string. Then you can continue with the CAGED scale patterns or the 3-note-per-string patterns.
  • Learn arpeggios in major, minor, dominant, diminished, and half-diminished forms in as many patterns as possible. (Every scale pattern has arpeggios contained within them). Eventually you’ll determine which patterns are most useful to you.
  • Practice playing scales/arpeggios along with backing tracks.
  • Start to compose your own melodies in your head, then try to play them along with backing tracks.
  • Transcribe some of your favorite solos to start getting into the minds of your favorite musicians.

This is a lifelong process. Don’t think you’ll be an excellent lead guitarist or improviser overnight. It’s going to take effort. If you’re not willing to put in the effort, don’t expect results.

How To Play Rhythm And Lead At The Same Time, With Chord Melody Arrangements

Did you know it’s possible to play rhythm and lead at the same time? You can with chord melody arrangements. This is often used in a situation where you’re playing by yourself, unaccompanied, or without any other musicians.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Listen to some of the greatest jazz guitarists like Joe Pass. Here’s one for you…

Listen to how he weaves chords in with the melody. He’s not really playing “rhythm” or “lead” here. He’s just playing music. This would be an excellent goal for any musician to strive for.

He has such a vast knowledge of the instrument that whenever he plays it’s second nature to him. Almost like breathing. He can think of the music in his head, and produce it on the instrument basically in “real-time.” I’m not quite to Joe’s level yet, but I do plan on being there within the next 20-30 years 🙂

Good luck!

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