What Is The Difference Between Rhythm And Lead Guitar?
When beginners start learning the guitar they usually start hearing the terms “rhythm” and “lead” guitars, and tend to get confused. Do I have to learn one, the other, or both? Are these two different types of guitars? This article should help you sort out the differences, as well as realize the similarities between the two.
First of all, rhythm and lead guitar are not two different instruments. You can play both on the same guitar. Neither are they two completely different sets of techniques. Though there are techniques that are more commonly used in rhythm guitar, or in lead guitar, most of the techniques are used in both (for instance lead guitar players need a good sense of rhythm too, and while vibrato technique is used more frequently by lead guitar players, it is also commonly used in rhythm guitar riffs)
What makes rhythm and lead guitar difference is your role as a guitarist.
The main role of the lead guitarist is to provide melodies for the song, while the main role of the rhythm guitarist is that he provides the harmony (chords) and rhythm on top of which the melodies are applied. In most cases, the lead guitar player will be playing one note at a time while the rhythm guitar player will be playing chords.
So, which one should I learn?
If you’re a beginner in guitar playing, the simple answer is: Both.
As you advance in your guitar playing, you may choose to specialize more in one or the other. Or you may choose not to.
For instance, while in Black Sabbath, guitar player Tony Iommi plays both rhythm and lead guitar, in AC/DC, guitarist Malcolm Young tends to play mostly rhythm while guitarist Angus Young plays most of the solos. While Malcolm can, and does, come up with good melodies and leads, and while Angus does join the rhythm section when need be, one can fairly say that both are better at their thing – that is either lead or rhythm guitar.
Some techniques associated with each
The following are some techniques that are more associated with either rhythm or lead guitar playing.
Chord vocabulary: It’s important you learn the most common open and barre chords as well as power chords (especially if you’re into Rock or Heavy Metal)
Guitar strumming patterns: Since you’re providing a rhythm to the song it’s important that you learn how to create one. Click here to learn more about guitar strumming patterns and the basics of rhythm.
Palm muting: This is a very common technique in Rock and Heavy Metal guitar playing. By pressing on the strings with the palm of your hands near the guitar bridge you can create that “chug-chug-chug” sound frequently heard in this genre.
Guitar scale patterns: Guitar scales are like maps that guide you through your fretboard. They show you the note options you can include in solos.
Guitar licks: You can think of guitar licks as short solos. I like to think of guitar licks as little shots of melody you inject every now and again to embellish the song. Learn these easy guitar licks to get your first taste of this important lead guitar playing element.
String bending: This is a very powerful guitar phrasing technique where instead of hitting the next note with the pick, you literally bend the string until you reach that note. It extremely common in Blues and Rock music since it literally gives you the ability to make the guitar sing!
Improvisation: This is the ability to make music on the spot and can be performed by both rhythm and lead guitar players. However while it is kind of expected from the rhythm guitarist to keep repeating the same thing (though this may come in different forms and variations), good lead guitar players usually excel in the ability of creating melodies as they go.
Conclusion: Become a well rounded guitar player and musician
While I hope this article has helped you clear the difference between rhythm and lead guitar playing, you really shouldn’t be thinking in these terms so much. Never say things like “I want to become a lead guitar player so I won’t have to bother learning barre chords.” It is important that you become a guitarist first, and a lead or a rhythm guitarist when you have a clear sense of direction where you want to go. Better still, you should aim for becoming a well-rounded musician apart from a good guitar player.
This doesn’t mean you should learn other instruments, but a guitar player who also understands theory and how music works, develops a good ear and is able to play the guitar in different musical contexts.
Robert Callus is a guitar teacher, songwriter and blogger based in Malta. Find more articles like this on www.learnguitarmalta.com