Lead vs. Rhythm Guitar: What’s the Difference?
Learn about lead vs rhythm guitar and which may be best for you with Fender.
By Ben Nemeroff
While musical theory does have its own sets of “rules” and formulas around how scales and chords are constructed, there are very few limitations on players’ creativity. There are countless styles and genres of music and guitarists are continually finding new ways to break barriers. While there are lots of different styles of playing guitar, many guitarists think of rhythm guitar and lead guitar as the two main playing types.
So, what’s the difference between lead and rhythm guitar? To a new player just getting started and learning the lingo, you may want to know if it’s possible to play both lead and rhythm guitar (yes), if either lead guitar or rhythm guitar is harder (that depends on what you most gravitate towards), and the nuances involved in playing one style versus the other (more on that later).
Not to worry! We’ll address the difference between lead and rhythm guitar and delve deeper into the specific skills and techniques required to play either or both.
Understanding the Rhythm Guitar
To most new players, rhythm guitar may not sound as glamorous as lead guitar. That’s not to say that rhythm guitar can’t be fun, innovative, and packed with energy on par with even the most explosive lead guitar work! Rather, Rhythm guitar is a key part of a band’s rhythm section that propels the song, beat, and melody forward.
A band’s rhythm section keeps time and gives the song its beat, slowing down or speeding up the tempo at critical times, working together as a unit. Made up of rhythm guitar, bass, drums/percussion, and piano/keyboards, each of these roles play a critical element in a band.
While drums lay down the beat and timing -- as well as lending punctuation and fills to give a song drama, bass provides a bridge between rhythm guitar and the drums. Bassists define the bassline of a song, which doesn’t just provide a rhythmic pulse, but also stands as a series of notes that ties together the chords to a song to anchor the melody. Not all bands incorporate piano or keyboards into the mix, but when they do, these instruments look to drums and bass to provide the beat and play chords that lend melody and color to a song.
Finally, rhythm guitar is the cherry on top of the rhythm section, layered over the very top of the drums and bass. Rhythm guitarists strum the chords that lay down the melody of a song, keeping time alongside the steady beat of the drums and bass. While the chords keep pace with the beat of the drums and beat, it’s the chord changes that add flavor to the song and give it “hummability.”
Understanding the Lead Guitar
When comparing lead vs rhythm guitar, an easy way to think of it is that rhythm players are primarily focused on chords while lead guitarists are focused on riffs and solos. A lead guitarist’s playing also echoes some of the vocal parts of the song, bringing the melody to the forefront.
In instances where you have a lone guitarist holding down the role of rhythm and lead, they’ll likely play chords alongside those riffs and searing solos. However, some bands divide duties by having a lead guitarist focus solely on adding color and melody with riffs and solos, while a second rhythm guitarist provides the chords that layer over bass and drums. This can provide for a fuller, more layered sound within a band.
What's the difference between lead and rhythm guitar?
While lead and rhythm guitarists are both essential parts of a band, each role has different skill sets with some areas of overlap.
Lead guitarists carve out some of the most memorable melodies of a song. That noodling riff that stands as the intro to Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine”? The chunky, staccato power chord and nimble fingerwork opening riff to AC/DC’s “Back In Black”? The iconic riff and equally iconic solo on Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” played by the legendary Randy Rhoads? All prime examples of how a lead guitarist drives the melody of a song, using single notes alongside riffs and chords to make a song memorable.
Here are some examples of the techniques that a lead guitarist may incorporate into their playing:
• Riffs that recur throughout a given song or piece of music. These can be a combination of single notes, chords, or two-note power chords.
• Guitar fills that “fill” the space between chords. While many lead guitarists drive the melody, in instances where there’s both a lead and rhythm guitarist, a lead player may play strings of single notes that produce a cool countermelody and lend added interest and expression to a song. This is yet another of the benefits of having two guitarists in a band, giving a thicker, more complex sound.
While lead guitarists often garner a lot of attention, that’s not to say that rhythm guitarists can’t be dynamic players, too. In fact, rhythm guitar is essential to a song, playing the chords that give a piece of music character. They’re a bridge between the steady hands of a band’s drum and bass rhythm section and the melody of a tune.
Some of the techniques that a rhythm guitarist will regularly use include:
• Chords and the ability to keep time in a song. A great rhythm guitarist will have a huge chord vocabulary and an understanding of not just what chords and versions of those chords will work in a song, but the ability to keep time and not either race ahead or lag behind, throwing off the pace of a song.
• Arpeggio stylings that deconstruct chords and transform them into single notes. While this is arguably also a technique used by lead guitarists, rhythm players -- especially in instances where there is only one guitarist in a band -- can also make use of their chord vocabulary by breaking down each of those chords into single notes, alternating them with strummed chords to stay in the rhythm pocket while still adding interest to a song.
• A variety of strumming techniques that lend emphasis to chords or create a different atmosphere in a song. From bluegrass-style fingerpicking to alternate strumming to downward strumming strokes on a guitar, a rhythm guitarist knows how each of these techniques work to add emphasis to particular chords at a precise moment in a song.
Examples of band lead vs rhythm guitar scenarios
While rhythm guitar and lead guitar duties can often overlap, some bands only have one guitarist that handles both rhythm and lead, or have two guitarists sharing lead and rhythm duties. And still other bands take the approach of making a sharp division of roles with one guitarist handling lead parts and another guitarist solely devoted to rhythm. Here are a few noteworthy examples of bands and how they’ve divided those different roles.
One Guitar Player as Both Rhythm and Lead
Some bands only have one guitarist, but that guitarist can do it all. Listen to almost any Nirvana song and you’ll hear Kurt Cobain switch between pared-back chords and grungy solos punctuated with distortion. Billy Gibbons is another prime example of a guitarist who plays both rhythm and lead guitar, as evidenced by his work with ZZ Top. Gibbons’ style is influenced by blues greats like John Lee Hooker, who held down the rhythm end while still adding their own personality on leads and solos.
While recognized for their legendary lead guitar styles, Eric Clapton and Eddie Van Halen got creative and innovative with their approach to rhythm and lead guitar in their respective bands. When playing with The Yardbirds and Cream, Eric Clapton blended lead and rhythm approaches, grounded in blues progressions before graduating to a more psychedelic style. Even his solos took on a rhythmic feel, opting for using fewer notes to convey emotion rather than a blur of blindingly-fast licks.
On the flipside, Eddie Van Halen wowed legions of rock fans and put his band, Van Halen, on the map with guitar playing that incorporated two-hand tapping, shredding, and lightning-quick fretwork on his leads. It was EVH’s proficiency, speed, and accuracy that also informed his rhythm playing, often playing chords over bass notes, and using his chord vocabulary to create memorable riffs based on arpeggios. (Here’s lookin’ at you, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”!)
Separate Lead and Rhythm Guitarists
Some of the greatest bands of all time made their bones on the music scene by distinctly dividing the roles of lead and rhythm guitar to carve out their unique sounds.
In George Harrison, The Beatles had a dynamic lead guitarist in George Harrison and a rock solid rhythm guitarist in John Lennon. While Harrison played lead on the lion’s share of most Beatles song, as was the case for the band, they’d sometimes switch things up with Lennon taking the lead. However, it was George’s penchant for innovation and experimentation that gave The Beatles both a signature sound, and a reputation for changing with the times to keep things fresh.
When KISS broke onto the music scene in 1972, their kabuki-like face paint and unusual mix of melody and loud guitars saw them stake their claim as (in the words of co-founder Gene Simmons) “heavy metal Beatles.” One of the approaches they borrowed from the Fab Four’s was divvying up lead and rhythm guitar duties. While Ace Frehley was KISS’s original guitarist, recognized for simple-yet-memorable leads on some of their greatest hits of the ‘70s, including “Rock and Roll All Nite,” singer Paul Stanley gave the group a fuller sound with his rhythm guitar playing. When KISS underwent several lineup changes during the ‘80s before lead guitarist Bruce Kulick stayed with the band for 12 years, Stanley’s rhythm playing was a staple of the band’s sound. Paul’s rhythm playing could be heard complementing Kulick’s own meticulous fretwork on their 1989 acoustic hit, “Forever,” showcasing how effective it can be to have one guitarist tackle lead duties while the other plays rhythm.
On the heavier end of the metal spectrum, Metallica saw lead singer James Hetfield pulling double duty as rhythm guitarist to Kirk Hammet’s lead guitar. Many of Metallica’s compositions are played with two distinct guitar parts. Take a listen to the chords and arpeggios on “One” contrasted with the song’s blistering solo for a shining example of Hetfield and Hammet’s approach.
Need some more notable examples of bands that used the “divide and conquer” strategy by having a designated lead guitarist and another guitarist devoted to rhythm? Listen to Aerosmith’s lead guitarist Joe Perry and how rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford complements his playing, the classic Guns n’ Roses lineup with Slash on lead and Izzy Stradlin on rhythm, and AC/DC brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young taking on lead and rhythm duties, respectively.
Multiple Guitarists Sharing Lead and Rhythm Duties
While some bands segment lead and rhythm duties, parsing them out to a specific guitarist, there are some bands that have a dual-pronged attack and their two guitarists take turns playing rhythm and lead, depending on the song.
Some noteworthy examples of bands with co-lead guitarists include Judas Priest (featuring the duo of Glen Tiptonn and K.K. Downing, then later Richie Faulkner), Def Leppard (with Phil Collen and Steve Clark -- and later, Vivian Campbell), and the classic lineup of thrash metal legends Slayer (with lead guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hannemann).
Is lead guitar harder than rhythm? Which should you learn first?
There’s no singular answer to the question of whether lead guitar is harder to play than rhythm. The real answer depends on the song you’re playing, your own strengths as a guitarist, and your preference.
While there are tons of easy chord progressions that can be strummed by rhythm guitarists, there are also more complex chord progressions with variations on chords and tricky shifts in chord patterns that may be challenging even for the most experienced rhythm guitarist. Similarly, there are some easy lead guitar solos that can be mastered with practice, while others incorporate a variety of techniques and fretboard knowledge that can be tough for even the most dexterous guitarist to hammer out on the fretboard.
It's truly up to the individual guitarist and what song they want to learn to play -- as well as how much practice they plan to devote to it. The important thing is to not give up!
If you’re a beginner guitarist, you might be wondering whether you should learn to play lead or rhythm guitar first. Even if you aspire to be a lead guitarist someday, your best bet is to start learning rhythm guitar. By building your chord vocabulary, you’ll learn more about what notes go together, as well as get a stronger sense of timing in learning to play rhythm guitar. Start slowly, learning some chord progressions. Then, break those chords down into arpeggios to dip a toe in the waters of lead guitar!
Common Skills Required to Play Lead Guitar
If you’re planning to play lead guitar, there are a few skills you’ll want to learn to help you become a better player.
• An understanding of musical theory - Music is a language all its own. Musical theory is like the Rosetta Stone for translating the ideas of music and putting them into practice. A knowledge of the basic principles and formulas used to build scales and chords can help you to understand when a note choice sounds harmonious or sounds wrong for a particular piece of music. Getting familiar with even the basics of musical theory can help you become a better lead guitarist.
• Scales - While playing scales might not be the most exciting thing about learning to play guitar, it does give you a better understanding of where different notes sit on the fretboard and what notes correspond within a given key. Think of playing scales as putting some of your musical theory knowledge into practice! By playing scales, not only will you develop more dexterity, being able to play standard major and pentatonic scales, but you’ll also learn how to match tones and play (and write!) solos more easily when the time comes!
• Develop greater finger dexterity - This goes (fretting)hand-in-(picking) hand with learning to play scales. The more you practice, the better you’ll be able to coordinate your fretting hand along with your picking hand. Building fretting hand dexterity involves hitting notes accurately, building speed and technique, as well as understanding what notes are adjacent to one another -- not just on a single string, but on adjoining strings. On the flipside, picking hand dexterity involves speed and accuracy of picking strings -- either using fingerstyle or playing with a pick.
• Reading guitar tablature - While learning to read notes and looking at a piece of music and understanding what time signature it’s in, as well as what key it’s in is certainly a useful skill, many guitarists use tablature (or “tabs”) as a form of shorthand to easily see what fret they should play on what string. Learning how to read tabs can be a great equalizer, especially if you’re playing with others who may not know how to read more traditional notes and sheet music. Learning to read tablature can help everyone get on the same page and better collaborate.
Skills Required to Play Rhythm Guitar
Just as learning to play lead guitar requires a particular set of skills (read that last part in Liam Neeson’s voice), so does learning to play rhythm guitar. Some key skills rhythm guitarists should learn include:
• Musical theory - Whether you’re a lead or rhythm player, you can’t go wrong by learning the basics of musical theory. As a rhythm player, a knowledge of what notes sound right together can help you to layer the right chords -- and chord changes -- behind a lead guitarist’s riffs and solos.
• An extensive chord vocabulary - While lead guitarists may find their practice sessions steeped in scales, rhythm guitarists can distinguish themselves by building up their knowledge bank of chords. Knowing the notes that comprise a particular chord can help you identify it at various points on the fretboard -- at either a higher or lower tone. That depth of understanding will allow you to more easily play a version of a chord that works best within a specific song.
• The ability to read chord charts - Chord charts are similar to tablature in that it offers guitarists a shorthand for learning where to place their fingers on the fretboard in order to play a chord. These diagrams feature six vertical lines representing the six strings of a guitar, along with small dots on the grid-like “fret marks” of the diagram to make playing and identifying a chord and its position super easy.
• Developing a sense of timing - A rhythm guitarist straddles the line between rhythm and melody in a band. Like bass and drums, a rhythm guitar provides the steady pulse of a song and keeps time. However, they work within this pulse to execute the chord changes that give a song its signature sound.
Check Out Fender Play Lead & Rhythm Guitar Lessons
Regardless of whether you want to play lead guitar or enjoy strumming away on rhythm guitar, a free trial of Fender Play can help you to get started on your musical journey. Learn to play chords, scales, get tips from expert instructors on how to leverage various guitar playing techniques, and then put that knowledge to the test by playing songs. Fender Play has a library of hundreds of songs, giving you the opportunity to learn what you love to play. Get started today!