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Rhythm Guitar Vs. Lead Guitar

Last Updated: April 05, 2021 / by Brian Collins

There's no question that the guitar is probably the most popular instrument among musicians. Being able to pick up a guitar and play what you feel can be an amazing experience full of musical possibilities. However, learning to play guitar is one thing, while mastering the various techniques that can be used is another journey altogether. As a beginner, it's important to understand a few basics. At the top of this list is understanding the difference between the rhthym and the lead guitar. Let's take a look at what it is that makes these two styles so different and what you can do to learn both.

Getting the Basics

Before we get into the differences between rhythm and lead guitar, let's take a look at just what these two styles of playing means. The most popular misconception about the two roles is that you need different guitars to play them. This is not true! These terms are simply a designation of orchestration. No matter what guitar you are using, you can play both rhythm and lead role.

So what's the difference?

The thing that ultimately distinguishes the rhythm from the lead guitar lies in the difference in the style and techniques used to achieve each sound.

For example, playing rhythm guitar makes the player part of the rhythm section of the band. This includes drums, bass, and keyboards. The lead role is more upfront in the overall music. This is the one that takes on the solos, riffs, and main hooks.

Here's a breakdown of what each role does:

1. A Foundation for the Melody

When you think about listening to guitar-based music, it's usually the melody that stands out. The melody is generally what defines the tempo, and most often what listeners think about when drawn into a song. This is the sound that is created by the lead guitar.

In order for the lead guitar to stand out, it's important for the other elements to sync and blend well to create a solid foundation for the lead. This means that the less the rhythm guitar is noticed, the better.

Think of it this way - rhythm guitar provides and supports the harmonic elements and serves as the foundation for the melody to stand on. Without the chords that rhythm guitars play, there wouldn't be anything to place the melodies over.

2. Structure vs. Freestyle

Another distinction between rhythm and lead guitar is the difference in structure. Rhythm guitarists are very structured in what they play. Mostly, this is comprised of various chords played repeatedly throughout the song. Deviating from these specific sounds can ultimately affect the overall sound.

Lead guitar doesn't have this sort of structured style. This difference allows the lead guitar to play solos and freestyle to reflect the emotions of the song while performing. The concept of the lead role is based on allowing the guitarist to play independently with improvisation.

3. In the Limelight

In general, the singer and the lead guitarists are the ones in the limelight while the other elements remain in the background. This certainly doesn't mean that one element is more valued than the other.

It's worth pointing out that you can find good music without a lead element, but its pretty rare to find good music without a rhythm element. The best guitarists understand the value of being able to play both.

Most beginners tend to lean towards learning the flashier lead guitar style, but there are a number of benefits to learning both lead and rhythm styles. There are some challenges that come with each style as well. So how can you get better at both?

Exercises for Lead Guitar

In order to better you lead playing skills you have to work on the core fundamentals. This includes everything from simple pentatonic scales to 3-octave scales in both major and minor. It's important to remember to start learning these scales with the right habits.

Using the alternate picking technique is one that's complicated but imperative to learning proper skills. Picking in only one direction can quickly turn into a bad habit that is harder to break later on.

Another great exercise that can help strengthen lead guitar playing skills is using arpeggios. Arpeggios are individual notes from a chord played in quick succession.

Exercises for Rhythm Guitar

Greatness in a rhythm guitar player can't be done without extensive understanding of chords and shapes. Being able to strum and switch chords within a strict beat is essential. In general, the best way to achieve this is to practice transitions. Set your metronome to a very slow pace and transition from chord to chord in a very slow rhythm.

Of course, you can't start out with the most difficult chords, so start with simple ones like Em and D. Once you've mastered these transitions, start working the bar and extended chords, moving your way up the neck. The importance of challenging yourself with new chords and other fingerwork cannot be overstated here.

The Bigger Musical Picture

No matter what guitar you are learning to play with, honing your musical skills and exploring an instrument with endless possibilities can be an amazing journey. Regardless of the role you are learning, building a strong foundation of basic fundamental skills are essential to progressing.

Some of the best guitar players understand the importance of both roles and continue to take every opportunity they can to hone their skills and knowledge of rhythm and lead guitar skills.

About the Author: Brian Collins

I am a classically trained singer who believes that every instrument requires maintenance - including the voice! I started my professional music studies at the age of 8 and competed in and won several local and state piano competitions. I graduated with honors and earned my Bachelor of Music Education in 2003, and since then I have studied with famous musicians and teachers around the world. I have also completed hundreds and hundreds of voice lessons, exploring various methods, and attended countless seminars on voice coaching for all ages.

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