3 Differences Between Rhythm and Lead Guitar


One of the biggest questions that new guitarists ask, is about the differences between rhythm and lead guitar. You’ve probably heard the terms rhythm and lead thrown about quite often, but what do they actually mean? And what’s the difference between them?
 
In this article, I’ll go through all the key differences between rhythm and lead guitar, in terms of their function, what they sound like and which techniques you’ll need to play them. Plus I’ll be going through a list of the most frequently asked questions about them. So let’s get started! 

The Quick Answer

Rhythm and lead guitar sections differ according to their function, sound and the techniques required to play them. Rhythm guitarist support the drummer and bassist, to help provide the beat and chord progression. Lead guitarists support the melody by adding embellishment and solos. 

  • Rhythm guitar sections sound more warm and mellow than lead guitar sections which sound sharper allowing them to cut through the sounds of the rest of the band. 
  • Rhythm guitar playing focuses more on chords, whereas lead guitar playing focuses primarily on riffs and individual notes instead.
  • Lead guitar players need to master techniques like vibrato, string bending, scales, hammer-ons and pulls offs.
  • Rhythm guitar players need to master chord playing, strumming technique and have a good sense of timing. 
rhythm vs lead

1. Function

The biggest difference between rhythm and lead guitar, is their function. They both have different roles in the band. 

Sometimes, there are two guitars in a band, and one plays the rhythm section and the other plays the lead parts. In other cases, there is just one guitar, and it plays both the rhythm and lead sections, but at different points during a song.  

So, let’s go through exactly what rhythm guitar, and lead guitar actually are. 

Rhythm Guitar

First, let’s start off with rhythm guitar. The main role of a rhythm guitarist is to provide the chord progression, and help with keeping the beat. 

Rhythm guitar players do this by working with the other instruments in the band that help to uphold this rhythm as well. These primarily include the bass guitar, and the drums. 

Lead Guitar

Lead guitarists, on the other hand, are not really responsible for keeping the rhythm, but instead are focused on the melody. So what does this actually mean?

Well, think about a classic rock song. You’ll usually have a singer, which is solely responsible for the melody. The lead guitar then contributes with embellishments, riffs and soloing. It works with the singer to help provide the melody. 

2. Tone

Okay, so now you know what rhythm and lead guitarists actually do, let’s move on to some of the other differences between them. One of the other main differences between rhythm and lead guitar sections, is related to how they actually sound. 

This can be broken into two sections. 

Firstly, rhythm and lead guitar sound differently because they play different roles in the band. Usually, rhythm guitarists play chords, whereas lead guitarists play individual notes and riffs. In order to be able to perform these roles properly, the guitars themselves need to sound differently. 

This means that rhythm and lead guitars are set up to have different tones. So let’s go through what they’re supposed to sound like.

Rhythm vs lead tone

Generally, rhythm guitar sounds more mellow and warm than lead guitar, which sounds brighter and sharper. This goes back to the roles of each guitarist. 

The lead guitar needs to sound brighter and sharper, so it can cut through and contribute to the melody. If it was too warm and mellow, it’d get lost in the rest of the instruments. 

The rhythm guitar on the other hand, need to provide the underlying chord progression and beat, so it naturally needs to sound warmer and more mellow. This allows it to help assist the bassist and drum player, and creates a thicker sound to hold up the song. Whereas, if it was sharper and brighter, it would start to interfere with the melody too much and take over.  

Okay, so now we know why they sound different, let’s jump into how these differences in sound are actually created. 

Pickup type

One of the first causes of this difference is tone, is due to the pickups. The pickups play one of the most significant roles in the sound of an electric guitar. There are three main pickup types: single coil, humbucker and P90.

Single coil pickups sound the brightest and twangiest, whilst humbuckers sound the most warm and mellow, P90’s sound somewhere in between the two. Take a look at this post for a comparison between the main pickup types

If you’re looking for a very warm and mellow sound, that copes well with high gain rhythm guitar playing, then humbuckers are a great option. If you’re looking for a bright and sharp lead tone, then P90’s and single coils work great, however, humbuckers are perfect if you need something a bit beefier.

Pickup Position 

As well as the different pickup types, you also need to consider the position of the pickup. This affects how warm or bright the tone of the pickup is.

For example, if you placed two of the exact same pickup, in two different positions on the body of the guitar, they would sound very different. Here’s how position impacts the tone.

  • Closer to the bridge: this sound sharper and brighter as it favours treble frequencies.
  • Closer to the neck: this sound more warm and mellow, as it favours bass frequencies.

Most guitars have at least two pickups, one located near the bridge (referred to as the bridge pickup) and another located near the neck (referred to as the neck pickup). Some guitars also have three pickups, where the third is located between the neck and bridge pickups.

Generally, lead guitarists will select the bridge pickup, and rhythm guitarists will select the neck pickup. This allows the lead guitar to cut through more, and the rhythm guitar to sound more mellow. 

However, this is a generalisation. Sometimes, particularly in heavier styles of music, the rhythm guitarist will also use the bridge pickup.

Take a look at this post on the different pickup configurations to learn more about this topic. 

pickup selector stratocaster

Amp Settings 

The amplifier settings also play a key role in creating a difference in tone between rhythm and lead guitar. There are several controls to keep in mind.

  • Volume: usually the lead guitar volume will be set higher than the rhythm guitar.
  • Gain: this depends on the style of music. But generally, the gain is higher on lead guitar, allowing it to cut through the mix a bit more. 
  • Bass: the rhythm guitar will normally have a higher bass setting allowing it to contribute to the rhythm section of a song more.
  • Mids: both the rhythm and lead guitar need to have enough mids to give them plenty of depth of tone. 
  • Treble: the lead guitar will normally have a higher treble setting which allows it to sound sharper and more crisp.

Take a look at this in-depth guide to guitar amp settings and controls to learn more. 

Pedal Effects

It’s also worth noting that lead and rhythm guitarists use different effects pedals in order to achieve a different tone. Here’s a quick guide to the different effects pedals that lead and rhythm guitarists use:

  • Compression: both rhythm and lead guitarists use compressor pedals, but normally to achieve different effects. Rhythm guitarists normally use compression to create a smoother, more even tone. Whilst lead guitarists normally use compression to increase the sustain of the notes as well. Take a look at this in-depth guide to compression pedals to learn more about the different ways to use them. 
  • Boost: these are used by lead guitarists in order to kick solos up a notch. They are also used in songs where there is only one guitar playing both the lead and rhythm sections. The guitarist can then use the boost pedal when switching to lead sections, and turn it off when playing rhythm sections. 
  • EQ Pedals: these can also be used to create differences between rhythm and lead sections. The settings can be adjusted to make the tone sound warmer for rhythm sections, and brighter for lead sections.

Take a look at this guide on the essential effects pedals for rock music to learn more about this topic.  

3. Techniques

The final difference between rhythm and lead guitar, is in the techniques used by the guitarists playing each section. This is where everything gets tied together, to create different sounds and help rhythm and guitarists perform their specific roles. 

There are all sorts of different techniques that electric guitar players use, so here’s a quick rundown of the main techniques used by rhythm and lead players. 

Rhythm Guitar Techniques

So the role of a rhythm guitar player, is to provide the chord progressions and contribute to the beat of a song. So here are some of the most important things a rhythm guitarist needs to be able to do to achieve this. 

  • Good Chord Technique: this is the most important thing that a rhythm guitar player needs to be able to do. They need to be able to switch between chords effortlessly, know the names of all the main minor and major chords, and have good barre chord technique.
  • Rhythm and timing: this helps a rhythm guitar player work with the bassist and drums to contribute to the rhythm sections.
  • Strumming technique: a rhythm guitarist needs to have great strumming techniques and know a lot of different strumming patterns to be able to perform their role properly. 
  • Palm muting: a lot of rock songs use palm muting to dampen the sound of a chord. This is often used within verses and during the pre-chorus. 

Lead Guitar Techniques 

Since a lead guitarist contributes more to the melody, they need to master a different range of techniques to be able to perform their role properly. 

  • Vibrato and string bending: this is super important when it comes to soloing and adding more emotion to your lead guitar playing.
  • Sweep picking: this is often used in solos and adding embellishment. It’s a difficult technique to master, the best thing to do is to start slowly and then build up your speed.
  • Scales: a lead guitarist needs to know scales to be able to solo properly. All lead guitarists should be very familiar with at least the following scales: minor pentatonic, major and blues. 
  • Pinch harmonics: these are often seen in rock and metal music. Pinch harmonics cause a screeching sound when your thumb comes into contact with the string immediately after plucking a string with a pick. 
  • Hammer-ons: Hammering on, is when you hold down a fret and then press down on a higher fret with another finger. It makes the higher note ring out, but without having the pluck the string.
  • Pull-Offs: Pull offs are the reverse of hammer-ons. They happen when you are fretting at two positions on a string. You can pull offs by releasing the fret that’s higher up on the fretboard. This causes the lower note to ring out without plucking the string.

If you’re serious about becoming a better lead guitar player, then check out this post on the 6 ways to become a better lead guitarist today

The Different Scenarios

So which songs actually have rhythm and lead parts, and who plays them? Well, it’s not all that straightforward, it really depends on the song. 

Not all songs have lead and rhythm parts. Some songs simply have only rhythm sections, whilst others have both rhythm and lead. When there are both rhythm and lead sections, there are usually three different scenarios:

  • Two guitars: one playing lead, the other playing rhythm.
  • One guitar: which plays both rhythm and lead sections.
  • Three or more guitars: where the rhythm and lead parts are assigned to different guitars, or change throughout the song.

Here’s a more detailed explanation of each scenario. 

One Guitar

When there is a single guitar in a song, it’ll play both the rhythm and lead sections. There are plenty of bands which have used this setup including Pink Floyd, Green Day, Blink 182, Nirvana and Muse. 

Usually in the lead sections, the bass player will do a great job at filling in to contribute to the rhythm parts to make sure you still get consistent volume and tone. 

Two Guitars

When there are two guitars in a song, it’s typical for one to play the rhythm sections, and the other to play lead sections. Take Oasis for example. Usually, Noel Gallagher would play all the lead guitar sections, whilst Bonehead usually played all the rhythm guitar parts. 

Sometimes, when there are two guitars, one guitar may play the lead sections for part of the song, and then switch to the rhythm sections for others.

Three Guitars

There are some bands that also have three or more guitars. Usually, one guitar will be assigned the lead sections, and the other two will play rhythm parts. 

However, sometimes, the guitarists may switch between rhythm and lead sections, rather than sticking to specific roles. 

Bands with three guitarists include Pearl Jam, Queens of the Stone Age, The Eagles and Iron Maiden. 

Frequently Asked Questions

If you still need some more answers about the differences between rhythm and lead guitar, then don’t worry! Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions. 

Which is easier, rhythm or lead guitar? 

This depends on the song you’re playing, and the techniques you are better at. Some lead sections are basic and require fewer advanced techniques, whilst others are very fast and technically demanding. 

The sames goes with rhythm guitar sections. If you’re only playing open chords with few quick changes, then it won’t be too difficult. However, some songs require palm muting and barre chords that require you to move around the fretboard easily. 

With that said though, in most cases, rhythm guitar playing is usually more straight forward. It often requires less technical ability, and understanding of musical theory. 

Should you learn rhythm or lead guitar first?

Usually, beginner guitarists find it easier to learn rhythm guitar sections first. This is because they often use more basic techniques, like chord playing and strumming to be able to perform these sections.

Usually lead guitar playing is more advanced because it requires more complex techniques like sweep picking, vibrato, pinch harmonics etc. You also need a deeper understanding of musical theory to be able to come up with your own unique solos. 

Which guitars are good for rhythm or lead playing?

There aren’t really any specific electric guitars which are better for lead and rhythm playing. With most two pickup style guitars, you’ll have no trouble switching from lead to rhythm sections by simply selecting a different picking, adjusting the amp settings, or using some pedal effects. 

 

So there you go! That’s how to decide if locking tuners are actually worth it for you! I hope you’ve found this article helpful, thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might find useful:

Heather

Hey, I'm Heather. I started playing an electric guitar when I was given a Squier Strat for my birthday around 15 years ago. I now own an acoustic guitar and several electric guitars including my personal favourite, a PRS SE Custom 24.

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