Are you confused about what separates and posits rhythm guitar vs lead? Are you struggling to comprehend the binary boundaries that have been established in the wake of the rise of guitar bands in the 60s? Are you even struggling to find your own place within all of this confusion?
Then you have come to the right place, as we are going to explore today the differences and similarities between rhythm guitar vs lead, attempting to impart upon the well-kept secret that there are just as many similarities as there are differences and that it is actually much more of a spectrum and than a binary.
1. Strumming Chords
Especially with an acoustic guitar and the like, it is hard to deny that this is more often the domain of the rhythm guitarist, at least of the present moment in a song.
For guitar is a spectrum, and those who tend to assign themselves rigid roles of rhythm guitar and lead guitar tend to play much more regressive music as a result. This is not always a bad thing either. A band like AC/DC, for example, are insanely reductive as well, but it is in the simpler aspects of the guitar playing and chord progressions that they revel and excel.
Rhythm guitar playing in this way is more than just reinstating the drums or the bass etc. The best rhythm guitarists make a song feel fresh and apart when they are playing guitar. Unlike a lead guitarist on the opposing end of the spectrum, the art of rhythm playing is far more subtle in the way it exercises the building of tension and release.
Thus, the magic of playing rhythm guitar is that it can entirely change the fabric of a song, the way it breathes, and the ways and directions in which it moves, all while eluding the attention of the casual listener. It is studio trickery without the studio trickery.
Before the rise of guitar bands in the late 50s and 60s, the blues guitar tradition would have had lead guitar players and the rhythm guitar player in one piece, with two or more guitarists taking turns to improvise while the other(s) played through the chord progression.
This is perhaps why it is more useful to think of the difference between rhythm and lead guitar as more of a spectrum, for it can be quite reductive to assign a guitarist into a total binary of us and them when many guitarists’ strumming patterns will feel more inclined to play in their own way across all sorts of different styles.
2. Arpeggios, Textures
A little further in from the rhythm end of things, there is the act of playing individual notes, albeit in order and in a rhythmic sequence. This is a go to technique for a number of guitarists looking to rhythmically fill space while still allowing room for other parts to operate and do their thing, using fingerpicking patterns to expand the palette of a song.
A stellar example from recent memory comes in the form of ‘Slow (Loud)’ by British band black midi, from their avant prog epic Cavalcade.
Around the 50-second mark, a rollicking series of arpeggios feel out the chord sequence, playing chords through melodies, which are in turn doubled by the saxophone. Funnily enough, this saxophonist was asked to join the band to more or less fill the shoes of the previous guitarist, so both the remaining guitarist and the saxophonist seem to play rhythm and lead guitars throughout the song, filling out the textures as a bed for the vocals to float upon.
Sure, there are certainly individual notes and tones being played out, but they are being used in usually rapid sequence to serve a more holistic mission, passing by quickly and with purpose.
More important in these examples, it seems, is the rhythmic element, where the way each note is played rhythmically places a strain and stress, tension and relief, on the overall rhythm of the song and propelling it forth along these lines towards its eventual conclusion. In this song by black midi, the various subtle layers of different guitar tracks following the arpeggiated chords constantly ramp up the tension in a clinical ebb and flow of the perturbed.
3. One and Two String Rhythms
More towards the center of the lead and rhythm spectrum is the act of playing rhythms exclusive on one or two strings of the guitar. Here, what would have been long, dynamic, and all-purpose sweeps of notes in the form of arpeggios are reduced to these two strings, drawing it ever closer to the play lead guitar pole on the best death metal guitar.
This can come in several forms and will often be used differently by any guitarist. One famous example is the world famous stadium rock band Status Quo, who use this technique but on the lower strings of the guitar. This seems to have an effect more akin to rhythm guitar, in turn accenting certain chord voicings that might otherwise be neglected.
Likewise, another stadium rock band like U2, and their guitarist self entitled The Edge, use this very same technique of one and/or two-string rhythms but on the higher strings of the guitar, producing an altogether different effect. The Edge is rather infamous for using a whole bunch of delay that tends to make more grand what is otherwise just a series of single note rhythms enunciated and stressed on a maximum of two strings in the upper register of the guitar.
In this way, he plays into the delay signal, into what the electric guitar is communicating and how it is reacting against the delay effect, turning one guitarist into a one-person rhythm section. Some even feel that in doing so he can play solos without playing solos.
I was recently talking to noise musician extraordinaire Audrey Chen, and she had much to say in favor of playing alongside and with a piece of musical equipment that provides an element of the aleatoric, and while a delay pedal can often be ridden and mastered much like a purebred horse, the sentiment still rings true.
4. Rhythmo-Melodic Alchemy
Arguably occupying a similar (if not identical) place on the spectrum between rhythm and lead guitar is the act of repeating and mirroring melodic lines but on lower pitched strings of the guitar.
In line with being in the apolitical center of this spectrum, this technique seems philosophical to blur the line between lead and rhythm guitar, turning what would have appeared previously or simultaneously as a lead melody into a rhythmic part, wherein the melody is mimicked and replicated.
Stress is particularly placed on the rhythmic element, hence how the melody can be alchemized and transposed into something so inherently rhythmic, and usually without the conscious realization of a casual listener.
Very often this technique is most simply being used to fill the space in the song, with the alchemies of lead guitar into rhythm guitar occupying a physical part of the song where a gap might occur that is otherwise undesirable. This is more often than not in the service of tension, building it, letting it ebb and flow, etc.
In rock music (and several of its broadly related subgenres), there is a sharp binary between these rhythmic and lead guitar elements, so that any melodic element repeated and/or mirrored on the lower strings is likely to automatically represent something rhythmic. At least in classic rock styles, this is very much in line with the supposed role of the bass guitar, who sits staunchly in the rhythm pocket and rarely strays far from it.
Elsewhere, the bass is said to occupy an uncanny valley between all of the abstract elements of pop music. Thundercat himself has said that ‘the bass plays a role somewhere between melodic and harmonic and rhythmic. When you think of the rhythm, you think of the drums. And you think about harmonic and melodic, you think of piano. But it’s the in-between of that and it creates a bit of its own rhythm and it carries its own melody. If you know a bit about it then it becomes a lot of harmony.’
Straying further away from the center towards the outer reaches of the pole of lead guitar, before we reach our final destination we come across the particular oddity of fills within the guitar world.
And these, of course, have their own character too. Fills betwixt the chords or between melodic lines (whether vocal or not) operate in a similar way to their use on drums, providing flavor and distinction, though here their implementation is far from rhythmic, leaning firmly on that melodic sense that sets them apart and makes them more of a riff on the melody than anything else.
Someone like Johnny Marr is a fine example, though perhaps one that tends to stray more towards the rhythmic pole of the spectrum than the melodic. Many of his songs are immensely chordal, and when there are melodies in the guitar parts they are usually so wrapped up in the chords as to be indistinguishable. His early guitar work with the Smiths is especially of note here, where he would arpeggiate and run through chords while still tacking on these melodic additions that would extend the chords to new heights.
Likewise, and in a more clear example, we see similar techniques with Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler essentially riffing on himself in the middle of the songs. Sultans of Swing is a prime example, though he has been known to do the very same thing across the entirety of his career and on a whole number of albums and songs, this technique falling far more towards the pole of the melodic than that of Johnny Marr.
And so, on the very far end of the spectrum, we have the infamous guitar solo, the extreme end of lead guitar.
As popular music jargon goes, this is one of the terms that is most lacking in a proper definition. What the term guitar solo has come to mean is simply an instrumental break wherein the guitar melodically inserts itself, to varying degrees of masturbatory success. If we were to take the literal definition of the guitar term, then it would surely mean the guitar playing entirely on its own, much like Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’.
And yet in a song like ‘The Boys are Back in Town’, for example, there is such a thing as a two-guitar solo, despite the fact that solo means solo, and solo means alone. What gives?
It would be a little silly to question such rigidly establishes socio-cultural cues, so it is probably best to just roll with it and accept that a guitar solo is rarely ever a guitar playing melodically without the accompaniment of some sort.
Conceivably, the only way this pole of the spectrum might be taken further is if the guitar was entirely unaccompanied playing melodically, something that is far more the domain of classical music, such as in this piece by La Monte Young which has been arranged for solo guitar, a far cry from the traditional rock domain.
So, there you have it! Hopefully, you are now feeling somewhat more at ease with some of the differences and similarities between rhythm guitar vs lead, and that you are now at least feeling more open to the idea that instead of thinking of these two megalithic characters as binaries, we ought to think of them more as two poles on a spectrum, one that cross-pollinates far more than it discriminates.
FAQs Rhythm Guitar vs Lead
I would not be inclined to say that either rhythm guitar or lead guitar is harder than the other, for they both ask different things of their users. Rhythm tends more towards subtleties in, you guessed it, the rhythm of the instrument, whereas lead guitar is far more focused on the melodic. However, investing in such binaries only seeks to diminish just how varied the guitar’s palette can be, as well as just how quickly a guitar can shift from one to the other like it is nobody’s business, going from densely rhythmic yet melodic arpeggios to straight on guitar solos and everything in between in a matter of seconds.
Yes, of course. The binary of both lead guitar and rhythm guitar, each residing in their supposedly opposite poles of the spectrum, tends to dictate that they are inherently different from each other, though it is my view that this is far from the case, and that there is much crossover to be seen between the two. Just as there is between rhythm and melody, in fact, for it would be a feat and a half to find a melody that belies rhythm, or to find a rhythm that is not at least implying some sort of melody.
Within the bounds of typical classic rock instrumentation, it is the domain of the rhythm guitarist to back up the rhythmic aspects of a song, building and releasing tension alongside the bass and drums, and operating as part of the bed for the lead guitarist/vocalist to their respective things. Their job is far more subtle, and a good rhythm guitarist ought to be able to master tension and pull the strings without a casual listener even noticing.
I would not be inclined to say that either rhythm guitar or lead guitar is better than the other, for they both ask different things of their users. Rhythm tends more towards subtleties in, you guessed it, the rhythm of the instrument, whereas lead guitar is far more focused on the melodic. However, investing in such binaries only seeks to diminish just how varied the guitar’s palette can be, as well as just how quickly a guitar can shift from one to the other like it is nobody’s business, going from densely rhythmic yet melodic arpeggios to straight on guitar solos and everything in between in a matter of seconds.
Certainly, yes, and this harkens to my own beliefs on the matter, that there should not be such a binary between rhythm guitar and lead guitar. There is in fact much, much cross-pollination between the two, just as there is between rhythm and melody, for it would be a feat and a half to find a melody that belies rhythm, or to find a rhythm that is not at least implying some sort of melody. To do so would be reductive, just as reductive as it is to attempt to insert a musician into the binary of rhythm guitarist or lead guitarist.
You should learn your own guitar. The binary of both lead guitar and rhythm guitar, each residing in their supposedly opposite poles of the spectrum, tends to dictate that they are inherently different from each other, though it is my view that this is far from the case, and that there is much crossover to be seen between the two. Just as there is between rhythm and melody, in fact, for it would be a feat and a half to find a melody that belies rhythm, or to find a rhythm that is not at least implying some sort of melody.