Differences Between Lead and Rhythm Guitar

‘Lead’ guitar refers to a collection of notes, riffs or melody lines played in a song whereas rhythm guitar consists of chords and holds the groove in a piece of music. 

When you ask two different guitar players which one is more difficult, lead or rhythm, you could instigate a fight between them. While one school believes that playing lead guitar takes more skill, the other will vehemently disagree and argue that anybody can play the lead but it takes a special ability to play good rhythm guitar.

Also, what is ‘lead’ or ‘rhythm’ guitar? If you want to know the differences between the two and which one is harder, read on to find out! 

Differences Between Lead and Rhythm

The main difference between lead and rhythm and lead guitar is that lead highlights melody while rhythm focuses on groove. While lead guitars follow the chord structure of a song, there are very few instances when the chords are played in their entirety. Rhythm guitar on the other hand highlights the chord progressions and the chords are either strummed or arpeggiated.

Techniques such as tapping, shredding, sweep picking, or sliding is used to play lead guitar, not rhythm.

There is more focus on chords and voicing instead of individual notes when it comes to playing rhythm guitar.

While some of these are clear ways to distinguish between lead and rhythm, many guitar players blur the lines between the two. Different effects pedals are used to take on both roles in a song.

What Is Lead Guitar?

Also known as ‘solo’ guitar, lead guitar generally refers to not just guitar solos but also arpeggios, passages, fills, and licks in a song. A lead guitar is usually backed by a rhythm guitar and can be found in many different genres such as blues, jazz, rock, metal, punk, and sometimes even in pop music. Sometimes the lead guitar in a track can also be in the form of riffs, driving the song. 

Although it is difficult to find an exact origin of this playing technique, it is widely believed that solo guitar was first played in blues music and is credited to musicians such as Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, and John Lee Hooker. 

Released in 1940, Ernest Tubb’s ‘Walking The Floor Over You’ is often considered one of the earliest recordings featuring a guitar “solo”.

Ernest Tubb - Walking The Floor Over You

As blues evolved and branched out into rock music, the lead guitar became a prominent feature of most music that was created. Whether it was musicians in the 60s such as Jimi Hendrix or John Frusciante in 2022, the lead guitar is generally used not to merely show off prowess, but to add more depth and feeling to a song. 

Lead is also an important part of jazz music. The musician generally relies on their extensive knowledge of music theory to improvise during extended solo sections. Whether you are a fan of jazz or not, it can be incredibly helpful to study and learn to play some of the jazz standards if you want to play better lead guitar. This is because jazz incorporates a combination of not just scales but also harmonization, unusual chord voicings, and of course improvisation.

Examples Of Lead Guitar Through The Decades

  • The 1950s: ‘Johnny B Goode’ by Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode (Live 1958)

This song is often regarded as the foundation for rock’n’roll music as we know it today. Although the solo is only a few bars long, the guitar is a prime example of lead guitar.

  • The 1960s: ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction (Official Lyric Video)

Keith Richards’ riff is the driving force behind the song, giving it the energy and sense of urgency it requires. The song was released in 1965 and is often considered one of the greatest songs of all time.

  • The 1970s: ‘Stairway To Heaven’ By Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven (Official Audio)

This song is often considered a rite of passage for guitar players. Jimmy Page’s solo helps the song go from a ballad to a heavier, more ‘rock’-influenced climax.

  • The 1980s: ‘Beat It’ By Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson - Beat It (Official 4K Video)

As we mentioned earlier, lead guitar is a driving force behind many pop songs as well. This track produced by Quincy Jones features an iconic solo by Eddie Van Halen.

  • The 1990s: ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ By Nirvana
Nirvana - Smells Like Teen Spirit (Official Music Video)

As grunge became the mainstream music of the 90s, Kurt Cobain’s guitar playing was the exact opposite of the glam rock era. It was simple, loud, and effective. 

  • The 2000s: ‘Seven Nation Army’ By The White Stripes
The White Stripes - Seven Nation Army (Official Music Video)

What is so unusual about this song is Jack White’s guitar, which more than lacks up for a bass guitar. It was released in 2003.

  • The 2010s: ‘Pedestrian At Best’ By Courtney Barnett
Pedestrian At Best - Courtney Barnett

Although you can hear two different guitars playing, Courtney Barnett’s lead is what helps transition into the different sections in the song. 

  • The 2020s: ‘Daddy’s Home’ By St. Vincent
St. Vincent - Daddy's Home (Official Video)

This song incorporates elements of blues, psychedelic rock, and pop along with a signature St.Vincent lead.

What Is Rhythm Guitar?

The role of the rhythm guitar in a song is twofold. It adds harmony through chord structures and progressions, and also acts as a rhythmic bridge between melody and groove instruments such as bass and the drums. 

Strumming a pattern using the dominant hand while holding chords with the other is the most common type of rhythm guitar playing but it also has many advanced variations which incorporate arpeggios and even riffs. 

In the 16th century tablatures and chord symbols were used to denote guitar music. The popularity of the instrument grew in the 17th century and by the 19th century, modern classical guitar techniques were developed by musicians such as Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909). 

Rhythm guitar is said to have thus developed from classical music.

Since the 4/4 time signature is most common in pop and rock music, the rhythm guitar generally follows it along with the backbeat, accenting the ‘2’ and the ‘4’ of the beat of the song. The rhythm also follows major or minor chord progressions as the song demands.

While an acoustic guitar is preferred by many, heavier genres of music such as metal often use overdriven or distorted electric guitars to play riffs or power chords for rhythm.

In jazz music, as the banjo dwindled in popularity, the rhythm guitar gradually took its place. Early jazz musicians such as Freddie Green played complex chord progressions in a percussive fashion to keep the groove of the songs.

Freddie Green - Mr. Rhythm (1956) (Full Album)

Along with jazz, rhythm guitar was also important in big band music which was popular in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Another genre that focuses a lot on rhythm music is funk, which originated in the 1960s and was influenced by jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues. 

Rhythm guitar often gives music its distinctiveness in terms of genre. For example, rhythm playing for reggae is very different than techniques used to play funk guitar. 

To play complex rhythms, one not only has to be proficient in the knowledge of music theory but also have a strong dominant hand to be able to play different patterns. 

Examples Of Rhythm Guitar Through The Decades

  • The 1950s: ‘Bo Diddley’ By Bo Diddley
Bo Diddley - Bo Diddley [stereo]

The ‘Bo Diddley Beat’ in this song inspired generations of rock’n’roll musicians in the subsequent decades. The rhythm guitar is an eclectic mix of chord progressions with African rhythms.

  • The 1960s: ‘Papas Got A Brand New Bag’ By James Brown
James Brown ~ Papa's Got A Brand New Bag (1965)

Jimmy Nolen, the guitar player for James Brown developed a new style of picking known as the ‘chicken picking’ as heard in this song. This paved the way for funk rhythm guitar playing.

  • The 1970s: ‘Second Hand News’ By Fleetwood Mac
Second Hand News (2004 Remaster)

Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar playing in this song is an excellent example of intricate and precise strumming that has since inspired many singer-songwriters.

  • The 1980s: ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ By U2
U2 - I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For (Official Music Video)

While there are many guitar overdubs in this song, the use of arpeggios for rhythm adds melody without distracting us from the other elements playing throughout the track.

  • The 1990s: ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ By Third Eye Blind
Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life (Official Music Video) [HD]

Stephan Jenkins rhythm guitar adds a subtle but effective layer to this song which is a mix of pop and alternative rock with rap-inspired lyrics.

  • The 2000s: ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ By Green Day
Green Day - Wake Me Up When September Ends [Official Music Video]

While the acoustic guitar keeps the rhythm in the form of arpeggios throughout the song, it is followed by power chords on an overdriven guitar for the last chorus and outro.

  • The 2010s: ‘Get Lucky’ By Daft Punk
Daft Punk - Get Lucky (Official Audio) ft. Pharrell Williams, Nile Rodgers

The electronic music duo used Nile Rodgers’ signature rhythm guitar playing to bring funk back for a new generation of listeners. 

  • The 2020s: ‘Kyoto’ By Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers - Kyoto (Official Video)

Phoebe Bridgers’ rhythm guitar is reminiscent of garage and indie rock music of the 90s, adding a melodic layer to the song. 

Levels Of Difficulty: Lead vs Rhythm

When we first start playing guitar, our instinct is to gravitate more towards rhythm guitar as we learn how to play chords. This is because we can gradually start playing 3 or 4 chord songs. Picking up a solo feels a lot harder because our non-dominant hand is not used to moving around the fretboard with ease.

Once we have a grip over scales and have been regularly practicing them, some solos or licks start to feel easy. We can navigate the fretboard faster.

While it feels like lead guitar is harder to play as a beginner, this notion changes the more we learn about the complexities of guitar playing. Funk rhythm, for example, requires very precise and steady movements. The rhythm of some songs appears more challenging than solos at this point.

So when it comes to the question of which one is harder, there is no right answer. Both lead and rhythm can be easy or complex. The level of difficulty for both depends on the song and the genre.

Playing Better Lead Guitar: Music Theory

If you want to compose and play intricate lead guitar parts, you need to know your music theory. Memorizing the fretboard is the first step before you get into scales, modes, and the like. If you are looking for ways to learn your fretboard, read this to increase your fretboard memory.

Playing Better Rhythm Guitar: Practice

Along with a working knowledge of music theory, rhythm guitar requires muscle memory and precision. For beginners, it is important to have a plan and set goals when it comes to practice. Read our guide on how you can optimize your practice sessions.

There are many easy songs that you can play on an acoustic guitar when you are starting. If you are looking for examples, you will find them here. For those of you who want to practice more intermediate rhythm variation, you can try some of these techniques.

Final Thoughts

A good guitar player should be able to play a little bit of both lead and rhythm guitar. For beginners, it is important to start with rhythm guitar and graduate to playing solos. Whether lead or rhythm, a good way to improve is by picking up songs that you love.

If you are undecided about which path to take, then the good news is that you don’t have to choose. All guitar players are unique. Some are drawn to licks and fills, while some prefer to hold down the fort with a steady rhythm. Some like to do a little bit of both. Ultimately, what matters is what you want to say through your music. Once you have that figured out, everything else shall follow. 

Suyasha Sengupta

Suyasha Sengupta is a singer, songwriter, and music producer from India. She currently makes music under the moniker 'Plastic Parvati' and uses her platform to discuss issues such as politics, rights, and gender in India.

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