What Is The Difference Between Rhythm & Lead Guitar?

If you are new to guitar, at first glance you may feel confused when encountering “rhythm” or “lead” in Guitar. I remember many years ago I also had the same question, and it is an important question to ask because it will determine your guitar learning journey!

What Is The Difference Between Rhythm & Lead Guitar? Rhythm and lead guitar both have separate roles within the foundation of song writing. Rhythm guitar is focused on laying down the backbone of a track, this will include things like the choice of chords, tempo, time signature. Even though you may consider it is a less noticeable element of a song, this will form the vibe aND IT will give the songs its depth and characteristics. Whilst lead guitar is focused on providing a melody, which is layered on the chords. This will include focusing of things like learning scales and arpeggios.

Well just like a song needs both a beat and melody, they are two types of styles in guitar. Each have their own specific roles needed to create a harmony between the beats and melody. In this article we go over these in much more detail… Lets get started !

1. Rhythm Guitar

Once you become familiar with song writing you will realize that having a very distinct rhythm is one of the most important factors for playing and developing songs. The rythmetic instruments are responsible of the underlying time signature and chord progression, as well the foundational support voicing of a song.

There are three basic layers to music:

  • The bottom layer – created by drums and/or percussion which create the beat
  • The Middle layer – followed by the middle layer which consists of guitar and bass
  • The Top layer – the top layer is more melodic purposes and is where the main melody can be layered over

The rhythm guitar does not usually stand out to listeners as it in the middle layer. This is intentional as its purpose is to blend with the other rythmetic instrument, but providing the necessary voicing to support the melody of the songs.

Foundation Of Rhythm Guitarist

There are four important aspects that rythm guitarists need to be mindful of:

  • Timing & Strumming Techniques – Rhythm guitar is much harder than if looks, as it requires very precise synchronicity between the drummer and bass player. In practice this is usually learning strumming patterns. The purpose of these is with the aim of being able to blend yourself with the rhythm section (bass and drums) whilst also accenting along the rhythm set by the drummer and bass players.
  • Chord progressions & Music Theory – Every song will have an underlying chord progressions (even progressive metal or jazz). Its the rhythm guitars priority to work with the bass players and other middle section instruments to decide on the chord progression.
  • Chord voicing & Theory – Not only is rhythm important for, but also chord voicing. Even though rhythm guitarists need to follow the foundational chord progressions they can be creative in the voicing they use. For example, the rhythm guitarists will decide between an C major chord, or a C major 7 chord. Obviously, there are thousands of voicing available to a rhythm guitarists arsenal, but the point is that these voicing will totally change the characteristic of a song. its the chords of a song that bring out the melody.
  • Reach & Fretting Techniques – It means that while other instruments can deviate and return on the basic melody, the rhythm guitarist keeps that rhythm as a fortress all the time. However, it is also important to know that the guitarist will not keep playing it in the same way all the time, because his task is to go along with the others, when the other parts change, he has to flexibly accelerate and slow down, break the foundation melody into unequal parts and returns it back to keep the whole harmony unchanged.
  • Live performances – When playing rhythm, especially in a band, the most important thing you always have to keep in mind is the whole harmony. As a rhythm guitarists you are not a front man, so your performance is not as crucial as say a lead guitarist or singer.

Overall, the above lays down the foundation so that lead guitarist of vocalist can come along and layer melodic aspects to making a song sound more interesting. support the main melody. with the overall goal to provide the vibe for the vocalist to sing over. A bad rhythm guitarist can destroy the overall quality of song no matter how good the lead guitarist and the singer is. Below, we go over some tips which all rhythm guitarists should strive to achieve!

Below we go over these in more detail…

Timing & Strumming Techniques

Every note has to be perfectly timed else it will impact your tightenesss of a band as a whole. Making an essential task as a rythem guitarist is to make sure your are perfectly in sync with the drummer and bass player. To ensure you are persistant you will learn strumming patterns and rthyems.

The basis of all guitar strumming is dividing the beat so you are able to count it along with the drums. Strumming patterns can vary from the easier quarter notes, to the mid-diffuculty eight notes to the very complicated sixtheeth notes.

When rythem guitar gets more compliacted you do not always follow simple down/up strum motion. depending on the rythem you are playing along with it you can have To get used to strumming and counting together, try strumming eight measures of any chord you choose with a straight down-up continuous strum, tapping your foot and counting like this

Chord Progressions & Music Theory

chord progression (also known as a harmonic progression) is a sequence of chords. They are fundamental for creating harmony in a musical composition and are the defining feature on which rhythms and melodies are established. The types of chord progressions are are often presented as successions of chords from a scale, such as the major scale of minor scale.

Often the chords may be selected as a stand alone rhythm intended for improvisation purposes where a melody will be established. However, it can work in reverse as well. You may already have a melody in mind (a pre-conceived melody) and the chord progression is established to give rise to that melody.

Below we demonstrate 4 typical major chord progressions you would typically see in pop music:

  • I–IV–V–V
  • I–I–IV–V
  • I–IV–I–V
  • I–IV–V–IV

As you can see each chord in the progression is assigned a numerical value. Lets take the I–IV–V–V. First we need to understand the format of a scale and how the voicing works.

If we are playing in C major the scale is (C D E F G A B C), and the voicing are always Maj-Min-Min-Maj-Dom-Min-Half-Dim. Meaning the chords a of the major scale are Cmaj Dmin Emin Fmaj Gdom Amin Bdim. Making the first value in the progression is referencing the C major chord. Whilst the 4 is referencing the F major chord, and the Fifth chord is referencing G dominant.

Chord Voicing & Music Theory

Playing your regular minor pentatonic, can sometimes get boring. If you want to extend out of playing barre chords, or the common open chords. Learning chord voicings and the theory behind them can make your rhythm sound much more interesting.

Not only that, understanding the theory around those chords can help you creativity. For example, i’m sure there have been times where you are stuck in a rut and everything you play sounds the same. When i’m in situations like this then expanding my theoretical knowledge will inspire me with new and wonderful ideas. Theory is also really useful when looking to achieve a particular sound. For example, if you hear a song you really like, and want to use it for inspirational purposes, then you can learn that song and use theory to dissect it, so you can recreate it in your own manner.

Reach & Fretting Techniques

some chords are especially hard to fret for two reasons. the first they are far apart and will require you to stretch byond your current reach. then second is that the positioning of the notes are in an awrdkward location that your fingers struggle to bend into position.

Being a rhythm guitarist means you will have to develop muscle memory and flexibly so that you can change between all types of cohrd seemlessly. The only way to do this is practice regularly until you become fluid.

Performing Live

Show off all what you have is not always good. When playing rhythm, especially in a band, the most important thing you always have to keep in mind is the whole harmony. As a rhythm guitarists you are not a front man, so your performance is not as crucial as say a lead guitarist or singer.

There will have a little bit difference compared to when you’re playing by yourself. When you play by yourself you’re basically covering the entire range of notes and play full chords and additional licks like basslines. In a band, however, the bass player can cover the bassline. The drummer sets the groove and the tempo. You have to ensure that you do not take over or clash with their job. It is highly recommended to stick to chords that use the higher strings of the guitar and make sure you’re playing a rhythm that complements the drum groove. Try to add listening to the other players and pay attention to how it sounds combined and you’ll probably do just fine.

2. Lead Guitar

Even though the most common example of lead guitarist can be seen at a ripping solo in a rock song, it is responsible for the passages filled by the instrument. This includes melody lines, hooks and solos in a song. You can easily realize them among other band’s artists because their sound is loud and impressive enough to emphasize the song being so appealing to the ears of the audience.

When should to lead be present;

  • Introduction – usually responsible for the introduction which often involves a short (4 or 8 bars) musical phrase (may also ‘borrow’ the melody of either the verses or chorus), designed to attract the attention and build upto the vocalists of the listener and help make the song instantly recognizable and memorable.
  • Verse – The lead guitarist will most often follow rythme guitarist dueing the verse. However, you may find thatthey may play ‘fill-ins’ in between the singers’ lines, or between one verse and the next, or play a lead solo during a vocal break ( it is very rare that the lead guitarist plays at the same time as the singer is singing).
  • Chorus – the chorus will usualy be filled with some kind of hook and phrasing that supports the vocals. it really want to be simplier as the attention is on the vocals.
  • Bridge – Usually, a lead solo will play where there is a break, or turn around in the song.

Whereas rythm guitar will be present throughout around the whole track, the lead guitar is more present where vocals are not. During the verse and chrous it is mainly used to fill in empty space and add depth, in the intrroeuction and bridge it helps lay down the theme of the song and build the hook.

less present where vocals are. In addition, you want to be mindful of layering lead guitar and vocals along side one another as youll get competing instruments fighting over top frequencuies. This can then make the song become noisy as too much is happening.

Foundation Of Lead Guitarist

There are four important aspects that Lead guitarists need to be mindful of:

  • Melody –  is a linear succession of musical tones that a lead guitarist will frame to a given rhythmic sequence. It is the soul of a musical composition giving a song it feel and emotion.
  • Improvisation – Lead guitarists can perform freestyle riffs and solos, extend a song or shorten it, depending on the song they are playing or how they feel during a performance
  • Scales & Theory – Lead guitarists can create their music lines through scales, riffs, licks, modes etc. In some special types of music requiring the speed such as rock and roll, jazz, heavy metal etc. they have to make use of many tricks to ensure maximising the speed of solo, sometime by picking up strings with many different devices or even teeth or feet.
  • Picking techniques such as bends, slides, hammer-ons, trills, and arpeggios. If thinking about rhythm guitarist as a pine, we can think about lead guitarist as anything decorated on it, which we can do in our freedom. , which is actually part of the leading concept. There is a wide range of unique colors and shades a lead guitarist can bring to the music.
  • Live performances – , lead guitar players get the limelight along with the singer, that is the reason why they are made to look special by employing many different

lead guitar is more individualistic apposed to rythem. I lead guitarist doesnt neccercessary need to go along with the group dynamics to maintain the harmhony of the song. This isnt to say the lead player should go off on atangent. rather open their creativity by stepping back from the fixed arrangement set by the rythm aspect of the band.


A melody is a collection of musical tones that when grouped together form a pleasing and catchy sound.

A musical composition can have many melodies working along side one another. Melodies are more present in leading instruments like lead guitar and vocals. However, you may still hear them amongst rhythm instruments such as keyboardist, bassist and rhythm guitar.

The melody consists of the following:

  1. Pitch – every melody will contain a sequence of pitches referring to the audio vibrations arranged as a series of notes.
  2. Duration – each note being played will vary in length. This is the duration of time each notes lasts before the next note in the sequence begins. The lengths of these notes can be whole notes, half notes, quarter-note triplets, and more.

When creating a melody you would go through a creative process. Where setting a rhythm can be more of a planned process melodies usually started through the process of improvisation. This is because a melody is the highlight of a musical composition, it what people relate to, and so it must be unique and 100% original.


Improvisation, defined as being spontaneous in creation of a melody line, usually is the first thing people think about when coming to the word “lead guitar”. Being a good lead guitarist means you can play the lead melody well blended with any given rhythm background (i.e. a chord progression) on the spot, based on your and audience’s emotion, which is unlikely to ever be repeated in exactly the same way. However, remember that no matter how improvising you are, you are also playing in a band, so be careful when should not jump in or you may cause ‘jamming’ to a chord progression, more precisely, you must skillfully deviate from the main melody so that your deviation still sounds parallel with the notes used in the main melody.

The best way to develop your improvising ability is to play with other musicians as much as possible. If you are jamming with another guitarist, you can take turns at playing lead and rhythm. When you are playing rhythm, listen to the lead player and try to provide a solid base for them to improvise over. When your turn comes to play lead, see if you can use some of the ideas of the other player and alter them to create your own licks.

Scales & Theory 

The knowledge of the pentatonic scale all over the fretboard as well as the major scale, natural, harmonic minor and modes is very useful because you will be required to change quickly as well as flexibly, especially when you play rock music.

Again, because you are playing with other instruments in a band, you should have a basic understanding of music theory to keep everything in harmony.

Picking Techniques

While you are working on your scales be sure to hard practice fretting and picking technique, improvising characteristic of lead guitar requires the mastering control of your fingers.

Live perfromacnes & Prestege

Prestige is also a factor that separates a lead guitarist from a rhythm player. While rhythm guitarists usually stay in the background with the other musicians, lead guitar players get the limelight along with the singer, that is the reason why they are made to look special by employing many different

3. Should I Choose Lead or Rhythm Guitar?

If you are wondering that: “Whether should I pursue rhythm or lead guitar?”, my advice would be choosing both of them. In my opinion, they are equally important for a guitarist, especially when you are also a songwriter. in addition, not all bands have more than one guitar player, so having ability to play in both roles will make you become a more valuable member.

It is much common that a Guitarist can both play rhythm and lead parts in a band situation. In some band situations, there are two or more guitarists whose roles are clearly split into lead or rhythm (or they can even flexibly share the roles), but in bands with just one guitarist who is responsible for both roles, rhythm playing usually makes up about two thirds of his job.

Further, as a song writer you would engage in both. In fact you may branch even outside of guitarist and understand basics of other instruments in and around your arrangement. However, do not feel overwhelmed. If you are a new guitar player, I highly recommend you focus on learning the skills that are important to your role as a band member. Usually, you would start by learning the skills of rhythm guitar then extend your learning to the lead guitar.

Again, do not forget that this guitar thing is supposed to be fun, enjoy it, practice persistently and you’ll reap all the rewards!

4. Purchasing Rhythm & Lead Guitars

There is no right answer to this question as both guitar can perform both the lead and rhythm roles. When purchasing your guitar it is mainly down to the style you want to play and the tone you are looking for.

Actually, for myself i mainly look at the pickup and their positioning.

For example, when i choose a guitar i look for single coil pickups on the neck and the middle position, and a humbucker on the bridge position.

I would use the neck and middle position when playing lead as these positions provide a good smooth and throaty tone, whilst switching to the bridge humbucker for more chord based/ rhythmic types of playing. This is a typical Hendrix type of setup.

However, some people like to use humbuckers in the neck position as well, typical to a Les Paul. So, its really down to the tone your after and what is your personally preference. But, generally you would play rhythm using the bridge position. Whilst playing lead using the Neck position on the pickups.


Both lead and rhythm can be performed on the same Guitar. What distinguishes the difference is their role in the band. In almost performances, there is always someone who plays the most noticeable sounds of guitar, usually stands next to the singer, called the lead guitarist. And the other guitar players who pick up the rhythm and play the lines being in sync with other instruments, called the rhythm guitarist.

  • Rhythm and lead are two different types of playing and can be played on the same guitar.
  • Lead guitarists have more control and freedom when playing, while rhythm guitar players need to stick with the chords and follow the drums as bass.
  • Lead guitars stand out music-wise, while rhythm guitars blend in with the background music.
  • Most Guitarists can play both lead and rhythm guitar.

Sometime rhythm guitarists can take on a more lead role. They also need to listen carefully to the lead guitarist’s direction and catch up with his solos and riffs for full synchronisation.

Rich Wilde Music

My name is Richard Wilde and go by @richwildemusic on all major social channels. I am an artist, guitar player, and producer. I have been playing guitar for over 15 years and have come to learn the "tips" and "tricks" to enhance guitar playing, recording guitar, setting up guitar, and overall get that professional sound.

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