Rhythm Guitar & Lead Guitar Defined

lead guitar

The guitar can be played two ways.

The guitar can be played two different ways – as a lead instrument or as a rhythm instrument. When playing a solo, an intro or a riff that stands out from the rest of the music, the guitar is being played as a lead instrument. When playing lead guitar, the guitarist is using scales, inverted power chords and stylistic techniques. We will learn this style of playing further down the road.

Newbie guitarists usually start by learning rhythm guitar. Rhythm guitar technique is focused primarily on strumming chords. When playing rhythm, the guitar is used as an accompanying instrument, one that provides a musical foundation on which a lead instrument can play. The lead instrument can be almost anything – a violin, a trumpet, piano, or another guitar. The human voice is the most common lead instrument to be accompanied by a rhythm guitar. When you strum the guitar and sing, your voice is “playing lead” and the guitar is “playing rhythm.” To play rhythm guitar, you need to become familiar with chords,time signatures and strum patterns.

As you become more proficient as a guitarist, you will learn to play lead guitar. Lead guitar technique focuses on solos constructed of notes from scales. When most people think of “lead guitar”, they think of face-melting rock guitar solos. Though the guitar solo is a type of lead guitar, it is not the only one. Here are some common lead guitar parts that you will find in popular songs. We will use “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Gun N Roses as an example of each type of lead guitar (except outro).

Intro. This is a melodic part at the beginning of the song that is not repeated elsewhere but stands out from the rhythm. The intro for “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is one of the most iconic guitar intros ever written.

Supporting riff. Sometimes a lead guitar part will play in the background of the song while the vocals continue. It still stands out from the rhythm and has a melodic hook, but it is secondary to the vocals as a lead instrument and supports the singer, sometimes note-for-note with the vocal melody. Notice the supporting riff that is played during the chorus of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” It is a reinvented version of the intro.

Sectional riff. A riff is a short melodic guitar phrase, almost a mini solo. Riffs are often repeated between sections of a song. In “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” here is a sectional riff after the chorus and before the verse.

Solo. This is the iconic, impressive, ego-filled lead guitar solo that everyone thinks of, complete with the lead guitarist’s hair blowing in the wind and pyrotechnics in the background. Actually, solos don’t have to be blisteringly fast and complicated to be awesome. They are important and not all lead guitarists are jerks. Just sayin’. There’s no need to tell you where the solo is for “Sweet Child O’ Mine”… how could you miss it?

Rhythm Guitar: The style of playing guitar that primarily deals with strumming chords and accompanying a lead instrument
Lead Guitar: The style of playing guitar that primarily deals with playing melodic lines and causes it to stand out in the orchestration of a song
Solo: A lead-style guitar part that is longer than other lead-style parts in the song and causes the guitar to project from the rest of the band
Riff: A lead-style guitar part that is shorter than the solo but similar in nature
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