Electric Guitar: Rhythm vs. Lead

Electric Guitar: Rhythm vs. Lead

In a typical four-instrument band, the members include lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, and drums. While performing as part of the band, the lead guitar is the “outspoken hero” inside the music group, whereas the rhythm guitar is the “unspoken hero”. In this post, some of the main differences between the two and the roles each type of guitarist plays will be explained.

Rhythm Guitar

Functions of Rhythm Guitar

Rhythm guitar carries the roles of (i) provide all or part of the rhythmic pulse in conjunction with singers or other instruments and (ii) provide all or part of the harmony, i.e. the chords.

Rhythm Guitar in Real Situation

In ensembles, a guitarist playing the rhythm part plays the role of supporting the melodic lines and solos played on the lead instrument, in the sense of playing steadily throughout the piece. In big band music, the rhythm guitar is considered part of the rhythm section, alongside bass and drums.

Equipment Employed

Rhythm guitarists are typically trying to generate a stronger rhythmic and chordal sound. For a richer and fatter output, rhythm guitarists may employ an electric acoustic guitar or a humbucker-equipped electric guitar. To provide a thick, solid supporting sound that blends in with the overall sound of the group, they may use strings of a larger gauge than those used by lead guitarists. However, these are not necessarily the rules and are subject to the style of the song and the preference of the individual guitarist.

Technique Employed

Being a good rhythm guitarist means having a good knowledge of chords and rhythms and being able to lock in with the rhythm section. The basic techniques for this would be holding down a series of chords with the fretting hand while strumming rhythmically with the other hand. The more developed techniques include arpeggios, damping, chord solos, complex strums, and riffs.


Riffs include repeated chord progressions, which implied with a simplified sequence of two or three notes.

Lead Guitar

Functions of Lead Guitar

The lead is the featured guitar, which usually plays single-note-based lines (melody lines), instrumental fill passages, guitar solos, and occasionally, some riffs within a song structure.

Lead Guitar in Real Situation

Some bands have two guitarists whose roles are split into lead and rhythm, but it is more common that both players share the roles. The two guitarists may trade off the lead guitar and rhythm guitar roles. Alternatively, two or more guitarists can share the lead and rhythm roles throughout the show, or both guitarists can play the same role (“dual lead guitars” or “dual rhythm guitars”).

Equipment Employed

The lead guitarists have a goal of producing a sustained, high-pitched melody line that can be heard over the top of the band. They usually aim to make their solo tone more prominent, and thus uses a range of colorful effects. To create these tones on the electric guitar, guitarists often select certain pickups and use electronic effects such as effects pedals and distortion pedals, or sound compressors, or doubler effects.

Techniques Employed

To be a good lead guitarist, you will need to develop the ability to improvise. Improvisation can be defined as being the spontaneous creation of a melody line. To create lead guitar lines, guitarists use scales, modes, arpeggios, licks and so forth. In order to maximize the speed of their solos, guitarists often use alternate picking, sweep picking, economy picking and legato (e.g., hammer ons, pull offs).


A lick is a stock pattern or phrase consisting of a short series of notes that is used in solos and melodic lines and accompaniment. Licks are usually associated with single-note melodic lines rather than chord progressions, which riffs can include.

Here’s a brief summary of the differences between a rhythm guitar and a lead guitar:

Rhythm vs. Lead