Have you ever dreamed of getting on stage with your band and getting to be the centre of attention with your skillful guitar playing? In that case you just might be a future lead guitarist. As the name suggests, lead guitar is the one ‘leading’ the band’s instrumental track.
However, the terms ‘lead’ and ‘rhythm’ guitar can be quite confusing. After all, it’s the same instrument being played. Don’t worry if you’re confused about playing lead guitar, you’re not the only one. In this article we’ll do our best to clear things up a bit and explain some of the main characteristics of lead guitar, playing techniques as well as differences with rhythm guitar. We’ll also give some great examples of famous lead guitarists and bands known for their lead section.
What is lead guitar?
While the band’s rhythm section–rhythm guitar, bass and drums–provide a backing track, support and rhythm, the lead guitarist and vocalist (as well as a keyboard player in some bands) are responsible for playing melodies, for instance. No wonder that the lead guitar is sometimes referred to as ‘melody guitar’. In fact, the lead guitar can often share the job of a vocalist by playing an overlapping melody with the singer’s vocals.
What’s the difference between playing lead guitar and rhythm guitar?
Unlike some might think, rhythm and lead guitar aren’t two separate instruments, but more like two different ways of playing. There are also different approaches to playing lead and rhythm, and many bands decide to split these roles into two. In such cases the band has a lead guitarist playing solos and guitar licks as well as a rhythm guitarist who’s responsible for providing a steady rhythm for the lead guitarist and the rest of the band.
Whereas the rhythm guitarist’s role is more focused on playing chords, muted riffs or power chords, for instance, the lead guitarist’s tasks include playing melodies, fills and solos, just to name a few. Usually the lead guitarist uses the higher-pitched strings more than the rhythm guitar. In addition, a lot of guitar solos and licks are played higher on the guitar fretboard, while the riffs played by a rhythm guitarist are more often played closer to the guitar’s headstock.
Yet, in case a band has a separate lead and rhythm guitarist, these two roles aren’t fixed and both can take turns playing the role of a rhythm guitarist or a lead guitarist. If instead of two guitarists (or even three) there’s only a single guitarist in the band, it’s their task to play both roles of a rhythm and lead guitarist.
Good examples of bands with only a single guitarist responsible both for lead and rhythm are Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page), Black Sabbath (Tony Iommi), Van Halen (Eddie Van Halen) and Pantera (Dimebag Darrell). Bands with two guitarists include Slayer, Kiss, Metallica and many more.
Lead guitar playing techniques
There are a number of techniques and characteristics of guitar playing that are associated especially with playing lead guitar. These may overlap with those of rhythm guitar, but these techniques can be used for a different purpose by rhythm and lead guitarists.
Some of the most important techniques used by lead guitarists across a number of genres, from rock to blues and heavy metal to jazz, include guitar solos, licks, riffs, arpeggios and alternate or tremolo picking. Although many of these techniques may seem difficult and intimidating when watching talented lead guitarists play, don’t worry, there are easy examples and ways in which even beginners can start learning how to play lead guitar. So let’s get started.
Licks and riffs
Two concepts that are tied closely together and aren’t unique to only lead guitar are licks and riffs. The difference between these two might cause some confusion, and for a good reason, as they can often be used interchangeably. In short, a riff is a repeating pattern usually played on the low-pitched strings, while a lick is a short melodic idea usually played on the high-pitched strings.
For example, the famous guitar intro of “Rock You Like a Hurricane” by Scorpions is an instance of a guitar riff. The riff in question consists of a few different power chords that are repeated in a particular order and is being played by the band’s rhythm guitarist. A guitar lick, on the other hand, would most often include single notes instead of chords and chord progressions. Guitar licks tend to also be much shorter.
One explanation offered for the difference between guitar riffs and licks is that a riff refers to a specific song, whereas a guitar lick could be used in a number of contexts. For instance, if you used the above riff by Scorpions in a song and called it your own, it’s likely that the guitarist Rudolf Schenker and the band would accuse you of trademark infringement. If you copied just a short section of a few notes from the song’s opening solo and used it in your song, that would be an example of a guitar lick.
Whenever a band has a separate lead and rhythm guitarist, the lead guitar player is responsible for playing solos. Guitar solos are a great way to present your guitar playing skills to their fullest extent and impress others. During a guitar solo, even the vocals give way to the lead guitarist’s playing as he or she takes the front stage.
On top of that, solos are a great way to show your improvisation skills, in case you are skilled enough to come up with the solo on the spot. You can read more about guitar solos and various soloing techniques in our other blog post.
Arpeggios played on a guitar are a bit more advanced technique used during solos, for instance. An arpeggio is a type of broken chord where, instead of playing all the notes of a chord at once, the individual notes that the chord consists of are played in a descending or ascending order.
One advanced technique used to play arpeggios on guitar is called sweep picking, where you “sweep” the strings with your picking hand while fingering the notes with your fretting hand. Examples of sweep picking can be found in a number of music genres, including jazz. However, sweep picking is most commonly used in guitar solos in heavy metal and different rock genres. Lead guitarists famous for their sweep picking skills include Ritchie Blackmore and Yngwie Malmsteen.
Lead guitar examples
Although there are numerous talented rhythm guitar players in the world of music, many of the most well known guitarists have tended to play lead. These are just a few great examples and we could go on and on listing our favorites. However, if you would like to learn and become a master of the lead guitar, it’s not a bad idea to start by learning from these masters.
Along with Tony Iommi and Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix must be one of the most well known and talented lefties of rock music. What makes Jimi’s playing all the more impressive is that he mostly used a right handed guitar. Known for his wild performances, flaming guitars and groundbreaking soloing, one of Jimi Hendrix’s famous songs for all lead guitarists to learn is ‘Hey Joe’.
Ritchie Blackmore (Rainbow, Deep Purple)
The English guitar virtuoso Richie Blackmore is a legend of rock and heavy metal for a good reason. Having played in such influential bands as Deep Purple and Rainbow, Blackmore has left a lasting impression on many aspiring guitarists and the world of rock music at large. You can hear some of Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar artistry in the Rainbow song ‘Since You Been Gone’.
Another at least equally iconic guitar player in the world of lead guitar is Eric Clapton, also known as “Slowhand”. Eric Clapton’s impressive lead guitar performances include the song ‘Layla’ as well as a number of classics by his band Cream. His guitar mastery isn’t limited to electric guitar either, as can be heard in the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.
One of the most influential blues lead guitarists is B.B. King, whose electric guitar playing changed the world of blues and rock music forever. Unfortunately King passed in 2015, but his guitar playing hasn’t ceased to impress and inspire countless guitarists. Some great examples of B.B. King’s lead guitar playing includes his version of the blues classic ‘The Thrill is Gone’.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Another influential lead guitarist from the world of rock and blues music is Stevie Ray Vaughan. In addition to his solo albums, Stevie Ray Vaughan has left his mark on the albums of other bands and artists, including David Bowie. For some bluesy guitar playing, listen to his song ‘Texas Flood’ from the album of the same name.
Learn to play lead guitar with Yousician
So, does playing lead guitar sound like your thing? If so, you should check out Yousician and our interactive guitar playing lessons that help you learn the fundamentals of lead guitar. Even though lead guitarists get a lot of the praise and glory, you shouldn’t underestimate the skill it takes to play rhythm. Luckily there are plenty of lessons and songs for that as well in Yousician.
You can download Yousician for free on your iOS and Android device, or use Yousician on your computer. In addition to exciting and easy to follow lessons for the guitar, you can also learn to play bass, piano and ukulele with Yousician. Browse the wide selection of songs and genres as well to find your favorites.