Is Lead Guitar Harder to Play Than Rhythm?


When comparing the differences between a lead and rhythm guitarist, beginners will commonly ask which role is the most difficult on guitar?

Luckily, I am here to explain the differences between both, and why the lead guitarist can be viewed as having the more difficult task within a musical arrangement.

I will also discuss whether a fresh-faced beginner should concentrate on learning rhythm or lead first. So Let’s dive right into the main question…

The Short Answer

Although subjective, lead guitar is considered more ‘technical’ than rhythm. Requiring additional skill, dexterity, and theory, to perform lead guitar roles (melodies, riffs, solos, improvisation) and perform common lead techniques (‘bending,’ ‘string skipping,’ ‘pinched harmonics,’ ‘arpeggios,’ ‘sweeping’ etc.)

However, before we get deeper into the long answer, let’s refresh our knowledge on the key differences and roles between a lead and rhythm guitarist.

Lead Guitar

The Lead guitarist role in a band is to generally play intricate single notes in the form of ‘melodies’, ‘solos,’ ‘riffs,’ ‘scales,’ ‘licks’, and ‘hooks’ of the song.

Allowing for more freedom and expression than the rhythm guitarist. Although both roles can frequently interchange within an arrangement.

The lead guitarist makes up a large portion of the band’s sound known as the stand out ‘voice’ and even considered the identifiable ‘sound’ of the band.

Another role of the lead guitarist is to improvise over a phrase or section of a song adopting their own unique playing style and musical personality.

Improvisation is how well a guitar player can jam and provide the spontaneous melodies, solos, and hooks of a song in combination with the rhythm section.

Rhythm‌ Guitar

As we all know, the rhythm guitar, bass, and drums make up the rhythm section of a band. The rhythm guitarist’s primary role is to lay the foundation plus providing the structure and backbone of a song.

So how does the rhythm guitarist do this? The usual rhythm guitar technique is to play chord progressions combined with strumming patterns in time with the percussion to add a solid rhythmic layer to a song.

Being a good rhythm guitar player requires to memorize a large catalog of chords, advanced strumming patterns, and applying them with a solid groove and feel.

A good rhythm guitarist requires a metronome-like timing while forming chemistry with the bassist and drummer which is essential for locking down a tight musical groove.

A solid rhythm section provides the band’s foundational layer for a lead guitarist and main vocalist to do their thing.

Why Lead is Considered Harder

Now we understand the differences between both lead and rhythm…

Playing lead is considered more difficult as it requires the player to move their fingers faster and more intricately for playing melodies, solos, riffs, and other difficult lead techniques.

Moving each finger independently anticipating the next note means there is generally more room for error.

This generally requires more skill, timing and established dexterity for pulling off intricate note sequences and techniques requiring more practice and experience.

Keep in mind, different players will have their opinion to what is hard to play for them, the difficult elements of lead guitar typically can be broken down into 3 key areas…

Faster Playing

Another aspect with lead guitar that beginners, intermediate and even advanced players struggle with. Is keeping in time playing a fast run of notes which makes up the bulk of solos, riffs, and other advanced lead techniques.

Whether it’s a shred style metal solo, fast jazzy lead run, flamenco style acoustic, or an intricate rock riff. Building up speed takes, practice, patience, and skill to perfect.

I agree, building up strumming speed and becoming more fluid with chord changes and applying accents can be difficult and takes time when learning rhythm.

However, advance lead techniques are certainly more challenging to learn and perfect than playing most rhythm characteristics.

Hence why getting up to speed, nailing notes in the correct key, staying in time while playing rhythmically can be a difficult skill for any lead guitar player.

Plucking slow and simple melodies will be a challenge and frustrating to a beginner is the reason why they can quit so soon when just starting out on guitar.

The reason why playing lead guitar as a beginner is so difficult is that they have not played long enough to visualize and remember theroad maps of the fretboard.

They also to struggle to match and sync their fretting hand with their plucking hand. For example, they will often pluck the wrong string when attempting to play a run of notes.

Improvisation

A lead guitarist’s overall ability can sometimes be judged on how well they can improvise laying down riffs, melodies, and solos over a rhythmic progression in a song.

Playing an improvised solo is like gathering all your skills, techniques and theory you’ve ever accumulated on the guitar and blurting it all out on the fretboard in a gift-wrapped musical package in a specific key within a song.

Improvisation takes some time and skill to master. The basics will need to be firmly under a guitarists belt before they can attempt to improvise over musical arrangements.

Skills Required For Improvising

  • Pentatonic scales (major and minor)
  • Other scales: blues rock, Jazz
  • Lead techniques (bending, hammer-ons, pull-offs
  • Chord progressions
  • Playing scales over chords
  • Knowing a few solos
  • Picking out and playing melodies

I must admit improvising over a phrase or song can be super fun and a rewarding aspect of being a guitar player.

Improvising, however, can be a life long process and can take some practice and experience on the guitar to be at a high standard of doing it.

The payoff, however, is worth the reward as being able to improvise over a phrase or section of a song giving you total freedom and expression of the music is definitely worth the time and practice.

Keep in mind, improvising is not just exclusive to lead playing as a rhythm player can also improvise to improve a chord progression making it sound more interesting.

However, rhythm players are somewhat limited as they need to provide and maintain the basic structure of a song meaning they cannot go too crazy and off track from the basic rhythm.

Improvising would be very difficult to a beginner when just starting out due to the technique, knowledge of theory and experience it requires hence why rhythm can be the easier role to play.

Common Lead Techniques

When it comes to comparing the difficulty of the two. There’s a lot more going on with the left hand with lead playing as opposed to the left hand of a rhythm guitar player.

Here as some examples of lead playing techniques from a range of musical genres starting from easiest to hardest.

  • Pull-offs
  • Hammer-ons
  • Bending
  • Intricate leads
  • String Skipping
  • Double stops
  • Alternate picking
  • Arpeggios

  • Fingerstyle
  • Chicken picking
  • Sweeping
  • Tapping
  • Pinched harmonics
  • Tapped harmonics
  • Tremolo (dive bombs)
  • Improvising solos

These techniques within themselves can be a challenge to master for any guitar player. Some can take a ton of practice to pull off and achieve a good level of ability.

I am not saying that all lead playing is difficult because it entirely depends on your level of skill and the song of choice as all riffs and solos vary in difficulty. For example, there are plenty of songs that include lead sections that are simple to play.

For example, ‘Every Breath You Take’ by ‘The Police’ is a harder riff to nail than ‘Smoke On The Water’ by ‘Deep Purple’. Hence why it is so common for beginners to learn the iconic riff of ‘smoke on the water as it’s a simple riff to learn.

Musical Genres

The usual notion of a ’lead guitarist’ is generally viewed as a player belting out rock riffs and solos. However, the style of lead is not characterized by one specific genre.

For example, lead can be played on an acoustic guitar for adding melodies and solos. Lead and rhythm are two different roles even though they are played on the same instrument.

Each musical genre also includes techniques associated with lead guitar that can be the identifiable sound of that music. For example…

80s Metal: tapping, shredding, pinched harmonics, dive bombs.
Heavy Metal: shredding, sweep picking, two guitar harmonies
Country: double stops, chicken picking, slapping
Blues: slide guitar, string bending,
Rock: riffs, solos, bending,
Flamenco: intricate playing, thumb plucking, arpeggios
Jazz: fast lead runs

What About Rhythm Playing?

On the other hand, rhythm is associated mainly with playing chords and therefore only need to move groups of fingers in already memorized and organized groups across the fretboard for strumming chord progressions.

Keep in mind, the rhythm player will be required to do this smoothly and swiftly while staying in time with the drummer.

Sure, there are harder rhythm techniques associated with rhythm such as palm muting, adding accents and complex strumming patterns to spice things up a bit.

Common Rhythm Techniques

  • Playing chords in different positions (inversions)
  • Hammer-ons and pulls-offs around chords
  • Palm muting
  • Scratching
  • Adding ‘accents’
  • Complex strumming patterns

Granted some of the rhythm playing techniques I have mentioned above can be tricky.

However, they do not come close to the technical and intricate mid to advanced lead playing techniques mentioned while playing notes rhythmically, fast and in time.

As the rhythm guitarist, the primary role is to play chord progressions which sometimes you can switch off and engage the autopilot. Whereas playing lead there is a lot more room for error with lead.

Put it this way you can learn and play a new chord progression much quicker than learning a full-length solo.

Should Beginners Learn Lead or Rhythm First?

This question will give various answers depending on which seasoned guitar player you ask. One camp will recommend learning rhythm first.

On the other hand, the other camp will suggest, if you want to be an awesome lead player? Focus all your time and energy on that so you can improve and eventually master it.

So who’s right? Well keep in mind, there is no right or wrong answer to this question because every beginner learns differently.

The truth is that a beginner should not focus on one to ‘give way’ to learning the other.

For example of the common myth that beginners should learn acoustic first to then ‘qualify’ to then learn the electric guitar. Similarly, that you should learn rhythm to then qualify for learning lead guitar is the same concept.

The correct way to do it is known as ‘learn what you grasp’ as a beginner learn something that sticks then take the little baby steps to the next challenge.

For example, when simple chords are learned, take the next step to practice barre chords. Another example is when the simple the melody ‘happy birthday’ is mastered take the next baby step up to learning a more difficult melody.

As a beginner, you need to get a foundation for both styles of playing…

Lead

  • Simple melodies
  • String bending
  • Hammer-ons and pull-offs
  • Vibrato
  • Pentatonic scales
  • Basic solos

Rhythm

  • Basic chords
  • Barre chords
  • Strumming patterns
  • Applying chords to a rhythmic pattern
  • Maintaining a rhythmic pattern

Once a beginner has applied the basics mentioned above after a few years of playing, that individual will then begin to develop their own natural style leaning towards either lead rhythm or a bit of both.

Genre, musical influences and personal tastes will shape a guitarist when they transition from beginner from intermediate.

The take-home point is that a beginner should have a good foundation of both rhythm and lead. The simple phrase ‘don’t run before you can walk,’ applies to this point.

In my opinion, the best answer to this subjective question is as a beginner you should simply learn them both.

Why? Because the more tools you have in your toolbox as a guitarist will help you along further down the road. Put as much focus into both as you can by learning theory and both styles.

Is Lead More Important Than Rhythm?

An interesting analogy I have heard before describing the different roles between lead guitar and rhythm guitar. Is to imagine the lead guitarist as the ‘striker’ and the ‘rhythm’ guitarist as the ‘defender.’

However, for the viewers reading who do not understand soccer/football, this deserves more explanation.

The striker only focuses on attack and primary role is to score goals past the opposition.

Alternatively, the defender forms the foundation of the team’s defensive barrier to protect and defend the goal from the opposition attackers.

Sure, the striker is seen as having the more ‘interesting role’ and in the process gets more of the glory and attention.

The defender in a way is the ‘unsung hero’ from keeping the team from losing the game even though they get much less recognition.

On this bases, this analogy seems pretty accurate, when you think about it…. consider the best guitarists that have ever lived. You instantly think…

  • Jimi Hendrix
  • Jimmy Page
  • Eddie Van Halen
  • Slash,
  • Eric Clapton
  • BB King etc

Notice a trend here? They are all lead guitarist! The ‘strikers’ of the band! When you think the best rhythm guitarists, Malcolm Young, Keith Richards, Izzy Stradlin, Chuck Berry. The defenders of the guitar, they do not get as much recognition as the strikers of the guitar.

On the other hand, what this analogy fails to recognize is that when playing football/soccer both roles are considered just as difficult to master and are just as important as each other.

When it comes to playing rhythm and lead they again are similarly both important as each other when it comes to music. If either the lead or rhythm guitarists sound ‘off’ in a band, no matter how good the other guitarist is. The band will sound off as a whole.

A good rhythm guitarist cannot make up for a bad lead guitarist and vice versa. The take-home point is that each role is just as important as each other for combining to create a specific sound in a musical arrangement.

Related Questions

Why do bands have two guitarists?

Two guitarists allow for both a lead and rhythm section increasing the versatility and complexity of sounds. Two guitarists also provide a thicker and wider sound for complex musical arrangements. The two different styles of the guitarists can also provide additional dynamics to the bands overall sound.

Why do bands have one guitarist?

Depending on genre and preference, it allows the guitarist to stand out within a song. It also allows other instruments such as drums, bass, and vocals to stand out as more space is available within the mix of a musical arrangement. However, it will result in a less thick and driving sound.

Speaking of learning and mastering rhythm, I recommend this awesome post I created… “how to increase your strumming speed on acoustic.” This article will help you become a better rhythm guitarist including my detailed tips and drills you can start learning to improve your speed and skills.

Adam

Adam is the founder and author of Tone Topics and dedicated to providing the best guitar content for like-minded gear nerds. Please enjoy all the content on the site and support us by sharing these posts with other people. It would really help us out!

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