Though each member of the band is just as important as the other, it is generally the lead guitarist that takes center stage and grabs all the attention. If you are asked who is the guitarist of Guns n Roses, you’ll most instantly shout out Slash, despite there being a number of other guitarist playing with the band through the years such as Izzy Stradlin, who was the original rhythm guitarist, and Richard Fortus, who is their current second guitarist.
Differentiating Between Lead and Rhythm Guitarists
When it comes to guitarists in a rock band, it’s important to understand the type of guitar they play. You’ll often have the lead guitarist, who will play all the riffs and solos, while most of the time there will also be a rhythm guitarist, that provides the backbone of the music for the band.
Being able to play rhythm guitar is a must for any wannabe guitarist. Of course everyone dreams about taking center stage and performing an epic 5 minute guitar solo in front of thousands of screaming fans, but for that to happen, you’ll have to have an understanding of rhythm guitar, and know how to play it.
The Rhythm Guitarist
Playing the rhythm guitar is an essential skill that all guitar players will learn. In fact, in a rock band, the rhythm guitarist will usually be doing two thirds of the guitarists work, while lead guitar takes the other 33%.
You’ll need to have a good understanding of rhythms and cords, and be able to play along with the rhythm section of the band, which is essentially the drums and bass. Rhythm guitar is the foundation of almost all great rock songs, with all of the famous riffs and grooves you so dearly love are based on the rhythm guitar playing. If you are looking to learn, then All Stringed is a great place to start.
The Lead Guitarist
This is the guitarist that will be seen as the leader of the band, along with the vocalist, and the general sounds of the group will be based on the style of play of the lead guitarist and their influences.
One of the most important aspects of lead guitar is the ability to improvise and be spontaneous with what you play. This is the main difference between rhythm guitar which is based on chords. With the lead guitar, you are playing on top of the rhythm and adding your own riffs and signature notes to the tracks.
Learning to play the lead guitar in that sense, is much more difficult than the rhythm guitar. It’s also worth pointing out that during most songs when the band is playing, the lead guitarist will usually be playing rhythm until it's time for their riffs or solos. Think of a band such as the Rolling Stones, Queen or Guns n Roses – the performances from the lead guitarists and their solos usually always take place in the track when the vocalist isn’t singing.
Role of the Lead Guitarist
With their guitar solos only usually being about 5-10% of an overall track, you have to understand what the guitarist does for the other 90% of the time.
Their roles in rock bands are quite diverse, and they are generally playing for several sections of the track, from the opening chords, through to their solo, and then the ending of the track. Sometimes the riff will be played throughout the track, while other times you’ll only hear it during the opening of the track, and maybe a little during the fade out at the end.
Take the track “I can’t get no satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones. The riff is one of the most famous in the world and is played throughout the song by Keith Richards. However, on other tracks by the Stones such as “Sympathy for the Devil”, the guitar solo and some other small riffs are what Keith contributes to the track. Each song is different, and as such, the work of a lead guitarist is never straight forward or repetitive all the time.
The rhythm section of the band all have their general roles that they stick to time and time again, track through track, while the role of the lead guitarist can change through each number they perform. From explosive riff openings, to quieter more subtle introductions to tracks, lead guitarists will have a range of different styles they can play, and add their own improvisation and ideas as the song progresses.
Learning to play the guitar
The guitar is one of the most popular instruments to learn, and there are thousands of people all over the world who want to emulate their guitar heroes. The lead guitarist, such as Rory Gallagher, is the one that everyone wants to be, but the rhythm guitarist is just as important, if not more so, in terms of setting the foundations for the music.
Whatever type of guitarist you want to be, you should start off with learning the basics of rhythm guitar, as this is going to be the base from which you can then expand and move over to electric and lead guitars.
There are hundreds of video tutorials you can follow on YouTube, as well as taking one of the many online courses that you will find available. During these troubling times with the Covid-19 pandemic still among us, and with people all over the world being forced into curfew and staying indoors, there’s probably never been a better time than right now to actually dust off your guitar and start strumming and practicing again. If anything, at least it will help pass the time in a slightly more productive and enjoyable way.