A reader asked me about whether some materials would be better or worse depending on whether you wanted to play rhythm guitar or lead guitar. And it made me think, I get asked something along these lines fairly often. Usually new guitarists want to know which is more important to learn, or which is “better”. Sometimes very new players will ask if the guitar I’m carrying around is a rhythm guitar or a lead guitar. 🙂
Well.. just so you all know, there is no such instrument as a rhythm guitar or a lead guitar. The terms just refer to the role the instrument is playing in a band. As for which is more important to learn? There are two ways to respond to this. One is a simple and direct way, the other is a little bit more complex and a lot more helpful.
The simple answer is just to say that playing rhythm is FAR more important.
Not every guitarist is expected to be able to rip out a blazing solo, but even the flashiest lead guitarist will be expected to play solid rhythms.
The other thing to be aware of is that your audience probably won’t be aware of the difference between difficult and easy guitar solos, and a lot of them won’t notice even the worst mistakes in a solo, however they will have no trouble at all picking out when your rhythms aren’t working!
A lot of songs don’t even have solos in them, and the ones that do will sometimes go to a horn player or keyboardist while you stick on the rhythms.
Even when you do have a solo in the song, you will still spend most of the song playing rhythm.
There are a few exceptions to this, but they are rare – frontmen guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan or Dave Gilmour would both often not play any rhythms in a song, and just play some leads when they’re not singing – however even these dudes who had super hot backing bands still had and have it in them to kick out a mean rhythm guitar when it counts.
The better and more helpful answer though, is that you shouldn’t worry about which is “better” and more important, and just learn both. It’s not like they involve different skills.. good rhythm playing is about having a left hand that can finger the notes you want to play, a right hand that can pick them, an ability to coordinate the two and to do it all with a feel for the song and the band you’re playing in.
Good lead playing, on the other hand, is about having a left hand that can finger the notes you want to play, a right hand that can pick them, an ability to coordinate the two and to do it all with a feel for the song and the band you’re playing in.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
It’s often easier to introduce new ideas and concepts with exercises that involve single note “lead” playing.
It’s silly to ignore these exercises because you want to work on your rhythm playing. They are often the best things you can do to improve your rhythms.
Even tapping or sweep picking exercises can help you tighten up your rhythms.. they might seem to have no application to rhythm but they do a hell of a lot to coordinate your left and right hands and can also really work out your timing.
So in conclusion, be aware that as a guitarist you will be judged by your rhythm playing much more than by your solos. But make sure that you practice both.