While there are many different styles of playing guitar, most guitarists think of rhythm and lead as two main playing styles.
If you are starting to learn guitar or are looking at improving your skills, you might be wondering whether lead or rhythm guitar is harder to learn.
Many guitarists believe lead guitar is harder than rhythm because you need to learn more skills and techniques. You can become a great rhythm guitarist by mastering a few skills, while you need to master a lot of skills to become a great lead guitarist.
This doesn’t mean that lead guitar is harder to play than rhythm guitar, only that it seems harder to play when you’re a beginner.
For this reason, many guitarists start by learning rhythm guitar and move on to lead guitar later on.
In this guide, I will explain why lead guitar isn’t necessarily harder than rhythm guitar and why many guitarists feel rhythm is harder to learn.
By the end of this guide, you will know whether you should learn rhythm or lead guitar and how to get started.
Lead vs Rhythm Guitar
If you’re just starting to learn guitar, you might wonder what is the difference between lead and rhythm guitar.
Rhythm guitar focuses on playing chords and riffs in a way that forms the backbone of music. This is different to lead guitar, which focuses on playing melodies and solos.
Here are some examples of things a rhythm guitarist might play:
- Strumming chord progressions
- Fingerpicking chord progressions
- Strumming power chords
- Playing low-end riffs
Compare the above list to things a lead guitarist might play:
- Play all solos in a song
- Add licks or high-end melodies throughout a song
- Harmonize with vocal lines
You can see that the main difference between rhythm and lead guitar is that rhythm guitar focuses on driving the music, while lead guitar focuses on adding melody to music.
You need to learn different techniques to play rhythm or lead guitar, but there is a lot of overlap between the two playing styles.
In some styles of music there is a clear difference between rhythm and lead guitar.
In other styles of music such as classical, the lines between lead and rhythm guitar playing are blurred
Classical guitar uses a mix of rhythm and lead guitar skills, so it’s not quite right to call a classical guitarist a rhythm or a lead guitarist.
Rhythm vs Lead Difficulty
When comparing how hard those two lists are to play, it isn’t an easy answer.
There are plenty of easy strumming chord progressions (rhythm) used in songs, but there are also difficult strumming progressions that can be a challenge even for advanced guitarists.
There are easy solos (lead) that most beginners can learn, while there are complicated solos that only the top virtuoso guitarists can play.
While there are more skills you need to learn to play lead guitar, there are plenty of challenging rhythm guitar parts that can be just as hard to learn as a complicated solo.
The key point to remember is that both rhythm and lead guitar can be easy or difficult – it depends on what you want to play.
Some people find it easy to learn rhythm guitar while others find lead guitar easy to learn.
Should You Learn Rhythm or Lead Guitar First?
If you are just starting out learning guitar, you might wonder whether you should learn rhythm or lead guitar first.
The best approach is to start by learning rhythm guitar. Learning rhythm guitar builds fundamental skills that are important for any style of playing. Even if you want to play lead guitar, start by learning rhythm.
There are a few reasons why everybody should start by learning rhythm guitar (even if you want to only play lead guitar).
Let’s go through the reasons.
Rhythm Guitar Builds Crucial Timing Skills
Whether you want to play rhythm or lead guitar, you need to have good timing.
Timing is the ability to play along with a rhythm in sync. A lead guitarist with poor timing will always sound terrible.
One of the best ways a lead guitarist can improve their skills is to work on rhythm skills.
This is why I highly recommend you start by learning rhythm guitar. Learning rhythm guitar helps you become a better lead guitarist.
Whether you want to continue as a rhythm guitarist or learn lead guitar, building good rhythm skills will help you become a solid guitar player.
Rhythm Guitar is Easier to Start With
If you are a beginner and just starting to learn guitar, it is easier to start by learning simple rhythm guitar parts instead of learning lead guitar parts.
Take a look at the 14 must-know guitar riffs in this lesson and you might be surprised by how easy most of them are.
Many great sounding rhythm guitar parts are also easy to learn. You can be playing some of the riffs in that lesson on your first week of learning guitar.
While there are some easy lead guitar parts, you need to learn a lot more skills first.
Take the below riff as an example (learn how to read Guitar TAB here):
This is one of the easiest guitar riffs you could possibly play, but it sounds great when you’re able to play it in time with the song.
Even if you’ve never picked up a guitar before, you could be playing the first easy version shown above almost immediately.
Learning basic rhythm guitar parts like the above riff not only teaches you important timing skills, but it helps you get comfortable with the guitar.
Even if you really want to play solos and nothing else, spend some time learning rhythm guitar skills first.
Choosing Your Own Path
While I highly recommend that everybody starts by learning rhythm guitar, you don’t need to stick to rhythm guitar later on.
As a guitarist, you can pick and choose to learn any rhythm or lead guitar skills.
If you want to play solos and nothing else, that’s fine. Many instrumental guitarists do just that.
If you only want to strum chords or only fingerpick, that’s fine too.
Some guitarists enjoy only playing lead guitar parts, other guitarists only like rhythm guitar parts and others like playing a mix of rhythm and lead guitar.
The great thing about the guitar is that you can take any path you want and still be able to play great music.
Once you learn fundamental rhythm skills, you can branch-off and learn any rhythm or lead guitar skills you want.
Rhythm vs Lead Guitar in Bands
If you’re trying to decide whether you want to learn rhythm or lead guitar (or a mix of both), it’s helpful to look at the bands you listen to.
Some bands have one guitarist, other bands have two guitarists, and some bands have three or more guitarists.
Some bands have separate guitarists to play rhythm and lead guitar parts.
A good example of this is Metallica’s guitarists.
Metallica have two guitarists: James Hetfield (right) and Kirk Hammett (left).
James is Metallica’s rhythm guitarist and Kirk is their lead guitarist.
This means that in almost all solos, it’s Kirk playing the solo and James plays the rhythm guitar parts underneath the solo.
But it’s important to remember that Kirk still plays along with the rhythm guitar parts throughout the rest of a song. So while he’s the lead guitarist, he still needs to have rhythm guitar skills.
Other bands mix up the rhythm and lead guitar roles so that both guitarists take turns in solos.
The key point to remember is that there isn’t a strict rule that you need to play rhythm or lead when in a band. It all depends on the music you want to play.
Rhythm vs Lead Guitar FAQs
Here are some common questions you might have about how hard rhythm and lead guitar is to learn.
How Hard is it to Learn Lead Guitar?
Lead guitar is hard to learn because you need to learn a lot of different techniques. Lead guitarists need to learn how to play bends, slides, legato, string skipping, and other similar techniques.
Once you learn these techniques, how hard lead guitar is to play depends on what type of music you want to play.
There are lead guitarists out there that play very simple music that almost anybody can learn. There are other lead guitarists out there that play impossibly difficult music.
How hard lead guitar is to learn depends on the type of music you want to play.
How Hard is it to Learn Rhythm Guitar?
How hard rhythm guitar is to learn depends on how complicated the music is you want to play. In general, the basics of rhythm guitar are easy to learn. But becoming a good rhythm guitarist requires a lot of practice and can be hard for many people.
Being able to strum a few chords is enough to get you started learning rhythm guitar, but becoming a good rhythm guitarist is hard.
How hard rhythm guitar is to learn depends on the type of music you want to play.
How Do You Master Rhythm Guitar?
You can master rhythm guitar by practicing with a metronome, drum machine, or other musicians. Working on improving your timing and syncing up your hands will improve your rhythm guitar skills.
Spending time learning complicated rhythm patterns will help you feel confident as a rhythm guitarist and strengthen your rhythm guitar skills.
The focus for a rhythm guitarist to work on the feel or groove of the music. If you’re able to ‘lock-in’ with the groove, you’ll become a great rhythm guitarist.
Working on fingerpicking patterns or strumming patterns is an important step in mastering rhythmg guitar.
How Do You Practice Lead Guitar?
You practice lead guitar by spending time learning and working on solos and lead parts. Once you learn a solos from a song, continue to practice it until you can play it flawlessly.
The focus of a lead guitarist is to add expression into your playing. Being able to get the guitar to sing or speak is the goal of many lead guitarists. Spending time working on developing your own voice as a guitarist will help you become a better lead guitarist.
Outside of practicing solos from songs, you practice lead guitar by working on scales, learning licks, practicing finger exercises, and working on picking skills.