Beginning Guitar – to Learn Rhythm, or Lead?

Andy | May 21, 2015 | 36 Comments

Kevin Lang

After 25 years playing guitar, I should be agnostic on this.

I should tell you they are both very valuable, and both will contribute to your technique and development. I could also tell you to learn both, which would be fine. This is all true, and it is best to learn all disciplines. Just as it is best to learn different styles of music. As a beginner, the question is to attack lead guitar or rhythm first. Anecdotally, I find people choose one or the other as they get a couple years in. I think a beginning guitarist should put their energy into rhythm. You have heard the term ‘jack of all trades, but master of none’? Be a master of one – rhythm.

Allow me to clarify; ‘rhythm’ guitar is the background, of sorts. It is the person strumming the guitar. Every song has rhythm. Books will tell you that rhythm comes from the drummer … and the bass player. I think that is a misstatement. I think the beat, and the time, comes from the drummer. In time you will learn, never depend on a drummer for anything. They are their own creature. The feel of the guitar and the style of the song … I think that is on you. Generally speaking, if you see an acoustic guitar during a live performance, they are doing rhythm. This is because doing lead solos on an acoustic guitar is a bitch. Physically, it is so demanding it can be painful. In fact, just plain learning guitar is a bitch … especially if you do it on an acoustic (which you absolutely should, no discussion).

Lead guitar, and soloing, is the single notes being played super fast way high up on the neck by the guy whose hair is being blown back by a very large fan somewhere just off camera. This guy is wicked cool. This guy gets to be on the album cover. This guy gets more girls than you, and he may be a better player. You can live without him. He can’t live without you.

Why Rhythm Guitar Is Better

Playing Acoustic Guitar at a CampfireRhythm doesn’t need lead. Lead needs rhythm. Rhythm can be played alone. Rhythm playing is what you do when you go camping. I have been rocking at campfires for almost 25 years now. Not once has anyone ever asked me to play the solo from a song. People will always ask for ‘Patience’ at the fire, but no one has ever asked for the solo to Patience. I know both.

Lead guitar takes a lot of work, and a lot of equipment. As I mentioned above, you very, very rarely see someone knocking out a guitar solo on an acoustic. They need an electric guitar. The necks are much thinner, as are the strings. This means your long-haired buddy needs a guitar, an amp, a power outlet, and (apparently) a fan. Try taking all that camping. If you are a rhythm guy, all you need is an acoustic.

Here is another aspect I like. It’s easier, much easier. To play rhythm, you need to know the chords. It’s not that tough. There are seven fundamental chords (C D E F G A B). Learn these seven major and minor chords and you can play just about every song ever written. You don’t need to know any musical theory here. It’s very good to have, but not critical at first. Just remember and practice those chords and different strumming patterns and techniques. A lead guy has to know scales, positions, fifths, thirds. He has to know music theory. It is good to know music theory, but it can literally take a lifetime.

Here is a real-life example. I am in a band, and am the rhythm guitar guy. I can solo quite decently, but I don’t live for it. Our lead guitar player is amazing. He can melt faces with his guitar. At the end of the gig, it is him that people are talking about. In learning guitar, he skipped the rhythm piece. We formed a band while he was still very much learning the craft. He got a guitar teacher who taught him just lead stuff. However, we went camping last summer and brought our guitars. Usually, in an environment like this, we all drink a lot and trade songs. You go, then I go. Then that weird guy your brother brought goes. It gives us time to have a drink and a smoke while the other guy takes a song. Well, our lead player couldn’t play a song. He tried to accompany us on our songs, which was pretty dope. Except, no one could really hear him. The strumming projects noise nicely. That is why acoustic guitars are so comically big. They are their own amplifier. Single-note picking, though, gets lost under the roar of the fire and people’s chatter.

Follow Your Bliss

Learn guitar. Learn it all. Learn rhythm, and learn lead. Learn theory. Follow your bliss. You didn’t get a guitar to follow advice from a guitar columnist, did you? I am just offering some advice, and frankly I am (usually) Correct.

  • Even if you are left-handed (as I am), learn to play right-handed and on regular guitars.
  • Learn to play guitar on an acoustic first. I recommend at LEAST a year of suffering through barred F chords.
  • Learn every basic chord in major and minor. That is 14. Throw in sharps and there’s another seven. You can do this in a few months, if you apply yourself.
  • Learn ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ on guitar. It’s wicked simple, three chords! Most importantly, it always kills! Everyone knows this song. Plus, you will soon need to figure out how to sing and play at the same time. ‘Sweet Home’ is a perfect piece for that. The rhythm and strumming of it go together perfectly.
  • Learn a song your parents love, and one your parents hate.

That’s all for now. Drop me a line in comments if you have any questions, or anything you would like me to write about.

About the Author

Kevin ‘Lono’ Lang lives on a small ranch just outside of Denver, CO. He has a few websites he is very active with, including www.IamCorrect.com for general interest writing and www.MaybeIamWrong.com, which focuses on music. He’s been playing guitar for 25 years and is a member of the band Clown Fight. Find out more at www.TheClownFight.com.

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Category: Beginners

Comments (36)

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  1. First of all I want to say great blog! I had a quick question in which I’d like to ask if you
    don’t mind. I was curious to know how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing.
    I’ve had a difficult time clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out.
    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are generally wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or tips?

    Cheers!

  2. Tom F. says:

    I don’t know how I just found the email to this article now but I did. I play a lot of guitar but not a lot of lead, I try to add licks into my acoustic playing as much as I can and you would be surprised at how good you can make some acoustic songs sound. I have no affiliation with this teacher on youtube who really does a lot on acoustic guitar with a lot of great songs by playing a lot of lead and rhythm at the same time. Have a look at his version of Sweet Home Alabama. This is how I try to play and if there are parts I can not make sound as good as he does well then I just leave them out. He is one of the best rhythm players I have ever seen.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-trxiyDjhA

  3. Hope Hibbert says:

    I have been playing guitar for nearly fifty years. Played electric guitar in a blues / Rock band in the early 70’s. Started out as a rhythm guitarist and then shared some lead work. I later became a public school teacher and was asked to develop a guitar program that would allow students from grade four to grade seven ( 9 – 12 year olds to learn to play quickly and participate in school music activities. I chose to teach rhythm guitar and found that kids really liked the idea of being able to learn chords and sing their favourite songs really cool. For this purpose I used acoustic guitars and finger style playing. ( Classical guitars being easier on the fingers) For older students introduced some ensemble playing requiring rhythm and lead and notation. In short what worked for me best was first rhythm then notation then improvisation.

  4. David Porter says:

    I have been playing since I was 12 and at 56, I have found that there is still plenty to learn. I agree that Rhythm on an acoustic is the basis of all good music. In fact, I prefer my 12 string for that sound, especially if I want to sing as well. But I find that when it is just me, give me a good ole Les Paul and a quality tube amp (no pedals) and I have a lot more fun. Stretching strings and hammering bar chords are the heart of Rock and Roll. But since that is not my only genre that I play, the basics of an acoustic , camp fires, friends etc., all go together very well. But a truly good Rhythm player will be able to through in a few licks here and there in order to properly represent the song. Can you imagine Sweet Home Alabama without the intro? Or Free Bird without the slide part? Or try “strumming” Stairway To Heaven. In a band, you have some one to do each of those parts, but at the park/campfire setting, you have to do it all to a degree. But of course, Rhythm is the root of it all. I don’t remember anyone asking me to do a certain solo either (unless it was another player who wanted to learn it) but I did have a cute cheerleader tell me she loved the guitar but didn’t care much for the fast high pitch stuff(lead). That means a lot to a young guy playing a guitar – you gotta impress the ladies!

  5. Duane Lindstrom says:

    I enjoy playing rhythm guitar. I enjoy playing lead guitar. I just enjoy playing guitar. Can’t choose!!

  6. Thomas says:

    Rhythm, I wish I had some. I’ve been playing at guitar long enough to pick out a number of songs but I can not strum the songs! I could never get the melody, beat or what ever it is.

  7. Franck Alonso says:

    I totally agree with you. Back in the 70’s, I was the star of the beach night happenings because I had -still have- a dreadnoght steel guitar, audible from 100 yds. away. Besides me were sitting a piano player and a jazz guitar sideman -latter to get some fame in their crafts- looking in despair because all girls were after me, even if I only whistled the themes of that time’s music.

    Ok, later I fell into blues, then electric, then jazz, but I still have an audience when playing acoustic chord melody, kind of strumming with some extra notes in between…

  8. Lono says:

    Hey all,

    This is your author. First, thank you all SO much for reading, and your feedback. I am just getting through it now, so here is some feedback in order of comments:

    To John White:

    Why learn right handed? First off, you certainly don’t have to. Us lefties slave through enough BS and oppression from righty, the man. BUT, it is a practical decision I made that I am extremely happy with. The article I linked to (also by me… so its’ an admitted plug) goes into depth, but here is a simple reason > access to more guitars. When you go to Guitar Center, you have about 100 guitars for right handed, and about 10 for us lefties. In fact, odds are those numbers about exact – since 10% of us are lefties). This means you have 90% more choice and pricing options as a right handed player. For more, read my piece on lefties and righties learning guitar.

    https://guitarcoachmag.com/guitar-stuff/tips-for-left-handed-guitarists/

  9. Vernon says:

    WITHOUT an understanding of rhythm, your LEADS will be mostly good for one chord…And if the singer SINGS in another key, you need to transpose for your lead to work…
    While learning guitar, I felt that I must learn the chords and proper rhythm before attempting leads…
    After many years of playing, I still learn the chords and rhythm first and only then attempt a lead…
    I do some entertaining by myself and rarely play leads…Good luck…Vernon

  10. Ian Ferriday says:

    Why argue, or how the cat got skinned a lot.

    What’s most important is the end result, the piece of art which is the polished song. If you’re lucky.
    Anyway, it’s not just a question of one ‘not needing’ the other or vice versa. They compliment each other at whatever point in the dirge an interplay is needed.
    Where would a ‘Roller be without that ikonic grill? Or as they say in Wolverhampton:
    One’s the rice and one’s the spice, Take one out an’ you’ll pay the price, Fire and water a perfect balance, Razored silk the cool compliance, Mix your colours but blend them right, Otherwise they’ll look like soil.

    Dig yer style Andy
    Francoise Fretsweat

  11. Phil Turner says:

    Of course, you get the odd, very talented player who manages to do both at the same time, really well. Wilko Johnson is one such individual.

    Not that I’m jealous, mind you.
    No sirree!

    😀

  12. Dave Gushi says:

    It is important to learn rhythm guitar really good to be a great lead player there is no separation from the 2.

    You can decide to be just a great rhythm player but you can’t be a great lead player without being a great rhythm player you need to know where all the chords and changes are to know what to paly over them.

    so if you decide to be a lead player you need to be a really great rhythm player first.

  13. Marshall Brence says:

    Dgood article and dead on. Both are important. I like playing both.

  14. Mike Donivan says:

    I have played rhythm guitar for 40 years. Mostly acoustic, but have started playing in a band again and have moved into playing electric for several songs on our play list. I have some music theory background, but I did not start really studying leads until about 6 mos ago,and have been having a blast doing it. I love my 12 string though and the sound it generates under the lead is amazing.

  15. Paul says:

    I Played rhythm guitar in a pub rock band for 8 years. I loved playing only rhythm, I have played lead guitar in earlier bands and found that my lead breaks started to all sound the same. I got my lead guitar fix by playing playing the intro’s to songs eg. “Sweet Home Alabama”.
    Keep on Strumin’ Paul…..

  16. RJCam says:

    Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm! You gotta have RHYTHM …

  17. Randal Welch says:

    I agree you should learn both, and I think a little of both at the same time. My first love is the blues, so I’m trying to learn my scales, and some of these riffs.

  18. Tommy says:

    I believe rhythm play is more important in a mix than lead, and also more useful in varied situations. I think a good teaching module on timing -how to count beats, and recognise exactly where you are, and how to insert and end lead or fills correctly in time would be good for both rhythm and lead players.

  19. I play sorta rhythm, playing chords arpeggio style….started out trying to learn to pick notes without knowing that is lead….could not hear what I was doing, so started playing chords, and then could hear what I do better….but the chords were so muffled that I had to play each note in a chord to ring….I now get that I am playing rhythm…all good…

    Thank you for this essay.

    Shared
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    bikerornot

    Doc

  20. Barry says:

    I feel that both are very important. I’m old school and love them both. In a lot of today’s music there’s not enough lead. Bring back the solos!!!!!

  21. John White says:

    I’m left-handed. Why should I absolutely have to learn to play right handed? What is the advantage? Jimi played as a leftie. Nadal is a natural right hander who learnt to play tennis left handed because it gave him an advantage, so please explain your theory, first time I’ve ever come across it! Great outline on rhythm by the way, thanks for writing it

  22. Nigel says:

    I think learning rhythm playing is an important part to any player. This then provides a solid foundation in which to go on and develope your own unique playing style and a solid foundation to learn lead if you want to.

  23. Photo AL says:

    I’ve been playing rhythm guitar for 50 years. I can also play lead but now I’ve just started to learn chord melody. Jazz chords are not easy but you can do a lot with them. But it all comes back to rhythm 🙂

  24. Gordon Mcculloch says:

    Hi, Guys I totally agree with rhythm is everything. It is something I really struggle with, but would love to master it. Anybody recommend a good course to help me. Thanks

  25. Simon Rankin says:

    I have been playing rhythm guitar for years but it would be nice to learn a few simple rifts

  26. While lead guitar is sexy, and gets a lot of attention, all of my favorite guitars are great rhythm players (with the exception of B.B. King) A band can rock all night without a single lead and it can sound great.
    Just my two cents worth, Cheers!

  27. jim says:

    Think all music is important whether it lead or rhythm.

  28. John Dorber says:

    You’ve got a point there. Now I don’t feel so guilty about not being able to play lead – but I am still going to try to learn to!

  29. Jim Haas says:

    Rhythm guitar is one of the sacred 3; drums, bass and rhythm guitar. You can do anything with that combo! Rhythm rules

  30. Steve says:

    Learn rhythm first and well. You will develop a mental clock that locks to the bottom end of the group. If you ever learn lead you will need to feel the transitions between parts of a song and you have to be phrasing in exactly the right parts at the right moments.

    I am not a good lead player, but I know enough to use many lead techniques and riffs to transition between changes in rhythm patterns and/or chord changes.

    I have heard WAY too many lead guitarist rich on technique and effects, but short on taste. That does not mean I can do it myself, but I know when less is better … e.g., BB King. But “less” often exposes the posers that do not know their scales or feel for the song or even how to play guitar.

    I resonate with the article comments a lot. I find myself practicing on my Martin to one style, then my Taylor for another, and then to my bread and butter guitar, my ES-335 Studio. Certain techniques are easier to learn on different guitars but can be considered like cross-training for several guitars if you get my drift.

  31. Tom Wakefield says:

    Do you have online teaching

  32. KC Horan says:

    I have been a rhythm player for 40 years. You can play for enjoyment and with a little embellishment, a few pull offs and hammer ons and most songs are instantly recognizable. When i was younger, I dreamed of being a hendrix, page or clapton and truth be told I am like a teen girl seeing the Beatles for the first time when i watch a lead guitarist work their magic. Since I am not going to ever b in a band, I am satisfied doing what i do best and strumming along……………….

  33. Brad Florek says:

    I have been playing guitar for almost 50 years and with so many different bands that I can’t remember them all. I play both lead and rhythm. Rhythm guitar keeps the music moving and at times the strumming hand has to take on the beat with the percussion instruments. It is my experience that a very good rhythm player can make a good lead player sound GREAT!

  34. Ron McGuire says:

    I learned to play rhythm first. Then after a while,I learned to throw a little bit of melody into the mix at the same time to keep it interesting.

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