Rethinking Rhythm Guitar

Rhythm, or lead?

Rhythm, or lead?

There’s a kind of bi-modal thinking in the guitar-playing world that is poisoning our understanding of music. We often split playing into two modes: lead and rhythm. This split shows up in Craigslist posts (“wanted, ripping lead guitarist” or “wanted, rhythm guitar for country band”), it shows up on our guitars (a Les Paul pickup selector), and it shows up on our amps (Marshall’s “lead” vs. “rhythm” settings).

We know what “lead playing” is (it’s ripping guitar solos under a bright spotlight, right?). The problem comes in defining “rhythm playing” which, often as not, is defined in terms of not being lead playing. Here’s why I think this is dangerous: it doesn’t define a music activity on its own terms.

We all pay lip-service to the importance of rhythm playing, but if it means not-lead-playing, then what does it really mean? This isn’t just some epistemological exercise. Stop for a second and formulate an answer to the question, what is rhythm playing? Go ahead. I’ll wait.

“Rhythm guitar” playing comes from the electric guitar’s earliest days in jazz band rhythm sections. The guitar is inherently a rhythmic instrument because of the quick decay of notes (unless you tweak that signal with amplification). The quick attack and decay makes for a nice way to lay down the pulse of a tune. Strumming some chords on an acoustic guitar provides both a rhythmic pulse, as well as the underlying harmonic structure for “Kum Ba Ya” or any other campfire classic.

But as amplifiers and effects evovled, another kind of “non-lead” playing emerged based on textures. Andy Summers and mid-80s Alex Lifeson are great examples of "textural" playing. So is the Edge. Some of their playing includes a strong rhythmic component, but not all of it. The electric guitar in combination with effects and signal processing allows one to lean heavily towards the textural side and drop the percussive nature of the instrument altogether. Simply calling this style of playing “rhythm” doesn't give the textural component enough credit.

We should also avoid conflating playing chords with being “rhythm” playing. Riff-heavy music like Led Zeppelin wouldn’t qualify as “lead-playing”, but it’s not about strumming chords either. Bands like Franz Ferdinand or Interpol take this to another level, playing single-note lines almost exclusively. These lines aren’t solos, they are a defining part of the stabbing rhythmic element of those bands’ styles.

On the flip side, the chord-melody solo in Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” demonstrates that playing chords doesn’t mean you aren’t playing lead. That is clearly a solo/lead kind of playing, so we can’t simply say that playing chords equates to “rhythm” playing.

So what's the takeaway? Why am I rambling on about this? Guitar playing is obviously about more than playing lead lines and solos. Depending on your style it may make a very small to non-existent portion of your playing. So what do you call the rest of your playing? When you need to accompany other musicians on a new piece of material, how do you decide what to play? You can’t always play “screaming leads”, so what do you play the other 95% of the time?

These are important questions and they need better answers than simply not being something else. So here’s my challenge to you:

Start thinking more deeply about “non-lead” playing in terms of what it is instead of what it isn’t.

It will expand your overall playing vocabulary, it will help you adapt to wider ranges of music, and it will get you thinking musically instead of modally.