When I Say “Lead Guitarist,” What Comes to Mind?

Mine fills with images of guitar players standing in seizure-inducing light shows with long fluttering blouses, luxuriant chest hair, and windswept locks.

Samoth Emperor Zyklon Scum Rhythm Guitarist

A rhythm guitarist in action.

When each of us first picked up a guitar, I bet at least 40% of us dreamed of transposing all those righteous solos we learned on air guitar over to the real thing.

For most of us, though, the reality of guitar mostly involves playing rhythm to support a vocalist (or maybe your own voice), or–especially in the case of any jazz players that happen to be in the house tonight–back up another soloist. That guitar’s got six strings for a reason–it was built for chording. The guitar’s a versatile instrument that can fill virtually any musical role, but it does rhythm especially well.

Sure it’s great to be able to rip out a solo–but if you really want to be a sought-after bandmate, it pays to practice the art of backing other players. If you can make another player sound amazing, you’ll find yourself in high demand. And taking the role of rhythm guitarist is no sacrifice–“comping,” as jazz players call it, is every bit as challenging, creative, and rewarding as playing solos. Sometimes more.

So how exactly does one comp (accompany) another player? Well, that depends on the situation.

If someone else is singing or soloing, and you have the freedom to improvise, at any given moment you might choose to do any of the following:

1. Play chords. This might also involve finding chord substitutions, interesting inversions, killer rhythmic grooves, and arpeggio runs.
2. Feed ideas to the soloist. Play strains of melody for the soloist to pick up on and play with—or play against. This of course requires a bandmate with an ear quick enough to grasp the ideas you’re feeding him.
3. Join or echo phrases the soloist is playing. A musical conversation goes both ways, of course. If you hear the player play something cool, and you want to underscore how cool it is, you might echo the same notes back to her or find some other way to frame that bit of brilliance.
4. Play sparingly, or not at all (rein it back and listen). Knowing when not to play is just as important as knowing when to play.

That’s just a sixty-second panorama of the creative vistas open to a rhythm player, of course, but each one of those options runs deep.

The distinction we make between rhythm and lead guitarists is a bit misleading. While teaching I’ve run into some new guitarists who say “I want to learn lead,” and don’t get it when I respond by teaching them chords. The fact is, even if you somehow find a role for yourself playing only solos, knowledge of chords and chord progressions are your bread and butter–when you solo, you’re soloing within the context of a chord progression, after all. Knowing chords–knowing rhythm work–is a huge advantage for a soloist. The best lead players also tend to be the best rhythm players.

And though Guitar Hero culture elevates the job of a lead player to ridiculous heights, great rhythm guitarists are the true backbone of any guitar band.

When you’re the soloist or the vocalist, and somebody’s doing a great job backing you up, the sensation is like flying. It really sweeps you off your feet and inspires you to play like you’ve never played before. That’s what a band is all about–getting the best possible performances and the best possible ideas out of each other, right?

Here’s to you, rhythm guitarists. You rule.

Nicholas Tozier (82 Articles)

Nicholas Tozier is a book hoarder and songbird from the woods of Maine. In 2012 he made a small cameo in Songwriting Without Boundaries by Berklee professor Pat Pattison, and was named one of CDBaby’s top 10 Songwriting Resources to follow on Twitter.