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The general wisdom is that the understanding of chords and a strong grasp of rhythm are foundational to any lead playing, since harmony and rhythm provide support to the lead melodic line/phrase.

I started learning guitar with chords and strumming (on acoustic) and then I moved onto electric guitar for lead playing. I am noticing that I have neglected strumming/chords completely in the last 6 months. I put all my focus on

  • Scales
  • Legato/Bending/Vibrato
  • Learning iconic solos of the 70s/80s (to develop lick vocabulary)
  • Picking (alternate, economy, string skipping etc...)

I rarely strum a chord (except when I need to jam with other people) When I practice at home, I have GarageBand/Logic Pro to render/play midi to play drum/bass/rhythm guitar for me. I just need to write the "sound" with music notation into the software, click a sound profile, done.

If my preference is to play solos but my goal is to become a better musician in general, should I expand my rhythm playing skill?

  • Chord Positions/Voicings (moving beyond Major/Minor/Dominant chords)
  • Voice Leading (utilize vocabulary of chord voicing to make chord transition smoother?)
  • Strumming patterns

If yes to the answer above:

Given finite time, and infinite things to learn, how do serious or professional musicians balance their time? I can imagine that if a lead guitarist plays a gig, he/she would have a huge repertoire to memorize. It would also take a lot of time to perfect execution. I think he/she has to delegate other parts to other musicians, is this true though?

(At least to me, playing solo is the meat, while playing rhythm is the veggie) How should I balance my "diet"? Not to say that rhythm is easier, in fact I think it's more difficult to keep a solid groove than playing a solo, then there's heavy metal riffing which is another scary beast to confront.

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    Regarding what professional guitarists do, there’s a lot of variation depending on what kind of guitarist. Session players and musical theatre players don’t have to memorize but they do have to read quite well. Touring musicians do have to memorize quite quickly and potentially a lot of material in just a few weeks - usually they get the gig because they already know the big numbers and the genre and its common elements. Band members have usually written most of what they will play live so memorizing isn’t an issue, just delivering a performance. Nov 29, 2020 at 17:42
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    You concept of "meat" vs "viggie" is just way off the mark. Especially for a real musician.
    – user50691
    Nov 30, 2020 at 1:59

5 Answers 5

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I’m not sure if I’m a better “lead” player or “rhythm” player and I’m not really sure how to know which is which. In 27 years of playing guitar I’ve never really understood those terms and the distinction.

For myself, I have always sought to be a great song player. Which means I want to nail the intro, the verse, the chorus, the bridge, and the solo. It’s all one guitar part, not two separate parts.

That’s probably because my first and still primary guitar hero is Jimmy Page. He just plays all the parts, and when is a riff a lead part or a rhythm part? Maybe it’s both? Following Page, my biggest heroes include David Gilmour, Tom Morello, Adam Jones (Tool), and John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers). Note that they are all the only guitarists in their bands, so they play all the “rhythm” parts and all the “lead” parts because they play all the parts!

To get to my actual answer: I say don’t even think about it that way. Learn to play all the parts. Play single note riffs and solos with great rhythm, and play the chords behind the singer as perfectly and with as much passion as you play the solos. Every note and chord counts equally.

I’d like to double emphasize that while doing exercises is good, I highly recommend that the focus of your playing time should always be learning songs and learning the whole song so you could play it live with comfort. Always be learning 1-3 songs and always be playing 1-3 songs you know in every practice session. I’d make sure at least 1/2 to as much as 2/3 of my play time is spent on songs and not scales or whatever. One of the best things about learning songs is it motivates the learning of scales and techniques, etc. We learn those details so we can play songs, not the other way around.

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    Interesting!As I've spent decades doing just the opposite!Using songs as vehicles, to showcase various techniques, how certain scales are employed, etc.Reason being, I've found that players who 'learned songs' rarely transferred much from one song to another - and usually could only regurgitate any song they learned verbatim - no personal input apart from copying everything from the track. Commendable, yes, but not particularly improving general playing - only of a particular song.I've had several students who insisted on 'learning songs', and their progress generally was slow.Only my opinion!
    – Tim
    Nov 29, 2020 at 16:10
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    @Tim Huh. I definitely transferred between songs. And still do. But I have recently engaged a professional teacher for the first time because there are some gaps in my knowledge. I never worked on scales or arpeggios, only songs. So now I’m completely unprepared to learn things like jazz. Seems like we both agree that both songs and exercises/technique/theory are important. Nov 29, 2020 at 17:37
  • I was one of those pro teachers - till covid took over..!
    – Tim
    Nov 29, 2020 at 17:54
  • Thank you Todd and Tim for your valuable inputs. I've been more on Tim's side when it comes to learning. I always thought that there are essences to each song/piece and if I learn it, I can transfer it. It's like writing essay/books. I learn the literary devices so I can write my own essay. For example, Comfortably Numb has a repeating D-A-D-A-C-G-C-G chord progression with repeating strumming patterns. @ToddWilcox Do you recommend memorize the whole progression end to end for the whole song? For Californication, I certainly did, because it had an interesting bass line over Am - F
    – mofury
    Nov 29, 2020 at 22:25
  • I will definitely try to learn both rhythm and lead part from now on. But to clarify, songs have always been the source or motivation for me to develop techniques. Oftentimes, the time investment to develop a technique far exceeds the time needed to learn a song (study its harmonic structure and original artists' articulation)
    – mofury
    Nov 29, 2020 at 22:31
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Firstly, it must be said that rhythm guitarists are just as, if not more imortant in their role as 'lead' guitarists. Out of hundreds I've played with, there is only a handful that I would rate highly. And I've often been that rhythm guitarist himself, in other bands. Some bands, the only guitarist.

Which brings us onto why be only one or the other? Guitar is one of a few instruments that it's possible to play chords on. So, accompanying others is at least half of its repertoire. That being the case, why eschew all that propensity? Yes, lead players get more spotlight, so if that's what you want, the answer's there.

Other players are content to be part of a team - often so good a team that it tends to go unnoticed. Look up 'Freddie Green'. Without that team playing behind, the lead guitarist's job loses some of its sparkle.

So to the answer. Everything to gain, nothing to lose. To be a great lead guitarist doesn't mean you have to be able to play each note the same way every time you play a tune. Boring - for you and the listeners! Having more knowledge of what's going on at any point in a song - rhythmically, or note wise, prompted by deeper chord knowledge and knowing more rhythm pattern, has to be part of making you a better player.

Proportion wise - difficult to say. If you're weaker on one, that gets more attention. But a good atart point for most would be 50:50. Don't forget rhythm playing involves a fair bit more that strumming. Chord extensions, arpeggios, chord voicings, complementing what else is going on at that moment, being part of a team: working with the bassist, drummer, keyboard player, singer.

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  • Thanks for the advice! When it comes to chord voicings, how do you put it in context? At one point I tried to memorize 5 different shapes of the same triad across the neck. Few months later, I totally forgot and had to work it out note by note again. I think if I had memorize them within a context, those information would had retained much better. For example, Clapton's Wonderful Tonight arpeggiates G and D/F# chord on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings. That information stuck in my head for a long long time.
    – mofury
    Nov 29, 2020 at 22:39
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I've found that the key is playing in front of people with people. In front of people because then there are stakes; you can't just start over on first mistake. With people, because then there are roles, and you'll be able to tell exactly where your failings lie. Timing, overplaying, dynamics, whatever. It will be obvious where you need work.

I'd say that, unless you drift into jazzy territory, you'll not need chord voicings beyond major/minor/dominant sevens, but arpeggiating those sevenths will help your solos follow changes and feel more grounded. Strumming patterns are good; I mentioned to a producer that I felt an acoustic guitar in a band functions as a tuned snare, and he corrected me, saying it's more shakers. I'd say that playing one pattern with good, consistent time is better than many patterns with rough time.

Beyond that, figure out the kind of music you want to make, and figure out what you need to make it. Johnny Cash covered his part with maybe seven chords, good time on a few rhythms and a capo. B.B. King sang until it was time for his guitar to sing. Eddie Van Halen played riffs until he took a solo and hardly ever played chords. Jaco Pastorius was different as a sideman to Joni Mitchell than he was as a soloist with Weather Report, but held down both roles with distinction. Prince and could go in and play every instrument on the track, from the drums on up to the vocals. They learned enough to make the music they wanted; their music is an expression of those skills. The quality of music isn't reliant on complexity, but complex music can take you places nothing else can.

This is why researching the interests and influences of your favorite artists is important; so you know what took them to where they are and what you should know to model your work after theirs. Not knowing where you want to go, I can't tell you what you need to know.

But I feel safe saying that your time needs work. I mean, if Victor Wooten works on his time, you and I need work on ours.

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Guitar Player and Musician are two different things. One can develop amazing chops in some very specific area or genre, shred, jazz, etc, yet not be capable of working as a musician. If you want to be a musician who gets paid to play guitar there is more than "rhythm" and "lead" to master. We all need to master a variety of techniques on our instrument of choice but to be a musician you might be expected to

(1) Sight read

(2) Transcribe by ear

(3) Read music in one key and play it in another at a moments notice

(4) Play a tune in a variety of different styles without rehearsal time (Bossa version of a Zep tune, reggae having already been done)

etc, etc. These are just a few things that can get neglected when one is focusing on 8 different picking techniques on the chromatic scale, or even the diatonic scale.

Different things work for different people so all anyone can do is share their routine with you. But I will say this, if there are gaps in your technique you should probably fill them up before worrying about being 10 bpm faster with sweeping etc.

Learning to play songs is the best way to learn music but not always the best way to master technique. In fact trying desperately to learn tremolo by learning the Humming Bird would be detrimental for most guitarists. So you need to segregate your time and focus of different aspects of musicianship. While it's important to build a repertoire you do not want to pigeonhole yourself as only being able to play the 10 songs you know in the one genre you like (again, assuming your goal is to be a gigging musician).

I play guitar primarily but I play electric and classical and these are NOT the same instrument by a long shot technique wise. I also play classical bass, and voice. So whatever time I have I need to devote to these pursuits but I give more to guitar.

I would also say that I agree very much with other's comments that there really is no difference between a rhythm guitarist and a lead guitarist though I am aware of the trends in modern guitar where "lead" refers to taking a solo and that has become somewhat of an extreme sport.

I'd describe my categories of practice as follows:

  1. Basic right and left hand techniques, gymnastic exercises in Pepe Romero's book. This would cover every type of picking, legato, scales and arpeggios, and chord forms as well since that requires left hand manipulation and coordination with the right hand.

  2. Building repertoire, i.e. learning songs completely and correctly (to the extent one expects in music these days, more of a classical expectation)

  3. Sight reading. This is not the same as learning a song from sheet music but the act of reading through a score cold with the metronome on and no prep.

  4. Improvisation

These categories assume that you don't require basic reading literacy and ear training, and that you know enough music theory to make sense of things without doing research. One can think of many more categories and tasks but for me these 4 basic pursuits exercise all my skills.

Here is how I implement each category.

  1. I pick a set of exercise as a warm up that cover just about every basic movement and work on them with the metronome. I can't do everything every day so I commit to a sub set that at least keeps me fresh and do them for 1-2 weeks. Then I rotate those warm ups out and put new ones on the list. I've been doing this long enough that I have written 100s of my own diatonic patterns, picking exercises etc. This also include "rhythm" exercises. There is no difference in my mind. I try not to spend too much time on this as it's for warm up and maintenance. But I will say that I give preference to techniques that I feel are weak. I can do alternate picking across all six strings beyond 16th notes at 200 bpm so that really is a waste of time. Only if I falter on something will I go back to that. I try, over time, to design new exercise that are challenging enough to make me feel like a beginner.

  2. Repertoire is why we are musicians but to be frank this is only valuable if you are a solo classical guitarist or in a cover band that gets paid to play a few sets. But still, this is the most fun. I work on songs that I feel are beyond my ability but can be achieved. I won't go into the mechanics of learning a song but will say that I only learn ONE SONG AT A TIME. That is something drilled into me from classical training. Don't confuse that with working on one song at a time, I work on dozens but they are committed to memory and only being polished and sped up. Right now the ones on the list are (1) Opus 10 excerpts from Wieniawski, (2) Joe Pass' Eric's Schmoozie Blues, Several Charlie Parker tunes, Mi Cosa by Wes, Chicago Blues by Oscar Peterson. I might play through some Zep or Rush for fun but that doesn't need to be worked on at this point in my life.

  3. One might think that I get enough reading from the above repertoire but that is NOT sight reading. For this exercise I dig into my extensive library of sheet music, some of which is full scores of classical and big band tunes, and randomly pick something to "READ". When I start remembering too much I get my hands on new music. It's important to read horn music and transcribe it on the fly into different keys, and to read the F and C cleff too.

  4. This exercise produces the greatest dividends. I don't improvise over a song but I just walk through the circle progression and or the circle of 4ths for a long period of time and produce chord melodies, walking bass lines, and improvised melody lines. All the while trying to keep track of where in the progression I am and define the movement as I go. This is very much a simultaneous rhythm + lead, guitar + bass skill exercise. It is really an exercise that transcends the instrument and is more "musical". The goal is not to go crazy playing more notes than anyone can hear (that's actually pretty easy). The goal is to be able to "solo" while respecting the changes and provide the listener with enough information to know where you are even without a backing track. This is the genius of Joe Pass.

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    The story I heard was that while Segovia was trying to get the classical guitar into Carnegie Hall, the Romero family was trying to get the classical guitar onto the Tonight Show. Both were successful, but who reached more ears? Nov 30, 2020 at 7:45
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    I linked to some Pepe videos in the chatroom. Nov 30, 2020 at 8:13
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I'm generally in agreement with Todd Wilcox's and Tim's answers, but maybe I can explain the same sort of idea in a different way.

I first started guitar as an after school class at 11 years old. Only 2 of us signed up so it was almost like a private lesson where we both paid attention and the teacher only had to explain things once. We learned basic chords and a handful of songs (chord charts with lyrics) and I think there was either a tab or sheet of the riff from Wipe Out.

After that I got a private teacher who let me choose what to work on, so I picked out songs that I wanted to learn (IIRC Phil Ochs' The Highwayman was one of these) and he'd learn them and then teach me. I'd learn just enough theory to make sense of what I was playing.

In high school I was briefly at a special public school (USA) for Performing Arts and got a classical guitar and a method book by Celedonio Romero (unfortunately out of print, but an excellent book that should be reprinted).

But as primarily a solo guitarist/singer, you can't just drop the rhythm or there'd be no song left. So any lead or single note lines have to be coordinated with the rhythm parts. Occasionally it's ok to stop the rhythm entirely for a little lead break, but often the single note lines need to be simplified or modified so you can keep the chords (or at least a bass line) going. Otherwise it doesn't sound like the song, you know?

A few sources of inspiration I've found for this sort of playing are early Elvis songs (often just one guitar and slap bass), Jimi Hendrix (especially when he's solo and can't let the bass player cover the changes), Cake (those stunning riffs all over the place, like scattered jewels!), White Stripes.

One rude awakening came to me when I was one of two guitarists in the college jazz ensemble. I was the "junior" guitarist, so I got the leftover songs, whatever new popped up. One such piece was going to be a James Brown style funk tune. And the director showed me a pattern he wanted me to play and I didn't write it down or pay it much attention. I thought this was my turn to just riff and fill and whatever. At the next rehearsal the director stopped the tune in the middle and asked me what I was playing. And I was completely unable to play the simple riff he had asked for at the previous rehearsal. I thought I was going to do "lead" but what the song actually demanded was rhythm. Now there might have been little spots where I could have added or accented something or other, but 90% of the job turned out to be doing the simple thing that was asked for.

One big hurdle that will need to be overcome in transitioning back to a "rhythm" mindset from a "lead" mindset is boredom. It's the same sequence of chords over and over. It's the same old rhythm over and over. It's the same old thing just over and over and over. And that's the trap. It's the wrong way to approach the task at hand.

As a rhythm guitar, your job is to help establish the rhythmic space or framework. Maybe the second verse is exactly the same chords as the first, but the emotion is different. Maybe shifting the strumming position will bring out that change in emotion, like moving from a sweeter tone near the neck to a more piercing tone near the bridge. Or shifting between full chords and partial chords. There's lots of ways to add subtle changes to keep alert and in the groove and carrying the song forward.

It can be really hard to play the same thing over and over and keep it consistent. Even if I had been able to play that funk riff correctly, it would have taken a Zen upgrade for me to play it consistently for 3 or 4 minutes. Part of the solution is to find pleasure in the simple act of playing a rhythm. Dial up your best djent tone and get some chug on.

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