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What is the difference between "a lead guitarist" and "a solo guitarist"?

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Typically a lead guitarist plays melody lines with a rhythm guitarist and other instruments such as bass, drums, keyboard etc.

A solo guitarist, however, is always the only guitar, and is sometimes the only instrument (you can have a single person singing and playing solo guitar, or you can have guitar and drums etc.)

So the definition is simply to distinguish between the only one, or the lead one.

  • Thank you. But could you plese also clarify the difference between "lead guitar" and "solo guitar"? – Decembrist Jun 29 '16 at 13:09
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    That is exactly what my answer has done. First sentence - lead guitar. 2nd sentence - solo guitar. – Doktor Mayhem Jun 29 '16 at 13:32
  • Is there further definition you need? Can you let me know what extra you'd like to see - I'll edit it into my answer. – Doktor Mayhem Jun 29 '16 at 13:33
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    While I personally find this definition reasonable, I don't think solo guitarist is universally understood as the only guitarist. As chetan says, the likes of Joe Satriani are also often called solo guitarist even when they have another guitarist playing in their band. What crucial is that a solo guitarist is clearly the boss, guitar-wise. Whereas a lead guitarist is generally not higher-ranked in any sense then the rythm guitarist (in fact, there are quite a lot of bands where the rythm guitarist does most of the songwriting and the lead guitarist is more of a “hired note-machine-gun”). – leftaroundabout Jun 29 '16 at 18:27
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    @Vasif - by that reckoning, where does the rhythm or even bass 'guitar' fit in? – Tim Jun 30 '16 at 13:18
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Here is my 2 cents worth.

The answer probably depends on the situation and context. It also probably depends on what whoever uses the respective terms mean.

"Lead Guitarist" is commonly understood to refer to the guitarist in a band who plays the "guitar solos" and fancier fills, runs, and licks along with a "rhythm guitarist" who maintains the rhythm by playing mostly chords.

Because a lead guitarist is the one who plays the guitar solo's - it's possible that some folks could refer to a lead guitarist as a solo guitarists. However in my opinion, that would be a misnomer.

The word solo means one. A part of a song that features a single instrument while the other instruments maintain the rhythm but stay in the background, is often referred to as an "instrumental solo".

But if I used the term "solo guitarist", I would be describing a solo musician who is playing without any other musicians (by themselves) and who's instrument was a guitar. I often play guitar to accompany my singing as a lone (solo) musician and I would refer to myself as a solo guitarist in that context. A classical guitarist who plays solo (by themselves) would also qualify as a "solo guitarist" by my definition.

I hang around and talk with many musicians and have over 100 musician friends and I am not aware of any who use the term solo guitarist to refer to the lead guitarist if there is more than one guitarist on stage at a time (even though the lead guitarist plays the guitar "solos"). However it is quite possible that in a band with only one guitarist - that one guitarist could be referred to as a "solo guitarist". But I think it would be less confusing in that situation just to refer to that musician as "the guitarist" or "the guitar player" - not the "solo guitarist".

You are free to refer to any guitarist any way you like. But if you say "lead guitarist", I am going to assume you mean the guitar player who plays "lead" or plays the parts of the song identified as "guitar solo". If you say "solo guitarist", I am going to assume there is only one guitarist and probably only one musician period (playing solo).

Unless of course you use that term in a context where there are clearly other musicians or other guitarist - in which case I will know that your definition of "solo guitarist" and mine - are not the same.

  • The penultimate paragraph captures it, imho. For a "solo guitarist" I would think of James Taylor or similar performers. While "lead guitarist" tends to imply both rhythm + lead guitars, it more importantly implies chops! So players like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, and countless others can fit this description despite being band leaders with [usually] only one [non-bass] guitar. Larger bands like the Eagles often have separate rhythm & lead roles. – Kirk A Jun 30 '16 at 1:45
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In terms of position or general role in a band I don't find much distinction between the term "lead" and "solo" guitarists. When was the last time you heard a guitarist who ONLY played solos?

One useful distinction between the two is compositional focus. If the part played by the lead guitarist becomes the focus of the song at that point, they becomes the "solo" guitarist for the duration of their part. Guitar players like Satriani and Paul Gilbert who have entire albums written around their leads can be considered solo guitarists for the whole album.

The other distinction comes from the accompaniment. If you're the "lead" guitarist, you lead the accompaniment. If you're a "solo" guitarist, you have no accompaniment and you play by yourself. Outside of this I find that the terms get used rather interchangeably.

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There are some guitar players who have played unaccompanied. Some diverse examples: Joe Pass, John Fahey, Martin Taylor, Leo Kottke, Andres Segovia, Tommy Emmanuel,.... These players play what is broadly known as solo guitar music, and it makes sense to call such players solo guitarists.

In the larger musical world, players who play with bands or orchestras sometimes take over the focus of the music to play solos; these solos may even be the central feature of the music in some cases. These players are called soloists. Think Itzhak Perlman, Louis Armstrong, Sonny Rollins, Jacqueline du Pré, Jaco Pastorius,.... Guitar soloists include players like Jim Hall, Steve Vai, Steve Morse, Pat Martino, Joe Satriani, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Paul Gilbert, Grant Green,....

A lead instrument is one that takes over the melody at some point in a piece of music, and this is what a lead guitar does when it plays a solo. So, lead guitarist is just another term for guitar soloist.

2

"Lead Guitar" is a term used in 60s-style "groups" (like the Beatles) where Lead Guitar played the clever stuff, Rhythm Guitar strummed the chords.

A "Solo Guitarist" is a guitar who has a solo to play. Maybe completely alone, maybe in a concerto situation, maybe as a featured member of a guitar ensemble. Don't over-think it!

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    +1 I think this is what OP was looking for. Also, Guitar Soloist. – luser droog Jun 30 '16 at 3:16
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A lead guitarist plays with a band, playing melodies over the chord changes. A solo guitarist just plays music on their own.

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Lead guitarist usually plays in a Band and have interludes and solos parts to play also he plays along the riff or the riff itself in the song. Eg Kirk Hamette from Metallica

But solo guitarist plays only solo and have its own band to play with. Eg. Joe Satriani.

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A solo guitarist is always the only musician. I disagree that guitar + drums gives "solo guitarist".

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    Would you not consider Joe Satriani or Steve Vai solo guitarists? They have bands. – John Kugelman Jun 29 '16 at 14:22
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    This is hardly an answer, more like a comment. – Kyle Jun 29 '16 at 14:25
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    While I think @leftaroundabout has a point - there is a grey area there (although I would disagree with him about the lead guitar not being the boss...maybe biased, as I'm a lead guitar :-) - there is not a grey area here. There are many solo guitarists who have other musicians in the band. Can you expand on your answer to explain. – Doktor Mayhem Jun 29 '16 at 19:29

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