I hope this question isn't too broad, but I'm curious as to what the difference is in tone (typically) between 'lead' and 'rhythm' electric guitar (particularly from the point-of-view of rock/hard rock music). Many electric guitar amplifiers have different channels for 'rhythm'/'lead' or have a switch to toggle between two modes. Is the difference just eq-levels, or is there something more?

Also, aside from what the difference is, why is this distinction between 'lead' and 'rhythm' tones desirable?

On my guitar I have two humbucker pickups.

The one closer to the bridge is the 'lead' pickup.

The one closer to the neck is the 'rhythm' pickup.

The switch is three positions: down is the lead pickup, middle is both, up is the rhythm pickup.

My guitar also has four knobs. Two pairs of tone and volume for each pickup. You can 'test' how the pickup/tone switch works by selecting - for example - only the rhythm pickup then turning to rhythm volume all the way down to hear that no sound comes out. You can try the various combinations to confirm how the switch is actually engaging/disengaging the pickups.

The lead pickup has a more treble tone, because it's picking up vibrations closer to the bridge which have a treble tone. The rhythm pickup being farther away from the bridge has a less treble tone. So changing the switch and the pickup(s) engaged changes the tone.

You can also demonstrate the tone effect relative to the bridge by picking a string closer or farther from the bridge and noticing how the sound becomes more treble as you get closer to the bridge.

The typical use is 'lead' position for lead guitar, because the treble tone helps it be heard more clearly. But this is pretty subjective. The 'rhythm' position has a nice warm tone that sounds good for playing jazz leads.

  • Ok, so it sounds like the main difference is just in the EQ levels? – Time4Tea 4 hours ago
  • There probably is a distinction to make between EQ via the tone knobs and the timbre difference in pickup/bridge position. The knob being an electronic filter and the pickup/bridge position being about the acoustic or overtones of the vibrating string. Consider this: on an electric guitar if you pick near the bridge or over the neck you get different tone, but that is not EQ, you're actually making the string physically vibrate in different ways. Changing the pickup location along the string similarly produces different tones. – Michael Curtis 4 hours ago

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