What Does A Lead Guitarist Do (Hint it's more than you think!)

What Does A Lead Guitarist Do? (Hint: it’s more than you think!)

With most bands, the format is very similar, there’s a vocalist, drummer, bassist and a guitarist. Sometimes there’s a keyboard player and sometimes there are 2 guitarists (sometimes 3). The roles usually run as follows, the drummer keeps the beat, the bassist joins him in keeping the beat and plays a bass melody that ties in with the vocalists song melody. The rhythm guitarist also helps to keep the beat and tie the song together (musically). The lead guitarist fills in gaps in the song left when the vocalist stops singing.

If there is only one guitarist they will be expected to play both rhythm and lead parts of the song. This means the lead guitarist should be a more advanced player than the rhythm guitarist. If there is a keyboard player, they should be able to take on roles usually dealt with by both guitarists leaving the guitarist with more time to concentrate on filling in gaps etc.

What Does The Lead Guitarist Do?

The guitar solo commonly takes up around 10% of the entire song so what does the lead guitarist do for the remaining 90% of the time? The difficulty in answering this is that all songs are different. In some, the lead guitarist will play the opening chords, a continuing riff that runs right through the track, a solo and the outro. On other songs the lead has a few small phrases and a little solo, it all depends on the actual track being played.

It’s different for the rhythm guitarist as the rhythm needs to be constant and consistent. Continually playing all the way through the track. So what does the lead player do when not soloing? The lead guitarist should be playing chords along with the rhythm guitarist but not necessarily the same chords. Well, obviously the same chords or else the song will sound discordant, but the same chords an octave higher.

Or just a short blast of the same chord at the start of each chord to accentuate the sound. Plus there’s all the little fiddly bits a lead guitarist does to make the track sound fuller, more complete.

What Parts Does The Lead Guitarist Play?

The lead guitarist plays the melody often along with the vocalist to accentuate the melodic tune. The lead also plays instrumental passages to fill in the parts where there are no vocals, riffs within the structure of the song, intros, outros, and of course the solo. All supported by the rhythm guitarist keeping the beat, tune and rhythm going throughout the entire song.

How Does The Lead Guitarist Create Lead Lines?

The lead guitarist creates lead lines using the following;

  • Scales
  • Modes
  • Licks
  • Riffs
  • Arpeggios
  • Melodies

To accomplish an entertaining sounding lead, the guitarist should also employ various plucking/strumming techniques including;

  • Alternate picking
  • Sweep picking
  • Tapping
  • Hammer-ons
  • Pull-offs
  • Slides
  • String bends
  • Use of the whammy bar
  • Harmonics
  • Pinch harmonics

What Effects Can A Lead Guitarist Use?

There are many effects that can be employed by the lead guitarist to help create different sounds to make their solos more entertaining including;

  • Reverb
  • Echo
  • Delay
  • Distortion
  • Wah-wah
  • Univibe
  • Compressors
  • Fuzz
  • And Many more

Many lead guitarists utilise the otherwise nuisance effect of the feedback incorporated into their solo to create different sounds.

Do Lead Guitarists Play Rhythm Guitar?

Playing The Guitar

When there is only one guitar in a band, that guitarist does it all, intros, outros, rhythm, chord playing, solos, riffs and melodies. When there are two guitarists, the lead doesn’t concentrate so much on the rhythm but does still get involved with the rhythm to a certain degree. Often the two guitarists will alternate, with the rhythm guitarist taking on the lead role in some songs and vice versa. However, when there are two guitarists, the lead guitarist spends most of the time playing melodies, harmonies, riffs, hooks and solos.

This doesn’t mean the lead guitarist won’t be playing chords or at least versions of chords. They will usually play chords an octave higher than the rhythm player to give the song a fuller sound. Plus the lead guitarist fills in with little bits of melody when the singer is quiet for example. These fill-ins can be the difference between a song, and a great song.

What Do You Need To Know To Play A Great Solo?

Before you can play any solo you need to know 2 things;

  1. What key the song is in
  2. What chords are being played during the song

Once you know these 2 things you will be able to cobble together a solo that sounds great easily. 

How It Works

The key the song is in tells you what notes are available for you to use without the tune being a wrong fit for the rest of the song. Every note you play will fit perfectly with the chords, vocal melody etc. By following the chord pattern you can harmonise with the chords by playing the same chord but an octave higher and running arpeggios etc. Once you master these techniques you’ll do both.

How To Work Out What Key A Song Is In

The easiest way to work out what key a song is in, that works most of the time is to look at the chord the song begins with and ends with. That chord is usually the key the song is in. For example the following chord sequence (shortened for convenience) runs G, C, G, D, C, G. That song is in the key of G major. If that sequence would have started and finished in the chord of E, the key would be E major and so on.

How About Songs Where The First & Last Chord Are Different?

If the first and last chord are different, try both of them. Often in this situation, the last chord signifies the key but not always. Try both the chances are 50/50 that you’ll get it right. There is another possibility here, the tune might change key somewhere in the song. If this happens, look to the rhythm guitarist for chord changes and work accordingly.

Frequently Asked Questions

What does a lead guitar player do?

The lead guitarist plays the intro, outro, riffs, melodies, solos, fills in when the singer is quiet, and plays rhythm at times too.

What does a lead guitarist need to know?

The lead guitarist needs to know scales, modes, their way round the fretboard, and which key the tune is in.

Is lead guitar harder than rhythm?

Lead guitar is harder than rhythm because there is far much more to learn.

Do lead guitarists play chords?

At certain points during the song, the lead guitarist does play chords, often chords of a higher octave to create a fuller, more harmonic sound.

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