Rhythm & Lead Guitar

I did my monthly gig in Sydney on the weekend with The Train. A long way to go for one gig, but I do it anyway. I leave home at 3 pm, drive an hour to the airport, wait for the flight, fly for an hour and a half, drive to the gig and set up, play til 1:30 am, get to my friend’s place by 3 am to crash til 8 am, wake up, shower, and taxi to the airport for the 9:30 am flight back to the Gold Coast, and drive an hour to get home by noon. Why do I do it? Because I love playing those two sets. It sure ain’t for the money. By the time all the expenses are paid, it works out to about $13 an hour!

One thing I discovered though: The new soft case I bought for my Strat fits into the overhead locker of the 767 so I don’t have check it in as baggage. I’ve always hated to see my old Fender disappear down the conveyor belt. You’re never quite sure that you’ll ever see it again. Now, I don’t have to part with it. I did however get asked the question.

Why is it that so many people think that there are two kinds of guitar player — rhythm and lead? I’ve been asked the question a million times in my playing career, mostly by beginners and non players. “What do you play? Rhythm or lead?” like they were two different instruments. I like to say I play music.

If you want to call yourself a guitarist, you must of course be able to do both, and for me the distinction between the two becomes more and more blurred as the years go by. A simple muted single note melodic line can become a great rhythm part conversely, a sequence of chords can easily be heard as the ‘lead’ part if approached with that in mind. Both are music.

The song should dictate what’s required. Obviously, when the singer is singing, the spotlight should be on him or her. To be riffing away would be distracting if not downright rude. This is when you should be thinking ‘rhythm’. This is when you should be listening to the singer, the lyrics, and asking yourself “What’s the least I can do here to help give the singer and the song their best shot”, and by least I mean “minimum amount of playing”. You will never go wrong thinking small, especially if you play with others in a band. This is very difficult to do, by the way, as some of you may already know. It’s much easier to play a continuous, mechanical strumming part than to break it up into little pieces and throw three quarters of them away. The first first technique is robot-like, the latter requires thought, consideration and taste.

As for ‘lead guitar’, even after thirty nine years now of playing guitar, I still don’t really know what it is, but I think it has a lot to do with what George used to do with The Beatles: playing the intro themes, filling the gaps between the vocals with riffs, either improvised or written into the song, and of course, taking the solos, again, either improvised or set in concrete. I must say though, that after all these years of playing and hanging out with players, I’ve never met a ‘lead guitarist’, a guy who just plays themes, riffs and solos. Before you can do that, you must first know about chords (rhythm) so that you know where to find your riffs, licks and solos. They are born from chords.

Again, when playing ‘lead’, less is best, and again, much harder to do. Running mechanically up and down scales at breakneck speed is not really making music. Killer melodies come from the heart, not the fingers, not the scale, as I’ve stressed over and over in these columns.

I used to see music as a building process — adding this element to that, collecting riffs and licks, connecting bits of information. Now that I know, I see playing music as a process of subtraction. I ask myself questions like: How few notes can I use out of all the possibilities to covey what I want? What’s the smallest way of stating (for example) Am7, and how big can the holes be between plucks or strums without losing the feel of the song. The challenge of deciding what NOT to play is much greater than collecting all the bits and pieces in the first place. As I’ve mentioned before, this is where taste comes in.

That’s it for now. Gotta go do some pickin’.

Kirk Lorange is one of Australia’s best know slide guitarists. He is also the author of PlaneTalk guitar method. Check out his sites: www.KirkLorange.com and www.ThatllTeachYou.com