5 Secrets of Being a Great Rhythm Guitarist

In guitar culture solos and soloists have always attracted the most attention. Many players first picked up a guitar after hearing Hendrix or Van Halen or Angus Young play light speed pentatonic runs up and down the neck, and for some of them soloing remains their primary interest and vehicle for self expression. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se, the negative side effect of this solo-centric culture is the shameful neglect of the music’s very life-force, the rhythm. This neglect seeps into everything we do, even manifesting itself in the way we discuss the different parts of the band – when a guitarist talks about “the rhythm section” they rarely include themselves as part of that group, but they should. Rhythm is the soul and the locomotion of the music, and when you’re locked into a heavy groove you’re truly at one with the heart of rock & roll (which is still beating, by the way). In the dark days of 80’s hair metal a phenomenon arose where many guitarists could fire off volley-after-volley of weedly-wees so fast it would make your head spin, but these same guitarists were often incompetent or just plain boring rhythm players. Everybody knows that bad rhythm playing makes the rock gods upset, so if you’re guilty of not giving the rhythm its due, now’s the time to make a change. Here are a few key things you can do to set yourself on track to get your groove back:

1) Listen to the Great Rhythm Players

The first step is to become familiar with the great rhythm guitar players of our era, and then spend some quality time figuring out what makes them great. There are genius rhythm artists in every genre, with a few of the obvious ones in rock music being Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, and Malcolm Young. Most of these guys are known for being masters of syncopation and playing around the beat, either to propel the groove forward or pull it back when it suits the song. The methods they use to achieve these ends are often subtle and based on slight shifts in feel, which can be difficult to discern at first. Playing along with their records is a good way to get started understanding what these dudes are all about. If you’ve been paying attention, you also might have noticed that some guitarists that are probably better known for their lead skills also happen to be genius-level rhythm players; Hendrix, Page, Van Halen, and Dimebag Darrell are a handful that immediately come to mind. Van Halen and Dimebag both had something of a head start in the rhythm arts by having ace drummers for brothers, which brings me to my next bit of advice…

2) Play with Good Drummers

If you have only been playing with second-rate drummers, your rhythm skills are doomed. It is often said (at least by me) that there are no great bands without great drummers, and similarly, there can be no great rhythm guitar playing without great drumming to accompany it. Playing with a solid drummer that has a strong feel for groove and “swing” will improve your rhythm playing immeasurably. This often happens without even trying –the more you play together, the more your sense of groove develops, and the more you will find yourself playing naturally off of what your drummer is doing. It helps sometimes to think of your guitar AS a drum, mimicking hi-hat, snare, or tom patterns with a percussive pick attack, or locking up with the kick drum like a bass player. Speaking of bass players, you should pay attention to what they’re doing as well, and how the bass line interacts with the drums, whether it’s locking in, filling holes, or leaving space in the groove. You can learn a lot.

3) Get a Metronome

Most players don’t have the luxury of always being able to practice with a skilled drummer, and in this case a metronome can help. Working with a metronome when practicing exercises on your own, or even writing songs, will help you internalize tempo and rhythm. It will help you play better, and make you more aware when someone else you’re playing with isn’t quite in the pocket. When you first begin to play with a metronome you may feel a bit stiff and robotic playing right on top of the beat, but as it becomes more second nature you will develop a feel for playing against the click, creating musical tension by playing slightly ahead of or behind the beat. An excellent example to illustrate this concept is Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell’s “Choro Para Metronomo”, a composition Powell wrote to be played with a metronome. On the recording (which can be found on YouTube, among other places) the guitarist plays deftly around the metronome’s persistent click, pushing, pulling, and twisting the groove with astonishing mastery. If you think you’ve already got a pretty solid sense of rhythm, “Choro Para Metronomo” may send you back to the woodshed.

4) Learn More Chords

Mastering the rhythmic element is, perhaps, the most important part of being a great rhythm guitarist, but don’t give the harmonic element short shrift. If you’re primarily a rocker of some kind, your chord vocabulary is likely to be somewhat limited, but expanding it can do wonders to enhance the sense of drama, and of tension and release, in your music. A good way to build your harmonic vocabulary is to learn some of the common jazz chord progressions that the standards are based on. If barre chords and cowboy chords are all you know, learning what 7ths and 9ths and augmented/diminished chords sound like will open up a whole new world. Incorporating drones and suspended chord sounds is another good way to get out of the rut and add some harmonic interest and motion to your rhythm playing.

5) Experiment With Alternate Tunings

This is another good device for expanding your sonic palette, and not coincidentally, most of the Lords of Rhythm that I mentioned before use non-standard guitar tunings quite regularly. Keith Richards, in particular, is famous for his use of open tunings to get unusual rhythmic textures from his instrument. Even if it’s something as simple as dropping your low E down to D, or tuning the whole guitar down a half or whole step, using alternate tunings will lead you to play new patterns and explore new areas of the neck, and will likely give your trusty old axe a different voice that you may find inspiring.

Rhythm guitar playing may not get the attention and accolades that lead playing does, but in many ways it’s just as difficult a skill to master, as well as being much more of a mysterious, dark art (which makes it cooler by default, at least in my book). I can certainly appreciate the power and drama of a great guitar solo, and I’ve even played a few, but when the band is chooglin’ along and I’m locked into a deep, propulsive groove, I know in my soul that I’m doing my part to keep the heart of rock ‘n’ roll beating.

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