Playing guitar is split down the middle between two main jobs:
Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar.
Lead guitar plays a lot of single note melodies and Rhythm guitar well… plays chords. And that is how we usually think about it.
So that is the focus when starting to learn rhythm guitar: the chords. We memorize shapes, stretch our fingers, and work on building hand strength to be able to play these chords. It takes a while.
At first they don’t sound like much of anything. You make the shape of the chord, strum it, and then start to figure out why it doesn’t sound the way you have heard it before. Then the refining starts. Making small adjustments to the way your fingers are placed starts to give you the results you are after.
Before you know it, you are playing chords that now sound good. You can hear all of the correct notes without buzzes and occasional incorrect ones.
You are ready to rock, but then, quickly, the truth starts to set in.
There is a whole other part of all of this that you didn’t expect. There is a whole other part that needs work that is usually put off till last. WHEN to play these chords.
That’s right… WHEN.
It’s time to put the RHYTHM into Rhythm guitar!
This is where the focus shifts from your fretting hand to your picking hand. You’ve got the chord the way you want. Now it’s time to play it!
This is where you start to deal with strum patterns and keeping in time.
Oh no! Even the dreaded metronome starts to make an appearance. It can feel like you are starting all over from scratch again and stop that awesome forward momentum that you had just been experiencing.
Playing rhythm isn’t all about chords. It’s about timing. And getting your timing down is a serious process.
At https://www.dictionary.com/browse/rhythm, rhythm is defined as: “the pattern of regular or irregular pulses caused in music by the occurrence of strong and weak melodic and harmonic beats.”
So, we need to be able to play these cool chords in regular or irregular ways, using strong and weak beats. This isn’t easy to just start doing. There is some information that we need and some skills to develop to be able to master this.
Today I’m going to go over how to play rhythm guitar if you are just starting out and the things you need to know for rhythm guitar once you are started.
Not knowing where to start is a very common problem these days. We have an enormous amount of information available at a moments notice, anytime we want. But, we have to search for it.
Trying to learn something when you don’t really know what it is that you need to know and search for is the start to a lot of potential problems. So, the average person, when they want to learn to play… let’s say a Led Zeppelin song, would automatically type in play Led Zeppelin (or the name of the song that they wanted to play).
And, thanks to the many generous tabbers out there, they would be led to a tablature file that has exactly (hopefully) the notes you need to play on the guitar one after the other. This is where things start to go wrong.
Even though the exact notes and chords are spelled out, right in front of you, the chance that a new student playing anything close to resembling the intended song, is very low.
That is because, tablature assumes that you already know a few things. It is assumed that you know your way around the guitar and understand how to mimic the rhythms from the song.
That’s right, guitar tab rarely pays any attention to the actual rhythms that you need to know to play guitar. And, it rarely deals with the strum patterns that are essential to the songs that you want to play.
So, getting into playing song tablatures, at first, is putting the cart before the horse. Your time is better spent understanding rhythms, how to change chords on time, and strum patterns.
If you are just starting out, here is a great place to start. Let’s build a strong rhythmic foundation, right now.
We are going to take two open position chords, and make an exercise that you can start building on.
C and G.
Chances are you know how to play C and G. We are going to focus on them today.
I would like you to strum the C chord 4 times at a speed of 80bpm on the metronome. Then, I would like you to strum the G chord for 4 times. Then, back to C for four and then G for four. Over and over again. Use all down strokes.
What happened? Was it perfect? Well, if it wasn’t, I can guess what the problem was. The changing of the chords. The first C probably sounded pretty good. But, when there was a change to the G, you may have started to hear an offset. Each strum may have been delayed a bit from the beat. And when you realized that, you may have tried to get back on beat. What happened?
Well, what you were playing was quarter notes. They are the notes that occur on the beat. And you were playing the notes on the beat with all down strokes. Good form!
But, when you went to that new chord, it wasn’t quite ready. You may not have planned ahead enough.
What, plan ahead? I didn’t know I was supposed to plan ahead. That’s right. You need to plan ahead for each chord.
Here is the reason, and it’s important:
It takes time to change chords.
You might be thinking: “I already knew that Captain Obvious”.
You would be surprised at how many new guitarists who know that changing chords takes time, but do not give themselves enough time to change them.
Making sure that you hit that chord on beat one is the key. Nothing else is as important than that.
If you miss beat one, everyone knows. So, take the time now to make sure you can get that chord on beat one, with a down-stroke, planned ahead of time.
Let’s move on to our next quick exercise. Double it up!
This time we are going to play eighth notes. We play twice as fast. A down stroke on the beat and an upstroke between the beats.
Count it: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &.
The metronome will stay at 80, but with the extra strums between beats, it feels like we are moving a lot faster. So play the C chord and try to hit the G chord exactly on beat one of the next measure.
What happened? Even harder this time? There is less time between the & of beat 4 and our new G chord on beat 1. But you have to get that chord on beat 1. Nothing else is more important. Remember, we are taking away time from the previous measure, thinking ahead to allow our fingers the time we need to get to beat one on time.
Let’s double it up one last time. Lets try 16th notes. This should be very familiar to the exercises in episode 28 “Funk Rhythm Guitar”.
This time We will play the C chord 4 times in each beat:
1 e & a, 2 e & a, 3 e & a, 4 e & a
Down stroke on the beats and alternate on the other notes.
D u d u D u d u D u d u D u d u
1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a
What happened this time when you switched to the G chord. Even less time to move your fingers. Try planning a head and borrowing some time from the previous measure to get your fingers where they need to be on time.
In these three easy exercises, we have worked on some very basic but very important skills:
Ah… the DNA of a great rhythm player. And, a great way to start your journey into rhythm guitar!
So, now that we have got the new players started, how do we help established players with their rhythm.
Whether you are missing some key rhythmic ingredients in your playing or you just want to move forward from where you are, some serious focus on rhythm will get you back on track!
In the last exercise I focused on what a new player can do to get on track. But now, what can a player do who has been playing for a while and realizes that their rhythm guitar could use a little work?
Well this is a great example of what I say all of the time, “becoming a great guitarist is like building a house. The key is to build a strong foundation.”
In the last exercise, I created 3 exercises that started the new guitarist down the road towards great rhythm guitar. The key concepts of those exercises are not just essential to new guitarists but all guitarists as well.
The key to those exercises is to get the new guitarist thinking about and working on a few key areas in as easy a way as possible. They are:
For the rest of us, guitarists that have already been playing but want to improve, the idea doesn’t change. If you continue to work on those four areas, throughout your journey with the guitar, you will see very steady improvement in the thing that guitarists play the most, rhythm guitar.
Let’s talk about the chords themselves.
Guitar players tend to gravitate to their favorite chord voicings. You find the chords that sound the best to you, or sound like your favorite songs and you are ready to go. It’s fun
And now being able to have those sounds in your bag of tricks, you can use them in many different situations. Adding these sounds to songs that might not normally use them, could be just the thing to make them sound incredible. It’s like adding different spices in cooking.
But, just like cooking, if you put the same spice in all of your meals, you might start to get a little tired of that taste.
The idea that “once you learn a few chords and you are done” has kept a lot of players from really achieving their potential in rhythm guitar.
How do you get past that? How do you move forward past just memorizing shapes on the guitar? Well, you need to know how these things work. It’s not just magic the way these things sound. There is a reason for every note in a chord. And the reasons for them make sense.
It’s called chord theory.
Oh no! There is that theory word that just turns people off. It seems that when the theory word starts getting thrown around, people start to tune out. When you add the word theory, it makes you think “Watch out, this is going to be difficult”. But honestly, chord theory is not difficult at all. It makes sense.
The first step to being a better rhythm player on any level, is to start getting into how chords are built and incorporating what you learn into your playing. New ways of playing chords can be exciting and raise your playing to new heights.
If you are interested in learning more about how chords are built, I suggest that you read my post that will help start you out in the right direction. It’s at: playguitarpodcast.com/chords.
Another tip that can improve your chords is to work on voicings.
The way the guitar is setup is fantastic for chords. There are so many different ways and places on the guitar to play any chord you want.
Chances are that no matter where you hand is on the guitar, the chord you need is under your fingers. You just have to find it.
Try taking a chord that you play all of the time and find out exactly what notes are in it. For the example earlier I used a C going to a G chord. The C major chord has the notes C E G. The G major chord has the notes G B D.
You don’t have to play those notes only where you learned them. They can be played anywhere you find them on the guitar. And, they can be played in different orders as well. It doesn’t matter, if you have those notes, you have the chord.
To start getting some new voicings, try finding the notes from a chord in different places on the neck. When you find an arrangement that sounds good to you, make a note of it. Write it down. You might be able to use your new voicing in your next song.
To start to go farther with all of this, watch or take a listen to Episode 39 where I help you move forward toward advanced chord construction and voicing.
Once a lot of guitar player get a few common strum patterns down, it’s rarely thought about any more.
It quickly goes from study to “seat of your pants” playing by trying to strum on the fly and hoping to spontaneously figuring it out.
The next time you are playing rhythm, pay special attention to the way you strum. You might be surprised. We always focus so much on the fretting hand. Spending time in your daily practice dealing with your picking hand is time well spent.
If you remember from my funk guitar rhythm episode (#28) I took you through an exercise to get your 16th notes under control.
In that exercise, we gave each beat of the 16th notes a direction. Down on 1, up on e, down on &, and up on a. The first beat always has a down-stroke, which is a very strong sound.
As we went through the 16th notes, we started muting certain ones and letting other ones sound, all the while keeping our very economical down up strum pattern. Sometimes letting one sound then another. It’s easy and it sounds very interesting.
If we didn’t have that way of ordering our down up strokes, it would be impossible to play those 16th note grooves at any moderate to fast tempo at all.
Take a look at the songs that you are playing and start to economize your strumming. Make sure you stay with a down up pattern on your strumming hand as much as possible, even if your fretting hand is not playing anything at the time.
Working on your timing is key to moving forward with the guitar. You may have found that you can play a particular chord pattern at a comfortable tempo, but if you had to do it any faster you would start to struggle.
I’m sure that there are very few players that can play perfectly at all tempos. There is always room for improvement in timing. And there is a simple way to move forward. It’s just not very exciting.
It’s the age old tip that has worked for countless musicians over time. And it’s one that you should be using in your practice if you really want to improve your timing. Here it is:
Find the tempo that you are comfortable playing at. Write it down. That is your number. Practice at that tempo today. Tomorrow, increase the number 1 or 2 BPM. Practice it there. Rinse and repeat.
As each day goes by, and you keep increasing the tempo, you are slowly training your brain and fingers to adjust to the new environment
Keep this up until you find the tempo that you really seem to struggle with. This is your new number. This is where our focus needs to be. Back off one or 2 BPM and practice there for a few days. When you really feel comfortable, give your new number a try and see what results you get. You might be surprised.
This isn’t just a problem with beginners. Not giving yourself enough time to change chords, especially complex voicings is a problem that players of all levels deal with.
It just comes out different. The beginner just loses time completely. But the more experienced player knows that the chord can’t be late. But if they don’t have enough time, the just play a fudged chord on time.
What’s worse, being out of time or not playing something correctly. I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be nice not to deal with either!
If you know you have a challenging chord voicing coming up, prepare. Set up the chord before it in a way that your fingers don’t’ have a lot of difficulty making the transition.
Also, make sure that you borrow plenty of time from the measure before to make the new challenging chord in plenty of time. If you fill up every single beat, all of the way up to this new chord, you will most likely struggle.
Thinking ahead is the key in music. No matter if you are playing lead guitar through key changes or coming up with interesting chords and rhythms. If you don’t know where you are going, there is a good chance you may end up with a train wreck. Always keeping an eye on what is coming up will keep you sounding professional and give you time to process new ideas on the fly.
So there it is, how to play rhythm guitar for beginners and tips for intermediate and advanced players to keep their rhythm guitar moving forward.
I gave three easy exercises that a new guitarist can use to start improving their rhythm playing right away and get their mindset together for future progress.
I also gave some tips for the intermediate and advanced player to incorporate the four essential areas of rhythm guitar in their daily practice. Which were:
Rhythm guitar is very important and it’s overlooked a lot. Being intentional with your rhythm practice can really speed up your progress and keep your playing sounding fresh and exciting.
So my challenge for you this week is to set aside a portion of your daily practice for rhythm guitar. Make a note of the things that you are struggling with and work through the four areas… Chords, strum patterns, timing and planning ahead.
Please let us know the changes to your practice and playing right here in the show notes.