Rhythm guitarists are the unsung heroes of rock, and for decades great rhythm guitar players (think Malcom Young, Izzy Stradlin, Brad Whitford, etc) haven’t gotten their due. While they may not get on the magazine covers at the same clip as the lead players, rhythm guitarists are an essential piece of the classic Rock and Roll formula.
It’s a bit of a misconception that you have to be either a Lead Guitarist or a Rhythm Guitarist. Even back in the day, players like Hendrix and SRV blurred the lines between lead and rhythm playing. In modern music, the terms “lead” and “rhythm” are almost completely antiquated—most players do a bit of each, depending on what the song calls for.
Today, if you want to be a great guitarist you can’t just be great at lead guitar—you’ve got to be a top-notch rhythm guitarist as well. So, without further ado, here’s how to play rhythm guitar better.
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1. Become A Student of Music.
The art of rhythm guitar is in gluing together the drummer, the bassist, the lead guitarist, and the singer to make the band feel sharp, tight, and together as a unit. Think of it as the middle ground between the melodic leads (vocals, synths or lead guitar) and the traditional rhythm section (drums, bass, and piano in some genres). If the rhythm guitar is off, these two sections will seem out of step, but if the rhythm guitar is played just right, it can mask anything out of sync, and make it feel like the whole band is perfectly together.
That means that above all, a great rhythm guitarist needs to have a great ear, and understand what’s happening with every instrument in the band, both rhythmically and melodically. To do that you need to listen to everything you can—even genres you don’t typically play in—and don’t just hear it, but actually listen to how all the different instruments are playing off of one another.
A great rhythm guitarist is responsible for quickly dissecting what notes, scales, and chords everyone is using so they can connect everyone’s ideas and talents. Without having a good understanding of music theory, you won’t have the ability to understand which notes and chords blend well into a song.
Now that isn’t to say that you can’t join a band unless you’ve listened to all of the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die and gotten a PhD in music theory… But, you should always work hard to broaden your understanding of music on all fronts, because being a truly great player is even more of a mental challenge than a physical one.
2. Play Along with the Rhythm Guitar Greats.
Chuck Berry, Keith Richards, Malcolm Young, Jimi Hendrix, James Hetfield, and Stevie Ray Vaughan are just a few of the dozens and dozens of iconic rhythm guitar players in history. Playing along with some of these guitarists (and any others you can think of) may be a challenge, but understanding how they blend their notes and rhythms together with the band will give you an excellent foundation for becoming a great rhythm guitar player, and if you’re already pretty good, it’ll show you how to play rhythm guitar even better.
Practicing songs you love is a great way to learn. You’ll typically have to learn new styles and techniques in order to play some of your favorite songs, which beats the heck out of learning a technique just for technique’s sake. But don’t just hone in on the style you’re most comfortable with either… Practicing different styles of music will show you how to utilize different keys and meters, which is knowledge you can use to be even more original and inventive in your genre of choice.
3. Timing is Everything.
Learning how to play rhythm guitar can be challenging. Along with the drums and bass, you form the backbone of your band, and your timing and feel has to be on point. That’s why you have to become a rhythm machine. While it’s not practical to ask everyone to practice eight hours a day, if you want to be great, you are going to have to play pretty consistently to develop a solid and precise sense of rhythm.
In order to improve your timing, we recommend using a metronome to practice playing the same rhythms at different BPMs. This will give you the ability to adapt to different styles and tempos in the future, and it’ll ensure that you naturally focus on the timing of your notes in dynamic conditions.
Being a great rhythm guitarist is like being an anchor for the band. No one is perfect, but hundreds of thousands have learned how to play rhythm guitar with exceptional timing throughout the history of music. You can too, it just takes a little work and patience for your skills to become automatic.
4. Record Your Practice Sessions.
Have you ever created an amazing lick but forgot it the next time you picked up your guitar, or created an amazing groove with the band only to forget the timing and exact rhythm of it during the next practice? Recording your sessions is the perfect solution for getting rid of that feeling forever—but remembering your best parts is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recording practice sessions.
Recording band sessions will allow you to dissect and improve on how well you blend with your band, and it’s an excellent place to hear your band from an outside perspective. Having a chance to step back and focus on your timing as well as the ways that you can accent what the rest of the band is doing will drastically improve your progress as a rhythm guitarist.
Even spending a couple of hours every week doing this is going to improve your skills as a guitarist and a bandmate.
5. Practice, Practice, Practice.
As you start to sharpen your rhythm guitar skills, your main goal will be to make playing great rhythm guitar second nature.
The only way to make progress is through playing, and practicing can be done in a lot of fun ways. If it’s possible, playing a little bit every morning when you wake up and a little before bed will help you automate your motor skills. Even a nice five to ten-minute picking practice every morning will make you a better player than you would be otherwise.
Heck, you can even practice a few techniques while you watch TV during the evening. The truth is that the more repetitions we can get in, the more natural it will feel when we play.
The key is to make practicing fun. Sometimes that means stepping away from learning advanced techniques and jamming out to your favorite songs, other times it means getting out of your comfort zone and learning a new genre. Variety is key, and above all, just make sure you’re enjoying yourself. If things start to get stale, mix it up a bit.
6. Play With Others as Often as Possible.
If you’re a newer guitarist, the sooner you can get playing with other musicians—whether it’s just a jam or forming a proper band—the better. The more people you can play with, the better you’ll be as you develop into a seasoned musician.
But even if you’ve been playing professionally for years, you don’t want to fall into the habit of only knowing how to play with your main band. Sitting in with other players is the easiest, and undoubtedly the most fun way to keep your chops fresh.
So there you have it, that’s how to play rhythm guitar better. Easy right? Just kidding… Are all these techniques easier said than done? Sure. Playing every day, pushing your musical boundaries, roping together players to make music with—all of these things are hard. But, if you want to be the best player you can be, they’re all essential.
Music is a craft, and there are no shortcuts. Getting where you want to takes hard work, dedication, and a little bit of inspiration. But, if you follow our advice and stick with it, you’ll be headed in the right direction—it’s just up to you to put in the time and the effort to get there.
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