7 Essential Tips For Rhythm Guitar

Pete Townshend rhythm guitarFor a long time, I was always the bass player in bands. At home, I’d play guitar when I write songs, but it had always been a solo rather than ensemble instrument. Now that I’m playing rhythm guitar with The Magnificent Compañeros I’ve had to think a lot more about how I approach it – and not just guitar in general, but specifically rhythm guitar. What is it that makes some rhythm guitarists great? What are my essential tips for rhythm guitar? Here are some of the tips I’ve picked up from various articles and my own experience.

1. Understand where you fit in the band
You know how bass and drums are called the rhythm section? Well you are part of that too. I tend to play bass like a rhythm instrument – pretty simple stuff around the beat. When playing rhythm guitar, I’ve realised that thinking like a bass player isn’t such a bad thing. We’ve got a lead guitarist and a keyboard player. The bass, drums and rhythm guitar are there to support them. Sure, there will be times where your role will be to lead the song, but definitely not always.

2. Stop strumming!
Don’t just pound on chords the way you might if you were sitting at home playing a song on an acoustic guitar. In a band there are textures and you are one of them so fight the need to play constantly. Let things ring, leave space for the other instruments or even just space itself. Too often rhythm players want to fill up all the gaps.

3. Listen to your favourite rhythm guitarists
You may have some specific ones in bands you really like, or it can be some of the best like Keith Richards, Pete Townshend and Malcolm Young. Bottom line is that all the great ones are masters of playing with the beat, but with subtle dynamics that bring the song to life. They’re tight but they’re fluid, and they use feel and subtlety to suit the song. It’s not always easy to identify what they are doing, which is why listening attentively is so important.

4. Get your soundMalcolm Young rhythm guitar
That can mean a lot of things, depending on what style of music and band, but there are some common sense approaches. Normally that will mean a sound that fills the spectrum between the bass guitar and the lead guitar. Roll back the highs and be careful not to overdo the bottom end. Now that doesn’t mean pushing the mids either – as that can compete with vocals and lead guitar too. It’s about a full sound that sits in its own place. When it comes to effects, make sure you are doing something different to the lead guitar – don’t duplicate your overdrives, make them work together

5. Feel the rhythm
This shouldn’t need to be said, but make sure you are like a clock when it comes to keeping time. Get a metronome/drum machine so when you are practising alone you’ve got something to work with. Or use a drum track in your DAW. You’ll also develop a feel for sitting in the pocket, and also working slightly ahead or behind the beat. Actually, the use of a drum track in your DAW is good from another perspective: you can dial up a bunch of different feels as well as tempos, especially with the smart drummer in Garageband and Logic. Your band mates will appreciate it when you get together with them and rehearse.

6. Learn alternate chord shapes
Sure, you can bang away with E and A shaped barre chords and a few open ones, but learning to play chords in multiple ways will ensure you bring a different tonal quality to the band. Then there are all the wonderful jazz chords and suspended chords that bring a unique flavour to the song. If the lead guitarist and bass player are having to learn all those scales to use, the least you can do is master a few more chords!

7. Picking techniqueKeith Richards rhythm guitar
Rhythm guitar often does mean strumming, but you should also have a few picking techniques at your disposal. At the very least some simple arpeggios will bring variety. You should also look at different single note patterns you can use to link chords – and often they will come from the chord shapes you are working with.

Some of the above points are pretty basic, but it’s funny how we all forget the basics when we’ve been playing a while. As I embark on this journey of rhythm playing I’m learning a heap of things that I should have known a long time ago, and it’s certainly making me a better player (albeit slowly!).

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