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Beginner’s Guide To Rhythm Guitar Playing

The lead and the rhythm guitar are not two different instruments. What makes them different is the role the guitarist takes in the particular musical setting he’s playing in.

Some bands (like AC\DC), have a guitarist who plays mostly rhythm (Malcolm Young) and a guitarist who plays mostly lead (Angus Young).

Other bands have just one guitarist who takes both roles (ex Tony Iommi in Black Sabbath) while others still have different guitarists who swap their role as a lead or a rhythm guitarist according to the band’s needs.The main function of the lead guitar is to provide a melody to the music (as in a guitar lick or a solo) while that of the rhythm guitar is to provide part of the rhythmic pulse of the song as well as part or all of the harmony (chords).

In many cases, the rhythm guitar is accompanied by other instruments such as a bass guitar and/or a keyboard, in fulfilling these two roles.

In this lesson we’ll go through the basic components of rhythm guitar playing that you need to learn as a beginner.

Note: I do not suggest an either/or approach to learning the lead and the rhythm guitar. While you may want to specialize in one or the other later on, it’s good to start gaining skills in each since in the end, you’ll be practicing the same instrument.

While learning to play rhythm guitar you’ll be gaining skills that leave a huge ripple effect on your lead guitar skills, and vice versa.

1. Chord vocabulary

Since rhythm guitar music is chord based, the first thing you need to do is to start building a vocabulary of chords.

Though there are many guitar chords that one can learn, most songs written use the same commonly used chords.

These are major and minor triad chords (ex C major, D minor) and power chords.

7th Chords, especially the dominant 7th chord (ex G7) are also commonly used and should be learned once you’re fluent in playing triads and power chords.

Open vs Barre chords

These are not different types of chords but different ways to play a chord on the guitar.

Open chords are easier to play since they don’t require you to barre a group of frets with your finger, something a beginner may find hard.

Barre chords are moveable, and allow you to play all over the guitar fretboard.

The following are two ways you can play the chord of A minor, the first is an open chord, the second a barre chord.

Rhythm guitar

Note: In order to benefit from barre chords being moveable, it’s important to learn the name of the notes of the guitar fretboard.

The A minor barre chord in the example is an “A” because the root and lowest note of the chord is the note A on the 5th fret of the low E string. 

If I move the whole pattern up two frets, I would be starting on the note B, which would give us the chord of B minor. So on and so forth.

2. Chord progressions

Not only do most songs share the same common chords, they also use the same common chord progressions – that is, a sequence of two or more chords.

A very common chord progression in Rock and blues music is the I – IV – V chord progression, as in the following example (A – D – E).

Go to this lesson for a more detailed explanation of guitar chord progressions.

3. Rhythm/guitar strumming patterns

So far we have been concerned with the choice of chords to play.

Needless to say, the rhythm itself is a fundamental aspect of rhythm guitar playing.

Most Rock and Pop music is played in 4/4 time which means there are four beats of the duration of a crotchet (quarter note) in each bar.

This is how they sound if we play one chord on every beat:

To create rhythmic interest, the beat can be further subdivided into eight notes (quavers), sixteenth notes (semiquavers), and their equivalent triplets.

Ties and dots are also used to help arrange the subdivisions of the beat as desired by the composer.

Another important rhythmic aspect is silence, rests.

Every division of the beat has its equivalent rest.

The next example is a simple rhythm that makes use of quarter (bar 1) and eight note rests (bars 2 and 3).

Go to this lesson for a more detailed explanation on rhythms and strumming patterns on the guitar.

4. Accents

In music an accent means giving emphasis, stress or a stronger attack to a note or a chord.

In rhythm guitar playing you accent a chord by hitting it harder with the pick, as well as by hitting more strings in the chord.

In the next example we’re accenting the chords that have a small arrow sign below them using both of these ways.

5. Rhythm guitar techniques

Guitar techniques like string bending, vibrato, and legato are associated with lead guitar playing. They are sometimes used in rhythm guitar playing but less frequently. 

In this section we’ll explore the techniques a rhythm guitar player is more likely to need:

a. Steady strumming

These rhythm guitar exercises are designed to help you develop a strong sense of strumming and control of your right hand.

b. Changing chords quickly

Learning guitar chords is quite easy. Changing from one chord to another quickly and accurately is harder.

How hard it is depends on the shape of the chords you’re playing. In this lesson I show you how to change from any chord to another correctly without a lot of effort.

c. Palm muting

This technique is particularly important if you play the electric guitar with distortion in genres of music like Rock and Heavy Metal.

On the acoustic guitar palm muting can also be applied and is used to add a percussive sound to chords

d. Muting

Palm muting is only a partial form of muting since what you want is your chords to sound different, not complete silence.

A rhythm guitar player also needs to develop complete muting skills. To gain the ability to silence his guitar, or specific strings on the guitar, at will.

This silence can be achieved by using both the left hand (by lifting your fingers off the fretboard, but keeping them touching the strings) or the right hand (by putting your hand or fingers over the strings), depending on the situation.

e. Broken chords

Broken chords are sometimes referred to as arpeggios, which is not exactly accurate.

Playing broken chords simply means playing the notes of a chord one at a time.

Learning how to play chord notes one at a time, as well as skipping strings when doing so is an important technique if you’re playing the rhythm guitar with a pick.

f. Hybrid picking

I always play the guitar with a pick, but at times I use the right hand fingers I’m not using to hold the pick to pluck the higher strings.

This technique is known as hybrid picking, and comes very useful if you use a pick to play the guitar.

It kind of takes the benefits of both flatpicking and fingerpicking.

g. Fingerpicking

Some rhythm guitarists just ditch the pick altogether and play with their fingers most, or all of the time.

While this style of playing is mostly associated with the Classical guitar, some electric guitarists like Mark Knopfler also choose their own fingers over the pick.

Conclusion: Where to go from here

In this lesson we discussed the basics of rhythm guitar playing.

The next step I suggest you take after mastering as many of the above items as you need to play the rhythm guitar is to learn what different guitarists play in different genres of music.

For instance, a rhythm guitarist playing Funk and one playing Heavy Metal are not playing the same kind of chords, rhythms and techniques.

Learn music in different genres, which will give you a broad idea of what you can play as a rhythm guitarist, and then specialize in your favorite style.


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