Tips for Learning How To Play Rhythm Guitar
Develop your rhythm skills with these easy tips for when you're holding a guitar and when you're not!
By Mike Duffy and Nick Stoubis
Being a good guitarist isn't all about dive-bombs and searing solos. The ability to competently play rhythm guitar parts is essential to any band.
After all, rhythm guitar lays the foundation for the other featured instruments in many popular songs.
When thinking about rhythm guitar, legendary names like Malcolm Young, Tony Iommi, Andy Summers and Nile Rodgers come to mind as experts at this.
But while it would surely take a lot of practice to consider yourself alongside legendary players of that ilk, there are a lot of things you can do to improve on this critical skill, sometimes without even holding an instrument.
As such, take note of the following rhythm guitar tricks to develop killer rhythm:
Find the Pulse
Make it a habit to find the beat. Most music we hear will have a steady pulse to it. It can be tough to find but just like finding the pulse on your wrist, once you feel it, it is clear. This pulse will usually be ongoing and continue throughout the song.
Think about what drives you to play music. When you listen to a song, do you find yourself tapping your foot to the beat? Bobbing your head to the groove -- that pulsing rhythm that stands as the heartbeat of a song? If you’re into heavy metal or hard rock, take note of when you bang your head -- the heavy parts of the song with accent notes. When you learn to play rhythm guitar, that sense of timing will come intuitively.
Learn to count in rhythm with 1 2 3 4 …
Once you find the pulse, do you notice a recurring pattern? A majority of popular music has four beats before the pattern begins again. If you listen closely you can hear a repeating group of beats. If you can’t, try another song. Think of this count as your down beats and down picks when strumming.
By taking note of the time signature of a song, you’ll get a feel for each measure. Learning to play along with a metronome can help you improve your sense of timing and rhythm. For rhythm guitar beginners, a metronome is a tool that musicians use that can be adjusted to make a “click” sound based on the number of beats per second. You can speed up a metronome to click and keep you on beat for faster speeds like eighth notes or slower speeds.
Playing with a metronome during rhythm guitar exercises can help you to build speed over time. Start by setting a metronome to a slower setting, then gradually increase the settings so that you’re playing faster on-beat along with the device.
Divide the Beat
Once you find the beat, see if you divide it by two and feel this division. The second of these divisions is called your upbeats and are your upstrokes when finding your strumming pattern.
Try to picture yourself strumming the down and up beats while the song is playing. Listen to the consistency of the great players and let them be your teachers. Pick from the best and examine your favorite musician’s sense of groove. Listening critically and carefully gives you all the information you need to develop killer timing for yourself.
Put Into Practice with Alternate Strumming
Now that you've created a nice little mental base for rhythm playing, pick up a guitar and try alternate strumming. This widely used technique is simply putting the beats you divided in the tip above and putting it into practice by alternating between downstrokes and upstrokes with your strumming hand. This tutorial offers an excellent visual example for you to work on alternate strumming by simply playing the D chord in a simple pattern.
Power Up with Power Chords
Most chords have at least three or four notes, but a power chord only has two notes. In many cases, whenever you see a “fifth” chord -- such as a C5, D5, or A5 chord -- it’s a signal that that chord is a power chord. More importantly, power chords are easy to play and easy to learn because they can be played with one, two, or fewer fingers on just two to three strings. Just because power chords are easy to learn, that doesn't mean they are not a key component of your rhythm toolbox. Because power chords are pretty easy to learn, it’s all the more reason to experiment with them and see how much punch they pack into your rhythm playing. See how to play some basic power chords here.
Incorporate Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs
While hammer-ons and pull-offs are a challenge to master and used often with leads, they are also effective in spicing up strumming patterns and chords. To hammer-on, you need to pick a fretted note or open string and then press down on a higher fretted note to sound the pitch. To pull-off, strum a note with your picking hand, and then pull your fretting finger off in a plucking manner (a downward motion "pull down") to a lower note or open string. Watch this video to see hammer-ons and pull-offs in action.
Check Out Fender Play Rhythm Guitar Lessons
Learning to play rhythm guitar is one of the most important skills a beginner player should have in their arsenal. Even if you plan to play lead guitar, learning about chords and timing can help you better understand the structure of a song and where all the pieces -- including bass and drums -- fit together to create music.
A free trial of Fender Play can help you to learn how to play rhythm guitar and more, breaking things down into bite-sized video lessons. Sign up for a free trial today to learn chords, scales, and songs to put your knowledge into practice!