If you’re a beginner guitar player, you might be wondering about various ways you can incorporate your instrument into a wider song.
Learning how to play rhythm guitar is a common one of those ways.
So in this article we’ll talk about how to learn to become a rhythm guitarist by focusing on building your sense of rhythm and your vocabulary of chords and strumming.
If you really want to deep dive into the art of rhythm guitar, definitely take one of the online guitar lessons that we’ve reviewed.
They’re all great options with full video tutorials.
Let’s get right into it…
What is Rhythm Guitar?
Rhythm guitar is a way of playing that works in connection with the other rhythmic elements of a band (i.e. the drums and bass) to provide the overall song a cohesive groove.
Whereas lead guitar is all about playing the “lead” instrument, rhythm guitar is all about accompanying the lead (either instrument or vocal).
It’s the job of a rhythm guitarist to work with the drummer and bassist to provide a rhythmic foundation to the overall song.
That means you’re helping to keep time, and keep the flow of the song consistent and moving.
Building Your Sense of Rhythm
Obviously, then, it’s important to build your overall sense of rhythm if you want to play rhythm guitar.
That means a few different things, but at it’s most essential level it means being able to “feel” the sense of musical timing deeply.
If you’re completely new to music and playing an instrument, spend some time listening to your favorite music, and try to get a sense of the pulse of each song.
Nod your head or tap your foot along to the beat. Feel the guitar part – what’s the pattern it’s playing in relation to the beat you’re nodding your head along to.
Try to get your movements (head nodding/foot tapping) as smooth (i.e. not jerky/sudden) as possible.
Try to feel the rhythm in your body – it’ll naturally want to move along with the pulse of the song. Let it. Don’t overthink it, just let it take over.
Learning How To Count
Another important aspect of learning rhythm guitar is learning to count in music.
If you’re not sure of this, we have a guide in our music theory section that breaks this down fully.
However, while you’re listening to your favorite songs, count along with your head nodding or foot tapping.
Since most popular music is in 4/4 time, you can count in groups of 4 – “1, 2, 3, 4. 1, 2, 3, 4.”
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Each of those counts is a “beat” in music. And that’s essentially how counting in music works.
But it goes beyond that because you’re able to subdivide those beats further. You could play a chord on your guitar, for example, on every beat (1, 2, 3, 4).
But that gets boring. So you could spice it up by subdividing each those beats in half or in quarters and you could mix and match which of those subdivisions you play the chord on.
Learning about counting in music will give you the vocabulary you need to play intricate rhythm patterns, so learn about this stuff and master your sense of musical timing.
Learn Chords and Progressions
Once you have a handle on counting and rhythm, you’ll need to learn how to play various chords on the guitar.
That’s because with rhythm guitar, you’ll usually be playing a chord progression, which is the underlying “harmonic foundation” of a song.
Each song moves from chord to chord to build an emotion or “vibe” to the musical accompaniment. That sets the stage, so to speak, for the lead instruments to riff on.
Moving from one chord to another is a chord progression and every song will use one, whether it’s dead simple or highly complex.
You should spend some time memorizing your scales, along with the chords that correspond to each of those scales (i.e. diatonic harmony).
Unfortunately there’s no way to get around just memorizing this stuff, so put in some time everyday to up your “musical vocabulary.”
Different Types of Guitar Chords
When you’re learning to play chords, you want to be sure that you’re able to play the various forms of each chord.
These include power chords, open chords and barre chords.
Rhythm guitar becomes easier when you use open chords, because there’s less finger movement in your fret hand – each chord has at least one open string.
If you use power chords, then it makes it easier for you to move between chords and easier for the lead guitarist to solo on top.
Unfortunately, playing barre chords can be a bit tough, especially for beginner guitarists, but they have their place in the rhythm guitar world, too.
Learn Strumming Techniques
And of course, because we’re not playing lead guitar we’ll need to be familiar with the world of strumming.
Strumming is where you glide your pick or fingers across several strings immediately one after the other, as opposed to picking individual strings one at a time.
When you’re playing rhythm guitar, you’ll be strumming the chords (and progressions) you learned in the last section.
But there’s more to strumming than meets the eye… Especially in the case of rhythm guitar.
One of the strumming techniques you’ll need to master is muting strings.
That’s because we, as rhythm guitarists, are usually a part of the accompaniment – we’re not the lead.
So we don’t want to stand out too much by letting our strings ring out fully when we strum.
That’s where techniques like palm muting or fret muting come in.
We use our hands or fingers to dampen the strings as we strum them. That way we get a much more rhythmic sound out of the guitar, and we’re able to fit well in the rest of the rhythm section.
The final thing you’ll want to practice is your vocabulary of guitar strumming patterns.
These are rhythmic patterns that you can use with any chords or progressions to provide a rhythmic foundation as a guitarist.
There are an unlimited amount of patterns out there, but some are mainstays and will be your bread and butter as a rhythm guitarist.
So be sure to familiarize yourself with as many patterns as possible, and practice them daily.
But you don’t have to just stop there, you can then modify and switch up your rhythm patterns in several different ways to add complexity to them.
Once you’ve gotten a good sense of rhythm within you, you’ll naturally be able to play around with the timing of your strums.
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Becoming a rhythm guitarist isn’t difficult or complex, but does take a lot of practice. Your sense of timing and rhythm is paramount, so focus most of your energy there.
After that, make sure you’re memorizing as many chords and chord progressions as you can. The great thing about chord progressions is they’re like patterns that can fit onto any key/scale.
But don’t neglect adding new things to your strumming pattern tool-box regularly, as well.
If you just put in the reps and practice these different key skills, you’ll up your rhythm guitar game in no time.
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Thanks for reading this article on how to play rhythm guitar. Remember to get in that practice!