The Importance of Rhythm Guitar

It is all too often to become distracted by the shiny promise and glory of lead guitar, but without solid rhythm chops, are you leaving the most important skills behind?

Rhythm guitar is something which is quite often overlooked - whether it’s because you “only play lead, man” or because it just doesn’t seem important, the foundations that lie within the weeds of Rhythm guitar playing are often left by the wayside. So whether you’ve never played rhythm before or just want to give yours a facelift; here are 5 big tips.

1. Learn to play something simple, well. 

Learning a simple rhythm part and being able to comfortably count at the same time can often be daunting, but it is absolutely paramount for setting up the infrastructure of a good rhythm guitar player. Your inner metronome and “sense” of time are the beating pulse of everything you play and getting used to how you feel time, no matter how simple the part, is incredibly important. Take a super simple rhythm part and keep time with your foot, get comfortable with it to the point where your foot tapping becomes nothing more than a subconscious thing you do. Got that part down? Great - now apply this same approach for everything you play!

2. Play along with your favourite recordings

Playing along to different tracks is a great practice tool for a number of reasons but most notably: you get to play lots of different tempos and styles and if you haven’t found musicians to play with yet, it’s like having your own interchangeable-at-home-band. Don’t underestimate the time feel you can develop just by accurately playing along with or within your favourite records. The changing of tempos, keys are styles will fast track your rhythm playing to a place of command and authenticity - take advantage of it!

3. Don’t always worry about a metronome 

Though a metronome can be an imperative and a fantastic practice tool, with rhythm playing, there’s a certain responsibility to be aware of your own sense of pulse and when you are over relying on that metronome click. The best Rhythm players all have one thing in common - groove! This goes all the way to tip #1, your inner groove doesn’t lie within the metronome, it lies within you and your sense of time feel. If you can’t groove on your own, how are you going to make that metronome swing?! Know when to turn it off and focus on keeping time yourself and having fun with it!

4. Playing within “the pocket” 

If you’re not sure what it is, “the pocket” might seem like a vacuous daunt of a thing that only master musicians talk about and understand. I can assure, this isn’t the case. You could know absolutely nothing about theory but be able to play a simple part with push and pull feel, sitting perfectly within whatever ensemble you’re playing in. That’s essentially what “the pocket” is - being able to groove whilst being groove aware and playing to serve the overall groove and not just your own. That’s why we say “sitting in the pocket.” Whilst playing in a band or with other musicians will improve this, head back to #2 if you’ve not quite found your band. Playing along and most importantly, within recorded music will also help you develop a deeper pocket.

5. The importance of the one chord vamp and your picking hand

Think of all the best funk rhythm guitar parts, the ones that really want to make you move. More often than not, though the rhythm is changing; the chord deviation is minimal. Think of James Brown, Prince, Nile Rogers, Jesse Johnson (The Time) - what made these guys so good was their inner time feel and pocket, being able to apply it to just one chord and utilising their picking hand. Take a D9 or even a minor 7 triad, set your inner metronome away at your desired tempo (1, 2, 3, 4) and let it go round a couple of bars. Now this is where our picking hand can really shine, it’s the element that’s going to really make that part snap - the “funk maker” if you will. The fact that we’re playing one chord, it’s now up to our picking hand to make it interesting through the use of subdivisions (shorter notes), muting and leaving space in the right places. A perfect way to flex your pocket.

Applying these bite sized mantras to your rhythm playing will transform the way you approach the idea 100%, whilst helping you build confidence naturally and musically. Remember, all lead playing is just rhythm playing if we boil it all down! Never take it for granted or underestimate it.