The old guitarist joke is that singing is wasted time between guitar solos.
This is because guitarists are always looking for opportunities to show off their skills, be flashy, and play parts that keep themselves entertained. Solos are where stylistic choices and creativity really have a way of shining through.
And while the ability to play lead guitar is a skill in and of itself, no guitarist should see themselves as a complete musician unless they can play effective rhythm guitar.
Here are some tips and tricks for playing better rhythm guitar.
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Learn As Many Different Techniques As Possible To Improve Rhythm Guitar
Techniques like hammer-ons, slides, and harmonics have a tendency to be seen as exclusive to lead guitar. This simply isn’t the case.
If you’ve ever listened to Eddie Van Halen, you know that he pulls out all stops whether he’s playing rhythm or lead parts. Most techniques he uses in his leads are often present in his rhythm parts too.
This isn’t to suggest that all rhythm parts need to be complex. You should always adapt your style to the song itself. Overplaying during a slow, quiet emotional song is tacky. So is lingering on long, sustained notes when the song calls for staccato shots and accents.
The point is that some chances need to be taken. If you only see a song as a chord progression, and not as a musical journey, then your tendency will always be to rely on eighth-note power chords.
And there are times when those power chords are exactly what a song calls for, but if you aren’t supporting the singer or other elements of the band, you’re either showing off, or you just have a “bad ear” – you’re not hearing what’s supposed to happen as you add your own layer to the music!
Look to apply various techniques in unique and creative ways, and don’t merely strum open chords through the verses, unless that’s what the song calls for.
Move Your Riffs To Different Positions On The Neck
Most guitars have six strings and 21 frets. Since there are only 12 notes in music, it's good to know that riffs you’re playing in the open position can be moved to different octaves and positions on the guitar.
Sometimes it’s nice to use those beefy low notes for heaviness and emphasis (think Metallica), but there are also times when higher notes really serve the emotion and atmosphere of the song (think U2).
The main reason many guitarists never get around to exploring different parts of the neck usually has to do with laziness. They don’t want to use barres or play complicated chord shapes. But I’ll tell you right now that this is a very rewarding process.
Playing in different positions can give you access to chord inversions, variations and extensions, and in turn, riff ideas that can be used for different parts of the song.
Try Different Rhythmic Patterns
It’s human nature to settle into a groove. We play certain rhythmic patterns because they get reinforced through repetition – through the music we regularly listen to and play.
But just because the bass player is playing an eighth-note rhythm doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit, and just because the band is playing straight doesn’t mean you can’t throw some syncopation in there.
Fundamentally, there are only three variables you can control as a guitarist: 1) the notes you play (scale, key signature, etc.), 2) how you play them (the rhythm), and 3) how fast you play the notes (tempo – which is really just another aspect of rhythm).
What a lot of guitarists tend to miss is that rhythm makes a bigger difference than note choice.
Really think about it for a second. If you play three different scales with exactly the same rhythm, sure they’ll sound a little different, but because the rhythm hasn’t changed, it will come across like a constant drone.
Meanwhile, specific rhythms define different styles and genres. Even if you played the exact same notes or chords, the rhythmic pattern would determine whether you’re playing jazz, blues, rock, country, and so on.
So my tip here is to experiment with different rhythms. Don’t force anything into a song, but don’t just settle for what seems comfortable and expected either.
Learn Chord Inversions & Variations
Do you know all of your major chords? Great – it’s time to learn your minor chords.
Do you know your dominant 7th chords? Awesome – you need to learn your maj7 and min7 chords too.
Do you want to add some color to standard major and minor chords? Then you’ll want to learn your suspended chords as well.
Learning different chord shapes gives you access to new possibilities. And don’t forget – there’s more than one way to play the same chord.
An inversion is one way to describe such a technique. Take the G chord as an example. The chord (triad) is made up of three notes – G, B and D.
But to make a G chord, there’s nothing saying you have to play these notes in the exact order. It could also be: B, D and G, or D, G, and B. This is the essence of an inversion.
A standard G triad can be played with the bottom three strings of the guitar: third fret on the sixth, second fret on the fifth, and open on the fourth. We can play the other inversions using the same three strings.
For example, the B, D, and G inversion could be played in this manner: eighth fret of the sixth string, fifth fret of the fifth string, and fifth fret of the fourth string.
Again, this can open up new ideas for riffs, chord progressions, and variations too.
Don’t be afraid to break out of pre-defined molds. This is how new musical genres were invented, and we wouldn’t have so many different styles today if not for the innovators and pioneers that were willing to experiment and think outside the box.
Since the lines continue to blur between different musical styles, the need to name or invent new genres has started to decrease, but you can still add your own spin to your music, and that’s what’s going to make it stand out.
So don’t see rhythm guitar as “that boring part” between the cool riffs and solos you do. Add your own flare, and dare to be different. You can bring just as much of yourself to a rhythm riff as you can to a solo – I promise.