Rhythm is what separates one genre of music from another.
Sure, the accompaniment, the chords and riffs, the melodies and harmonies all play a part. But jazz tends to have a very different rhythm than rock, and reggae is a little different than the blues. If not for differences in rhythmic patterns, the division lines between genres wouldn’t be anywhere near as apparent as they are.
Whether you’re playing lead guitar or rhythm guitar, the rhythmic qualities of your playing are very important. That is, of course, unless you want all of your parts to sound the same and not add any variety or interest to your playing.
Let’s take a look at what staccato means, and how to use it as a guitarist.
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What Does Staccato Mean?
Very simply, it refers to a note with a “shortened duration”. So let’s say, for example, that you’re playing a quarter-note, which lasts one beat. Even though the note itself would still take up a full beat, you would cut it short with left hand and/or right hand muting techniques.
Palm-muting produces a similar effect. Because you’re dampening the strings with your picking hand, whatever note you pick is cut short. If you weren’t palm-muting, then all of the notes would ring out freely.
The natural opposite of staccato is legato, which means “in a smooth, flowing manner.” Hammer-ons and pull-offs create a series of legato notes because you’re not stopping to pick each one.
Staccato In Rhythm Guitar
There are a lot of rock and punk rock songs with staccato rhythm guitar.
If you have a moment, look up the song “Spinning Around” by Rubber. The rhythm guitar in the intro is a very straightforward example of staccato rhythm guitar.
Instead of letting the chord ring out for the duration of the beat, it’s being cut short. This creates a very “tight” in-sync sound between the drums, bass, and guitar.
It’s not difficult to play staccato rhythm guitar, as long as you understand how basic muting techniques work. Muting is very important.
You can cut a note (or chord) short by lifting your fretting fingers. I would suggest not “lifting off”, but instead keeping your fingers lightly touching the strings.
You can also mute with your picking or strumming hand, as you would with palm-muting. The closer you mute to the headstock, the easier it is to deaden the strings completely, but you don’t have to do anything too extreme. You could try applying a little more pressure than you normally would with palm muting as well, and this can also help with eliminating unwanted noise.
Staccato In Lead Guitar
Paul Gilbert is known to use staccato techniques quite a bit in his lead guitar playing (as well as his rhythmic playing).
Take a listen to his song “Get Out Of My Yard”. It’s pretty intense, but there are a ton of muted/staccato notes in the first 40 seconds or so.
Staccato in your lead playing simply provides you with more options for expression. For some songs, long, flowing, melodic parts work well. For other songs, staccato can provide a different kind of feel and more interest in your playing. Knowing when to use what technique is all a part of becoming a tasteful, well-versed guitarist.
Most skilled guitarists vary up their approach from song to song. Granted, there are some well-recognized guitarists that don’t, but I like to think of every song as being different, and unfortunately all of your songs will come across exactly the same to your audience unless there are some notable differences in rhythm, tempo, chord progressions, and so on, from one song to the next.
This is really what I want you to take away from this lesson. You don’t necessarily need to know every technique under the sun to be able to express yourself – Kurt Cobain certainly didn’t – but it’s still nice to add to your tool belt from time to time.
How To Use Staccato In Your Playing
In standard notation, staccato notes are those with little dots above or beneath them (if you’re confused, don’t worry, you’ll see how this works in a moment).
Playing an instrument often has an instinctual element to it – especially the guitar. As you experiment and gain experience playing in different musical situations, you'll get a better feel for what works, what doesn’t, and what you like.
I would suggest trying some staccato rhythm or lead parts in your next band rehearsal or jam session, as this will give you more context than just practicing at home in your basement.
But just so you can get a better idea of how this all works, I’ve prepared a couple of exercises/examples for you.
The first is a rhythmic example in the key of E. All of the notes are quarter-notes, but they are all staccato as well, meaning you would cut them short. Give this a try:
It might be hard to see, but there are little dots above or below all of these chords in the standard notation (not the tab). Again, this is how you would show that a chord or note is staccato in sheet music.
Now let’s try a lead lick in the key of E. All of the notes are meant to be played staccato, which can be a little tricky. Try it out:
Adding some delay to a line like this can really thicken it up and make it sound faster than it actually is.
Staccato is not a particularly difficult or advanced technique. But as with anything else, advanced players are able to use it in ways beginner players simply wouldn’t even dream of. It’s not about how many tricks and techniques you can master, or how many exotic scales you can learn, so much as how well you apply feeling and the basics to your playing.
A great guitarist, in my opinion, isn’t somebody who’s fast so much as it is someone who recognizes exactly what a song needs, and doesn’t play a note more, or a note less than that. Don’t lose your ear. Use it to figure out where you fit within the sonic spectrum, and bring out the uniqueness in your playing by applying techniques like staccato.