As guitarists, it’s so easy to get caught up in practising cool licks, scales, arpeggios and anything else that’s going to help us become a better lead guitar player. However, it’s very important not to lose sight of a slightly more important aspect of the instrument, which is rhythm playing! Think about it, unless you’re Steve Vai or Joe Satriani, you’ll be spending most of your time in a band or on a recording playing rhythm guitar, accompanying either a singer or a soloist. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you’ll get more work, and more gigs, from being a highly accomplished rhythm player over being a great soloist who can’t play rhythm! Although in an ideal world, you’ll be devoting enough time to developing all aspects of your guitar playing, it’s important to keep up your rhythm chops and ensure you keep this area tight!
With that in mind, here are my top 5 tips to improve your rhythm playing. Although I’m sure there will be lots of advice on this area if you search the internet hard enough, these are the 5 tips that helped me improve as a rhythm guitarist the most, and I think they will probably be beneficial for you. Without further adieu…
1) Record Yourself
This is definitely the best method that I’ve found for improving as a rhythm guitarist. There are so many options for recording these days, from a quick iPhone app, to a multi tracked, multi instrument effort in Logic, that there really is no excuse for not exploring this avenue. In fact, it’s not the quality of the recording that matters, it’s the process of really listening to your own playing with a critical ear, which is something you can’t do when you’re in the moment and playing live. You have to be absolutely brutal here and ask yourself a number of different questions, such as “Am I really in time?” “Am I locking in with the drums?” “Am I overplaying, or not filling it out enough?” I can guarantee that these aspects of your playing are hard to pick out when playing live, which I why I recommend recording and listening back without a guitar in your hands.
So what’s the best way to record yourself? Well, whichever way works best for you, but here are some that personally worked for me. The easiest and quickest way, is to set up a metronome, grab your smartphone and use the voice recorder app, then listen back to it. If you’re not a fan of playing to a click, then perhaps you could jam along to a backing track. You could use either a pre recorded one that you found online, or one you’ve made yourself. You could even record yourself playing along to the radio, or your favourite song, or anything else that will inspire you. Finally, the absolute best way to ensure you get the most out of this method, is to record yourself playing with a band, if you are a performing musician of course. Ideally, you would be able to record direct from your mixer, but if you don’t have those facilities available to you, then perhaps one of your friends would be kind enough to film you in action. Whichever way you choose, make sure you’re absolutely honest with your own self evaluation!
2) Listen To & Learn Different Styles Of Music
Although I always thought of myself as a fairly competent rhythm guitar player, it wasn’t until I started listening to and learning different styles of music that this area of my playing really began to tighten up. Personally, as a straight ahead rock guitar player, I found a lot of value in learning jazz, soul, funk and R&B style guitar, as it was a completely different discipline required to play these rhythm guitar styles than it was to play rock. Although you may not personally enjoy those musical genres, listening to the guitar parts and trying to play them yourself will help you become more rounded as a player, as it will force you to explore different timings and different grooves.
Funnily enough, I also found that my rock rhythm playing actually improved significantly once I started becoming proficient in other genres of music. It’s difficult to describe, but I was a lot more “together” with my fellow bandmates as a result of being thrust into styles. In an ideal world, I would recommend you seek out a number of different musical projects in order to further your rhythmic development, however if you’re not quite at that stage yet, then try to learn as many different songs from as many genres as possible to start you off on your journey to rhythmic improvement.
3) Play with different people
Similar to my point above, but simply put; the more people you play with, the better your rhythm playing will be. Every musician, whether they’re a drummer, bass player, guitarist, keyboard player or anyone else, have their own unique style, and subtle variations in the way they accompany other musicians. As a rhythm guitarist, it’s your job to gel with the rhythm section as best as you can. Preferably, the musicians you surround yourself with will be better than you as well, as nothing sharpens up your chops more than having to raise your game in order to fit in with everyone else. However, this isn’t absolutely essential, and if you’re new to playing with others, you might want to start out by finding other like-minded musicians you can jam with, and find as many as possible.
The fun doesn’t stop there though. Personally, I noticed a big improvement in my rhythm playing when I started doing acoustic duo gigs, with just myself playing acoustic guiar and another vocalist. Upon placing myself in this situation, where I was responsible for keeping the rhythm as well as the harmony, I found that my own internal sense of rhythm improved dramatically, and it helped me immensely when going back to playing in a band. If you can surround yourself with as many different musicians in as many different situations as you can manage, then you will see a notable improvement in your musicianship as a whole.
4) Experiment with playing less
This applies to both what you play harmonically as well as rhythmically. A lot of the time in my younger days, I found myself overplaying rhythmically. This is a common theme among many guitarists, as the temptation is always to fill it out as much as possible and to be heard above everyone else. In fact, you may even be overdoing it rhythmically without even realising it, meaning that you don’t sound as professional as you could, which will have a detrimental effect on yours or your band’s sound. I think that, no matter what style of music you play, everyone can experiment with playing less, until you find the perfect of balance of playing just enough to fill out the mix,whilst still allowing the other instruments plenty of space to be heard.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, playing less can be achieved in two different ways. Firstly, you should experiment with playing less rhythmically until you find a happy balance. Sometimes, all you need to play is one chord strum per bar, or one stab on beats 2 and 4, or even simply playing your same part but with less pick attack. Secondly, you should also try playing less harmonically. My whole outlook on rhythm guitar changed when I was taught to play my chords on the top 2 or top 3 strings (the G, B and high E strings respectively.) Although it may seem like an unusual concept at first, most chords that you come across in music can be voiced on these three strings, which will mean that subsequently you’ll sit in the mix better, as you won’t be getting in the way of the lower frequencies, as you’ll only be playing on the top 3 strings. Although these approaches won’t necessarily be the answer to every situation, they are definitely worth exploring on your quest for rhythmic excellence.
5) Experiment with different chords and chord voicings
I already touched on chord voicings in the point above, however I thought this topic was important enough to dedicate its own section to. As guitarists, we often tend to learn one specific method of playing a chord progression in a song and stick to it forever, without exploring the other options available to us. Even doing something simple such as taking a chord progression you know in the open position, and voicing the chords higher up on the guitar, say around the 7th fret, can completely change the sound of you, your band or your recording. It’s definitely worth investigating how many different ways you can play a chord sequence, until you settle on the optimum method that will give you the best sound.
Once you have exhausted all possibilities for different chord voicings, I would encourage you to explore new chord types and substitutions, to further expand your harmonic palette from which you can draw from. You might decide that you can spice up your plain old Am chord in a song with an Am7 or an Am11, which will create further harmonic interest and produce different results. Once you can play a number of different chord types in multiple positions across the neck, your options for rhythm playing become almost limitless, and you’ll start to develop a more professional sound and feel to your playing.
I hope you found these tips to improve your rhythm guitar playing useful, and I hope you can start to implement them in your own guitar playing to become a better, more rounded guitarist. If you have personally used any of the tips above, or you have a favourite tip to improving your rhythm guitar playing, then please let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,