Rhythm Guitar: The Basics

rhythm guitarRhythm guitar often provides the foundation of many popular songs you hear on the radio, especially more rock-oriented music styles. Many guitar players, when they first begin learning how to play, want to focus on the more impressive sounding flashy techniques of their favorite guitar players. In fact, they’re often so focused on learning licks and tricks that it seems that’s all they know. While lead guitar has its use in adding spice to a song, for guitar players who play songs, especially in a band, the majority of their guitar workload is in the area of rhythm guitar. Rhythm guitar is actually vitally important to a song’s foundation much of the time. Taking a guitar course can help you to see the most important elements of a guitar player’s skills as a player.

Many guitar players love nothing more than picking up an acoustic guitar and strumming out guitar chords while singing their favorite songs. Rhythm guitar skills are essential to being a great guitar player. Below you’ll learn some basics on playing rhythm guitar.

Keeping Time

The first thing you need to understand about learning to play rhythm guitar is that music is divided into beats. Even more specifically, music is often divided into consecutive consistent groups of four beats. Each group is called a measure, and the length of the song determines how many measures are in the song.

For now, let’s focus on just one measure of music that contains four beats. Without a guitar in hand, clap your hands four times, counting 1, 2, 3, 4 as you do. Make sure each beat lasts the same amount of time as the one before it so that you have a solid consistent rhythm of four beats. Those four claps, or four beats, would be contained in one measure of music.

Now, clap your hands four times, followed by four times more. Again, make sure each clap sounds out the same amount of time as the one before it. You’ll clap a total of eight times, but you’ll be counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4.  When you count out four beats per measure in music, the note you are playing is called a quarter note.

Playing Rhythm on the Open Strings

Now, you’ll apply what you’ve learned about measures of four beats to the guitar. With your guitar positioned to play on your lap, take a guitar pick, and, instead of clapping, you’ll strum down on the open guitar strings four times, counting 1, 2, 3, 4 as you do.

Now, you’ll add another measure, counting 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. Make sure the space between strums is consistent throughout. Now, you can play as many measures you want, always remembering to count 1, 2, 3, 4 for each measure.

Dividing the Beats

Now that you’ve exercised your ability to strum down on the open guitar strings, you’re ready to practice dividing the four beats, or quarter notes, of a measure into eight eighth notes, which are what you have when the four quarter notes are divided in half.

Set the guitar aside for a moment. You’ll practice eighth notes by  clapping your hands while counting out 1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and. Each number is a half a beat (eighth note), and each “and” is half a beat (eighth note).

Pick up your guitar again. Previously, you strummed down on each beat when you counted 1, 2, 3, 4. Now, you’ll strum up everytime you say “and.” Here’s what it looks like with two measures of music.

1and2and3and4and

If you’re just starting out, you’ll to practice this quite a bit to make it consistent because your arms and hands won’t be used to making the movements.

Adding Chords into the Mix

Now you’re ready to add some chords to your basic up-down strum rhythm. For now, we’ll focus on the most important chords in the key of G. If you’re new to guitar, you’ll have to practice a lot on holding chord formations before you’ll be able to play any rhythms.  Using the figures below, apply your fingers to the fret numbers indicated. For example, for a G chord, you’ll place your middle finger on the 3rd fret of the thickest or sixth string. Apply your index finger to the 2nd fret of the 5th string. The 3rd and 4th strings will be open. Your ring finger will go on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string and your pinky on the 3rd fret of the 1st string. Practice forming each of the chords. Note that we’re using two less-than-normal chords, the Cadd9 and the Em7. These chords work well in the key of G because they share so many notes and provide a very nice sound.

G

3-2-0-0-3-3

D

0-0-0-3-2-3

Cadd9

0-3-2-0-3-3

Em7

0-2-2-0-3-3

After you’re comfortable fingering each of the chords, it’s a good idea to practice switching from one chord to another without worrying about rhythm at this time

Applying Chords to Rhythm

Now it’s time to take the chords you’ve learned and apply them to your basic up-down guitar rhythm. With guitar in hand, form the G chord on your guitar. Now, strum up and down as you did in the rhythm exercise above. With each new measure, try playing a different chord. I might look something like this:

GD
1&2&3&4&1&2&3&4&
EmC
1&2&3&4&1&2&3&4&

Again, make sure your strums are solid and consistent throughout. Don’t worry if you have to play really slowly at first. It’s best to master a technique at a low speed first before gradually building speed.

Once you’ve mastered the basic up-down eighth note rhythm, you can start to vary your rhythms by combining quarter notes and eighth notes. Here’s an example:

1and2and3and4and

In the example above, you would hold out your down strum on beats 1 and 3 for the length of a quarter note while dividing beats 2 and 4 into eighth notes.

Practice is Key

Rhythm guitar is truly a foundational skill to master as a guitar player. Once you’ve learned the basics, you’re ready to move on to more complex rhythms and more guitar chords. Keeping a consistent practice schedule will help you to master your rhythm skills faster and with better results.