Become a Rhythm Master

Rhythm guitar is often the most neglected, poorly practiced, and misunderstood element of guitar playing. In this lesson we will rectify it.

Ultimate Guitar
Rhythm guitar is often the most neglected, poorly practiced, and misunderstood element of guitar playing. If we break music down into its simplest components, we have harmony (chords), melody (such as single note riffs, leads and vocals) and rhythm (which is a HUGE part of everything). In this lesson we will rectify this misunderstood element of guitar playing. 

Every time you play anything on guitar you are using some sort of rhythm. Whenever you play a groovy, heavy detuned riff, finger pick some beautiful lush chords, or shred a lightning fast solo, you are using rhythm. In my years of teaching, there are two elements that I have found that sky-rocket most guitarists' skills. They are having a great ear, (more on this in another lesson) and having awesome rhythm skills. 

To have great rhythm skills, you really need (as an absolute basic) to master your ability to shift between the following note sub-divisions at will:
  • Quarter notes (Crotchets)
  • Eighth notes (Quavers)
  • Sixteenth notes (Semi-Quavers)
After that there are other great sounding rhythms such as Triplets and Dotted notes, but today we will focus on the above three as 90% of guitarists lack these essential basics. Don't get me wrong, 1/4, 1/8 and 1/16 notes are the basics but once you master them truly, you will sound like twice the player you are now.

One of the best exercises you can do to improve your rhythm guitar skills is to:
  • Set a metronome to a tempo of 80bpm
  • Fret ONE SINGLE NOTE with the left hand (you choose the note)
  • Pick this note over and over with a down stroke every time you hear a beep. Keep going until you feel yourself "lock in" with the click or the beep. This is playing all quarter notes and there are 4 per bar. Count 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Now pick the note with an upstroke in between the down stroke keeping every pick even. These are called eighth notes and there are 8 per bar. Count 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and.
  • Now, double the speed of your picked notes. These are called sixteenth notes. These sound pretty fast and will take most beginners a lot of practice to be able to play. If you are strumming your guitar and you played all sixteenth notes you would strum 16 strums which would consist of 8 down and 8 up in a continuous motion. Count sixteenth notes as 1 e and a 2 e and a 3 e and a 4 e and a. 
Keep trying ONE note length until you are completely comfortable playing in perfect time with the metronome.

Once you are confident of doing the exercise over and over with one note length, instead of playing an infinite amount of bars, practice ONE BAR of each of quarter notes, eighth notes and then sixteenth notes. Then switch between all 3 note lengths playing them for JUST ONE beat each. 

The idea is to be able switch seamlessly from one note length to another. The less time it takes you to switch between the note lengths, the more awesome your rhythm playing will be. It will be difficult at first and may take you a few days/weeks to be able to do this comfortably but stick with it.

Practice it just for just ten minutes each day. Change the tempo of the metronome to a random speed everyday whether or not you "locked in" the previous day. Start throwing in rests of various note lengths in their too. Stick with ONE note, until you master it. Only once you truly have a effortless grasp on the exercise, start using arpeggios, scales, riffs and licks using the technique. This isn't just a technical exercise, you can write some really cool and interesting music while practicing it.

After a few weeks of playing with the exercise, you will find that when you are at band practice and jam with a drummer, your musical ideas will feel far tighter and more natural.

Many students who have come to me for lessons have played for years and can't do this. They often have a good understanding of chords and melodies but struggle with this fundamental rhythm skill. This exercise is one of the first things I teach them and their playing almost immediately sees a big improvement. I guarantee if you do this you will be getting a head start on most guitarists out there and many who have played for years.

About the Author:
Dan Thorpe is a UK based guitar teacher, writer, and musician. He writes for Guitar Domination and plays guitar in UK Alternative rock/metal band Ribdonor. If you enjoyed this article, share it on Facebook and Twitter, and be sure to get in touch with any questions or comments in the boxes below.

2 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Nice lesson! I'm pretty sure I can do this, but I better try it to be sure This is something you should without a doubt be able to do.