Playing rhythm guitar isn’t easy. There are loads of techniques you need to master before you can really become a great lead guitarist. But if you’re serious about becoming a better rhythm guitar player, then you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, I’ll go through 7 things you can start doing today to be a better guitarist as quickly as possible, So let’d jump into the list!
how to be a better rhythm guitarist
- Master you technique e.g. chord technique, strumming patterns and palm muting.
- Work on your timing by playing along to backing tracks and using a metronome.
- Focus on your role, and don’t interfere with the bassist or lead guitarist.
- Dial in the best rhythm guitar tone using your amp, guitar controls and pedals.
- Set targets to make sure you’re always working towards improving your playing.
- Develop a proper practice routine to help you meet your targets more quickly.
- Track your progress.
1. Master your Technique
All the best rhythm guitarists have spent years mastering the different techniques required to be a great player. It’s not all about what you play, but how you play it.
Have you ever wondered why sometimes you hear yourself playing, and you hit all the notes accurately, with no mistakes, but when you hear a pro play, it just sounds better. This is because the pros have mastered, how to play, as well as what to play.
There are three main techniques that you need to be able to do really well to be a better rhythm guitarists. You need to be very confident playing open and barre chords, you also need to be able to know plenty of strumming patterns and when to use them. The third thing that you need to work on, is palm muting.
Firstly, let’s start with chord technique. If you’re a complete beginner, then it’s best to start with open chords. The 8 most important chords, that are used in the vast majority of songs are: A, E, D, G, C, Am, Em and Dm.
Playing chords is pretty hard when you’re a complete beginner. First, you should start by choosing a chord to practise. The easiest one in my opinion, is Em. Practise playing this chord and making sure you’re fretting the notes properly. The try and learn your second chord. The A chord, is another fairly easy one to try next. Keep working through the list until you feel comfortable holding each position.
Then you need to work on transitioning between the different chords. This is where things get trickier. To be a good rhythm guitarist, you absolutely need to master chord changes between any and all of these 8 chords.
Once you’ve mastered open chords, you should move onto barre chords and power chords. This requires more finger strength, so don’t worry if you struggle at first. It’ll take a while to get the hang of these, but again, focus on holding the frets properly so all the strings ring out.
It’s usually easiest to start with the F and Bm chords. Then you should move onto the power chord versions of the 8 open chords we just discussed. Once you’ve learnt the different barre chords, and how to transition between them, then try moving around the fret board and playing the chords in different positions.
It’s also a really good idea to practise playing different open and barre chords without looking at your guitar. This can be a bit of a challenge at first, but it’ll help you get faster with transitioning if you work on it consistently.
Learning all the different chords and how to transition between them is essential, but so is mastering the different strumming patterns. Having good strumming technique is super important for rhythm guitarists to help keep the beat.
The main thing you need to do, is to keep everything relaxed. There should be no tension in your fingers, wrist, elbow or shoulder. Everything should be loose and relaxed.
You should also focus on keeping your strumming hand moving at all times. This is the best way to help you keep the rhythm. You then simply adjust the speed of your strumming hand, and the distance it travels, so your hand is always on the move.
There are several main strumming patterns you need to master. Here they are:
- Downstrum on every beat
- Downstrum and upstrum alternating on each beat
- Muted strum patterns e.g. down, up, down, up, mute. Muting simply means you stop the strings ringing out with your strumming hand.
Palm muting is another super important technique that you should be working on if you’re a rhythm guitar player, particularly if you’re into rock, punk or metal, however, plenty of other styles use this technique too.
- Rest the outside of your strumming hand just before the bridge of your guitar.
- Strum the strings using the plectrum whilst still maintaining contact with them using the outside of your hand.
- Adjust the amount of weight you put on the strings using the outside of your hand to dampen the sound less or more.
Try this using only downstrokes and keeping the speed low until you master the amount of pressure you should put on the strings. Then increase the speed gradually and use upstrokes as well.
2. Practise your Timing
All the best rhythm guitarists have exceptional timing. Mastering the different techniques like strumming, holding chords and palm muting, are all essential, but if you have no sense of timing, then your rhythm playing will just sound a mess.
Some guitarists find it easier to pick up this sense of rhythm and timing better than others, and that’s fine. If you’re struggling to get the timing right, then there’s no need to worry. There are plenty of ways you can work on this.
Use a Backing Track
The easiest, and cheapest way to work on your timing, is by playing along to a backing track. All you need to do, is play a song through your phone, or some speakers if you have them, and then play along with your guitar. Some amplifiers allow you to plug in an MP3 source using an AUX lead as well which makes this a lot easier.
If you’re finding this pretty easy, then you should start using actual backing tracks instead. Simply search on YouTube for a guitar backing track version of a song, and you’ll usually find them pretty easily, as long as the song isn’t too obscure.
Make sure you’re always challenging yourself as well. Try and choose some songs that have a higher bpm, that are harder to keep in time to. Here are a few songs that are great to practise playing along to.
- Beat It by Michael Jackson
- Since You’ve Been Gone by Rainbow
- American Idiot by Green Day
- Enter Sandman by Metallica
- Everlong by Foo Fighters
- Crazy Train by Ozzy Osborne
- Paranoid by Black Sabbath
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
Use a Metronome
Another really great way to work on your timing, is by using a metronome. They’re great for players of all ability so don’t dismiss this idea if you’re an intermediate or experienced player.
You can use metronomes to help you learn difficult rhythm sections slowly at first, and then gradually increase the speed. This way you’ll maintain the accuracy whilst playing, as well as keeping the timing on point.
3. Focus on your Role
Another really important thing to keep in mind if you’re serious about becoming a better rhythm guitar player, is your specific role. To understand this properly, you need to consider the roles of each player in a band.
It’s easier if we split this down into the melody, and the rhythm. This is pretty simplistic, but it’s a good place to start at. Normally, the melody, is provided by the singer, the lead guitarist, and sometimes a keyboard player. The rhythm component is then provided by the drums, bass player, and rhythm guitarist.
As a rhythm guitarist, you should not really be getting involved in the melody. This is left to the singer and lead guitarist, so you don’t want to annoy these two members of the band by trying to take over.
Your role, is to support the drummer and bassist, by contributing to the rhythm aspect of the band. You should be doing this by providing the chord progression, and helping to keep the beat with your strumming pattern.
One thing you really should keep in mind though, is that you shouldn’t interfere with the bassist’s role. Your job is to follow the bass player, by playing the chords that the bass guitar dictates.
The bass player should sit between the drummer and rhythm guitarist, providing a link between them. That’s why it’s important for the rhythm guitarist to follow the bass players lead, not the other way around.
4. Dial in Your Tone
As well as improving your skills, it’s important that you consider your equipment too. By this, I don’t mean you have to go out and buy a $2000 guitar, amp and set of pedals. It really doesn’t matter all that much how expensive your equipment is. What matters, is that you know how to use it.
First, let’s consider what a rhythm guitar tone should sound like.
Rhythm guitar tones should sound mellow and warm. This will allow you to provide the underlying chord progression. You don’t want your tone to be too sharp and bright, as it would start to cut through the mix too much and annoy your lead guitarist and singer. It also can’t have too much bass, as it’ll start to bug your bass player.
Rhythm guitar tones are all about balance. So how do you get that? Well, you need to consider your guitar’s settings, your amplifier, and any pedal effects you’re using.
Guitar Settings for Rhythm Guitar
There are three settings you can control on most electric guitars. The tone control, volume control, and which pickups are activated.
First, let’s start with the pickups. If you’re playing rhythm guitar, you’ll usually want to use the neck or middle pickup (if your guitar has one). Usually, the bridge pickup will sound too bright and sharp.
In terms of your volume control, you need to make sure it’s not too high that you’re interfering with your singer. It is possible to have your guitar’s volume control on high, but as long as your amp’s volume is turned down enough to combat this.
Finally, if you’re still finding that your tone is too bright and sharp, then you can turn your tone control down to put more emphasis on the bass frequencies, rather than the treble frequencies.
Amp Settings for Rhythm Guitar
We won’t go into gain control in this article, because it really depends on what style of music you’re playing. Check out this article on guitar amp settings if you want to learn more about this.
I will consider the bass, treble and mids though.
The bass control determines the amount of low-frequency sound you’ll hear. If the bass is on high, then you’re tone will sound more “boomy”, and if it’s on low, it’ll sound more empty.
The mids control allows you to adjust the adjust the mid-range frequencies. Having a higher mids setting will make your tone fuller.
Finally, the treble adjusts the sharpness of your tone. Having a high treble setting increases the brightness and sharpness.
So what should your settings be for rhythm guitar?
- Bass: this should be on around midway. You don’t want it too high that’ll start to annoy your bass player, or too low that your tone sounds empty.
- Mids: the guitar provides the mid-range frequencies of the band, so it’s important not to knock this back. Try having your mids around 2/3 the way up and work from there.
- Treble: you’ll want this on around 1/3 the way up on most amps. This will prevent your tone sounding too harsh and aggressive.
Amp settings are pretty complex though, so definitely check out this post on guitar amp settings and controls to learn more about how to dial in the best rhythm guitar tone.
Pedal Effects for Rhythm Guitar
If you want to take your tone to the next level, and you feel limited by your amplifier, then you can look into pedal effects. They’re super useful for loads of different styles of music. Take a look at this post on effects pedals to learn more about the different types, and which ones you should think about using.
5. Set Targets
One of the best ways to improve your guitar playing ability, that a lot of players neglect, is by setting targets. Okay, so this isn’t probably what you were expecting see on this list, but you really shouldn’t ignore this point.
If you’re serious about getting better at guitar, then setting targets is one of the most helpful things you should do.
So what kind of targets should you be setting? First, you should be thinking about exactly what your weaknesses are. Are you struggling with a specific chord, or transition between chords? Do you struggling with palm muting? Is your sense of timing holding you back?
Your goals and targets should be set around these weaknesses. The only way to improve is by addressing these. Setting targets helps you improve because it helps you make a commitment.
Whatever your goal is, you need to make sure that it’s actionable. That means that your target needs to meet the following criteria:
- It has a specific time limit e.g. you need to learn a new song within a week
- You need to make sure it’s specific. So don’t just say “I’ll improve my palm muting technique”, instead say that you’ll be able to execute a down-up-down palm muting stumming pattern at 100 bpm using a metronome.
- They need to be realistic. Don’t set yourself a target of learning to play Paranoid by Black Sabbath if you can’t palm mute yet.
- Try and make your targets measurable. You should be able to quantify how much you’ve met them. For example, if you’re trying to be faster at strumming, then try and give yourself the challenge of alternate strumming at 120bpm.
Don’t underestimate this point. It’s one of the best ways you can improve your rhythm guitar skills in the shortest amount of time.
6. Make a Practice Routine
So setting targets is a great way to help you improve, but you’ll not be able to achieve them if you don’t put the work in. The best way to do this, is by developing a practise routine.
I’ll be honest, when I was first starting out playing the guitar, I really didn’t enjoy the idea of making an actual routine to help me practice. I though it would take all the fun out of playing, and that it actually wouldn’t be that useful. So unfortunately, I ended up wasting a lot of my practice time just messing about.
But when I first started implementing a proper practice routine, I noticed dramatic improvements in my ability, at a much quicker rate than I did previously.
So my best advice, is to give it a try for a couple of weeks and see how you find it. You’ll hopefully see the same improvements I did, especially if you follow these next steps.
HOW TO DEVELOP A ROUTINE
There are two things to consider when developing a routine.
- When to practise
- What to practise during your routine
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU BE PLAYING YOUR GUITAR FOR?
Well, this of course depends on how much time you have. You want to make sure you are dedicating enough time to playing though. If you’re only picking your guitar up for ten minutes twice a week, then you’ll not improve. The more you practise, the better you’ll get. At least, up to a certain point.
The last thing you want to do, is practise for two hours, with minimal effort, and see very little results.
It’s best to practise less, but with more intensity, than just mess about on your guitar for a while. In my opinion, a good rule of thumb, is to practise playing for around 30 minutes to 1 hour per session, depending on how much time you have available.
If you’re really serious about improving your rhythm guitar playing, then consider blocking out some specific times in the week to practice. I’ve noticed that I have a lot more success trying to stick to a routine when I really map out when I’m going to do it.
For example, I’m much more likely to practise if I say I’ll do from 8-9pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday than if i just say I’ll practise for an hour 3x a week.
WHAT SHOULD YOUR SESSION CONSIST OF?
The best thing to do when planning a routine, is to keep your targets in mind. If you’re looking to improve your chord transitions, then make sure your practise sessions are focused around that.
Now, you don’t need to be super strict over your practice sessions. Everything doesn’t have to be mapped out to the minute. But it is a good idea to try and work out roughly what you want to work on during your sessions.
With that said though, here’s a quick example of a practise session that you can try out.
EXAMPLE PRACTISE ROUTINE
- 0:00-0:10 – Practise strumming patterns
- 0:10-0:20 – Work on your timing using backing tracks or a metronome
- 0:20-0:45- Work on your targets e.g. learning a new song
- 0:45-1:00- Improve your techniques e.g barre chords
7. Track Your Progress
One last thing I want to talk about, is how to track your progress. If you’ve set some targets, and implemented a practice routine, but you’re not actually sure if you’ve improved or not, then you should really consider recording yourself play.
You don’t need any fancy equipment to do this. Simply grab your phone and record the audio. You don’t need to record entire practise sessions, but recording a few minutes of your playing a week can really help you hear if you’ve making progress or not.
It’s also a great way to motivate yourself too. If you can hear your performances back, and notice that you’re making progress, then it’ll encourage you to keep practising!
It’s also a really good idea to get some feedback on your playing from other people. You can either ask your friends or family to have a quick listen when you’re playing, this is a great option especially if you know anyone else who plays. Or you can post some videos of yourself playing the guitar on Instagram or YouTube.
It’s important to take what people say online with a pinch of salt though. Thee are plenty of trolls out there, but don’t let them get you down. Generally, the guitarist community is a super supportive place to be in though.