Principles of Rhythm Guitar


The art of rhythm guitar (and it is an Art, don't let anybody tell you otherwise) consists of a couple of very important principles.

Firstly your right arm should ALWAYS BE IN MOTION.
Down strokes on the "down" beats (or "on" beats)
by which I mean beats 1 2 3 4,

1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
v
v
v

and up strokes on the "up" beats (or "off" beats) by which I mean
the "and of the 1", the "and of the 2", the "and of the 3", and the "and of the 4".

1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
ˆ
ˆ
ˆ
ˆ

This keeps you in time WHETHER OR NOT you are actually hitting the sttings. So many rhythm guitarists make the mistake of only hitting the strings when it's "needed", this gives a choppy sound (instead of fluidly organic groove).

It also permits "follow through" (much the same concept as playing tennis or golf - you don't just hit the ball and STOP - you continue moving "through").


The beginning of the bar has much more power if it's spare and "ringy". IOW hit the strings on the 1 and "let it ride"..
The end of the bar is usually busier, this is a "build up" which "propels" you into beat 1 of the next bar.

As an exercise to this end, begin by only hitting the strings with downstrokes on beat 1 and beat 4. (Even though your arm is still in constant down/up/down/up/down/up/down/up 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + motion). It doesn't matter which chord you choose to play.

Exercise A
1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

Next, hit the strings on beat 1 (downstroke), beat 4 (downstroke) and the "and of the 4" (upstroke).

Exercise B
1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

Once you're completely comfotable with that rhythm, hit the strings on beat 1 (downstroke), the "and of the 3 (upstroke), beat 4 (downstroke) and the "and of the 4" (upstroke).

Exercise C
1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

Note that in the above examples, each is virtually the same, except that the region of beat 4 gets a little busier each time.


Once you have internalized the above to the point of it being a second nature reflex, you can begin adding a "pushed 3" to the middle of the bar.

A downstroke on beat 3 is entirely predictable (and pretty boring). Hitting beat 3 is ok if you're playing a March or a Polka, but with most "modern" or funk based musics a "pushed 3" is preferable.

The "pushed 3" is an upstroke on the "and of the 2". This adds rhythmic tension and makes it much more exciting.


Exercise 1

Hit beat 1 (downstroke), the "and of the two" (upstroke), and beat 4 (downstroke)


1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

 

Exercise 2
Hit beat 1 (downstroke), the "and of the two" (upstroke), beat 4 (downstroke), and the "and of the 4" (upstroke)

1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

 

Exercise 3
Hit beat 1 (downstroke), the "and of the two" (upstroke), the "and of the 3 (upstroke), beat 4 (downstroke), and the "and of the 4" (upstroke)

1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

Note that in all the above exercises, we are avoiding beat 3 like the plague, and that the principles of "spare and ringy at the beginning of the bar" and "busier towards the end of the bar" remain intact.

"Exercise 4" is like "Exercise 3" above but we are simply adding a downstroke on beat 2 into the mix.


Exercise 4
Hit beat 1 (downstroke), beat 2 (downstroke), the "and of the two" (upstroke), the "and of the 3 (upstroke), beat 4 (downstroke) and the "and of the 4" (upstroke)

1
+
2
+
3
+
4
+
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ
v
ˆ

This has been called the "Universal Rhythm" by some.


Once you have mastered the above rhythmic patterns, you've pretty much got it.


Most rhythm guitarists will vary the rhythm patterns they choose to play over the course of a song, depending on how dense or sparse of a rhythmic pad is needed.

The general rule of thumb is
"If it needs to be in there DO NOT FAIL TO PUT IT IN,
and conversely if it DOESN'T need to be there, LEAVE IT OUT"

The best rhythm guitarists have impeccable taste and totally subscribe to the notion that
"Less is More" and "When in doubt, leave it out!".

On a final note, many rhythm patterns are two or four bars long (as opposed to the patterns I listed above - which are only one-bar patterns), and in many funky and latin musics you will also find a "pushed 1" (accenting the "and of the four" with an upstroke to replace the "expected" downstroke on beat 1).



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copyright 2007 Jeff Brent