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9 Reasons Why Your Rhythm Playing Sucks

It’s somewhat ironic. As guitarists we spend 90% of our time working on our chops and improvisation skills and 10% of our time working on our rhythm playing. Yet a regular gig or a session guitarist will spend 10% of the time soloing and about 90% of the time playing rhythm.

Aside from this eye-opening fact, here are 10 more reasons you might be a little lacking in the rhythm department.

1. You class yourself as a "lead guitarist."

If I ask you who Metallica’s lead guitar player is you’ll probably say Kirk Hammett, and you’d be right. But if you’ve ever seen Metallica play live you may have noticed that Kirk plays rhythm guitar on every single song. He just happens to be the guy who plays the solos, too. If there’s more than one guitarist in your band and you’re the lead guy, you should know the rhythm parts inside out. Or better yet, you should be able to come up with complementary parts. This not only gives the band a richer sound but also it will make you a better lead player as you’ll have a greater understanding of the songs themselves.

2. You don’t know enough chords.

Start with an Am7 down at the end of the guitar and move up the fretboard playing as many inversions of Am7 as you can. If you’re not getting very far then you don’t know enough chords. Chords give you options when playing rhythm - The more chords you can see, the more options you have. The important thing is to have 3 or 4 chord shapes that you like for each chord. These don’t have to be hefty barre chords either. They can be chord fragments, too. After all, you don’t want to be stepping on the bass player’s toes now.

3. You don’t actually practice rhythm playing.

If your 10% is actually around 5% then you’re not practicing rhythm anywhere near as much as you should. The technique itself, like any other, takes time to develop and while it may not be time you want to invest, it’s necessary if you want to build your rhythm chops. If you know you need to practice rhythm more, try at least incorporating it into your practice routine, or learn the rhythm parts that go underneath all those solos you’ve learned.

4. You need to loosen up.

To be able to play rhythm guitar well you need to be loose. If you're a beginner, just chug away on one chord or mute the strings with your left hand (if you’re right handed) and focus your attention on your wrist and arm. It shouldn’t be tense. If you tense up you won’t be able to sync with the momentum of the beat. When you start to loosen up you may feel like you don’t have as much control, but this will develop over time. Check out British guitarist Jake Bugg’s right arm if you want to see the epitome of loose.

5. You practice rhythm guitar on your own.

I’m of the mind that rhythm needs to be practiced in a band/jam situation. You could also practice at home with a metronome; but there’s no substitute for live playing if you want to develop your rhythmic feel and timing. What’s more, most drummers will slow down and speed up and part of being a good rhythm player is adapting to the other band members.

6. You need to put your guitar down.

Another side to being a good rhythm player, aside from technique, is being able to feel and hear the rhythm. If you’ve ever tried to transcribe a difficult solo or play by ear you’ll find it almost impossible if you can’t really hear what’s going on. The same applies to rhythms; if you can’t hear it then you won’t be able to feel it, and consequently won’t be able to play it (well). If there’s a rhythm part you’re trying to work out, put the guitar down and really listen to it. When you can feel it it’s time to pick up the guitar and work on it.

7. You’re a bad dancer.

This is kind of an extension to the last point. A good dancer feels the music (yes, even disco) and anything that helps you feel the music internally can only be beneficial to your rhythm playing. I came to live in Mexico about 10 years ago and one of the things that surprised me was a lot of peoples' innate sense of rhythm - It’s truly hard to find a bad rhythm player here, as it’s also hard to find a bad dancer. I think the two go hand in hand. If you’re still doubting me here’s a quote from Billy Gibbons: “... there's something about moving your feet. You gotta move your feet to get it back up into the hands, and then if you get it up into the hands then it's gonna go out to those in the seats and they're gonna get up on their feet.”

8. You’ve got technical issues.

A lot of the time the problem can be due to a technical issue such as the way you hold the pick, coordinate your hands, or attack the strings, etc. Rhythm playing can take a while to develop as it’s a different skill set from that of soloing or other techniques. This is where a good teacher can point you in the right direction and save you A LOT of time and wasted effort.

9. Where’s the 1?

When you start out learning rhythm you may want to emphasize where the one is by playing it much louder than the other beats so that you’re confident of keeping time. This shouldn’t be too complicated when playing in 4/4 but when you move on to more complex time signatures you’ll be glad you gave yourself a firm grounding in knowing where the one is.

Matt Tippett has been playing guitar for 20 years and is a self-confessed improvisation addict and compulsive guitar blogger. Read more at: www.unlocktheguitar.net

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