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From the March/April 2022 issue acoustic guitar | By Cathy Fink

I’ve always found playing rhythm guitar very satisfying. While some players – and listeners – may find the lead guitar more engaging, the rhythm plays a very important role as the background to the song. In an ensemble context, rhythm guitar can drive the whole group, while in a solo line-up it acts like its own band. The value of practicing rhythm guitar cannot be overstated. The world’s best players do it, and becoming a rock-solid rhythm player with great timing, tone, and variation of technique is a worthy goal for any guitarist. In this lesson, I’ll show you a variety of exercises to achieve this goal, in contexts ranging from country and bluegrass strmming to swing accompaniment.


Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises consisting of interesting technical workouts that get your fretboard and plucked fingers working in different ways, and offers musical studies to help you visualize and explore the fretboard.


week one: Boom Chuck with Metronome

I’ll start with some basics, like using a metronome to solidify your timing. Any metronome will work, whether it’s a free app or an old-school mechanical device. I often use an app on my phone and listen with just one earbud so I can hear both the clicking and my gameplay.

Start at a moderate tempo, say 100 bpm. Try strumming with only muted strings, first on beats 1 and 3 (Example 1a) and then to 2 and 4 (Example 1b). Once you’re confident on the beat, try playing the root (G) and fifth (D) of a G chord on beats 1 and 3, respectively, as shown in example 2. Then, smack down, hit a full G chord on beats 2 and 4 (Example 3).

End the week by combining bass notes and strumming in what is known as the basic boom-chuck pattern heard in country, bluegrass, and other American styles, as notated in example 4. Again, use swabs consistently. Gradually increase the tempo past 100 BPM, making sure to stay in sync with the click.

Beginner tip #1
Be your own best teacher by recording yourself practicing with a metronome, really listening to whether you’re playing tight with clicks or not.

Second week: Country and bluegrass rhythms

This week you’ll get going with some basic country and bluegrass rhythms. Example 5 is based on the same boom chuck pattern as the previous examples, but adds IV (C) and V (D) chords in the key of G. Continue to use this metronome for this exercise as well as for the others in this lesson. You can try playing the bass notes and strums individually first before combining them. Note the use of walk-ups – single bass notes leading from one chord to the next, as seen in the repeat of bar 2 connecting the G and C chords, and in bar 6 where D and G be bypassed.

Now let’s add a new twist to the beat – a tasteful upbeat on beat 4.5 as shown in Example 6. You can also apply this approach to beat 2 and freely mix and match the rhythms. Cash Example 7showing how the concept works on a longer progression, again based on the I (G), IV (C), and V (D) chords.

Beginner tip #2
Figure out your target tempo for a rhythm section, then cut it in half to see if you can play along. Sometimes slower tempos can be a challenge because there is so much time between beats, but you need to be able to play slowly to handle faster tempos with good timing.

week three: 3/4 waltz rhythms

For the last two weeks you have been learning strumming patterns that are based on the duple meter and contain an even number of beats. Now I’m going to present some triple time ideas, namely 3/4 or waltz time. This is a really great dance step and many beautiful songs are waltzes: “Ashokan Farewell”, “In the Pines” and of course “The Tennessee Waltz” just to name a few.

To play some waltz patterns, let’s move to the key of C major and focus again on the I (C), IV (F), and V (G) chords. (Note that in the video I use a capo on the second fret and transpose this week’s examples to the key of D.) As shown in example 8, the basic strumming concept is bass note/strum/strum, all in quarter notes. Note that each chord has a repeating two-bar pattern, where you play a root on the first bar and a fifth on the second bar.

To liven things up, you can add the upbeats you learned last week for the boom chuck pattern, while also playing a pair of eighth notes for the bass pattern on each downbeat, all demonstrated in example 9. Note that this exercise also includes walkups in waltz time – in bar 4 they connect the G and C chords, and in bar 8 they help move between C and G. Do you find that you tend to slow down when working on more complicated patterns like these? Just drill all the tricky spots yourself until they’re comfortable, then pop them back into the entire exercise.


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Beginner tip #3
How you hold the pick makes a difference in tone, as well as your technique and setup. Experiment with different positions to see what works best for what you’re playing.

week four: Swing rhythms

This week it’s time to explore swing rhythms again – a whole different accompaniment sound. The chords used will be more colorful than in previous weeks, with sixths and sevenths adding a jazzy touch. Begin with a simple I-IV-V-I progression in the key of G (G6-C6-D7/A-G6) as notated in Example 10, keeping a loose wrist and strumming one chord per beat. Note that in the G6 and D7/A forms, an inner string is muted by the bottom of the third finger. These muted notes give the swing guitar accompaniment (aka “comping”) its percussive, driving sound.

What’s cool about this style is that it’s usually based on moving chord shapes, meaning they can be moved up or down the fretboard so you can easily play the same progression in different keys. For example, Example 11 shifts the forms in Ex. 10 up two frets, transposing the progression to A major. Note the use of an alternate form for the sixth chord (A6). As with boom chuck patterns, you can mess things up by not always strumming whole chords. Example 12 shows a good possibility back in the key of G. Simply aim for the lowest string on beats 1 and 3—it doesn’t matter if you also hit strings 5 ​​and 4—and strum the full chords on beats 2 and 4. Once you’ve mastered the exercises in this lesson, you’ll not only have a better sense of timing,
You’ll be better equipped to play as a backup guitar at your next jam session.

Beginner tip #4
Working on swing guitar rhythms can tire your hands as the style uses mostly closed voicings and lots of muting. Do not exaggerate! Practice these swing examples for five minutes each, and your gripping hand will have the muscle needed before you know it.

Take it to the next level

Here’s a swing chord progression I borrowed from Patsy Montana’s That’s Where the West Begins, which makes for a challenging exercise. It introduces some chromatic movements, from F#6 to G6 (sounding like A6–Bb6 because of the capo) and new chord shapes: the ninth and diminished seventh, often heard in swing. Also, a lot is muted. Practice this example slowly at first until you can get along with the tempo I play in the accompanying video.

Cathy Fink is a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist from the Washington, DC area. She teaches bluegrass and Americana guitar and performs worldwide with partner Marcy Marxer.

Acoustic Guitar Rhythm and Timing Lesson sheet music 2
Acoustic Guitar Rhythm and Timing Lesson sheet music 3

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of acoustic guitar Magazine.




weekly workout - get your fingers moving with a series of interesting technical exercises

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