When you think “guitar hero” what do you picture? (Look out, the clichés are flying already…cue the fog machine!)
I’ve had many students start their first lesson by saying that they’re “not a guitar player” and don’t really need to be “good”. But you don’t have to be a guitar hero to be a good guitar player: being a good player means having the ability to deliver what your music needs. A good player plays with authority, it doesn’t matter how simple or complex the music is. That authority comes through practice, gradually building confidence and skill. The most essential skill is good rhythm.
Most players spend far more time playing rhythm than lead, no matter how skilled they might be at playing solos. (Then there’s the way the role of the guitar has changed in contemporary music…guitar solos and virtuosity are almost an anachronism). But all music, from any era, is about rhythm. Guitar is a rhythm instrument. Virtuoso guitar heroes like Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen had great rhythm, and so did John Lennon and Johnny Cash.
A great rhythm riff can be as much of a hook as any soaring chorus, and just as powerful:
So with all that said…if you “only” play rhythm, own it and learn to do it well. Here are 5 things you should make a priority to improve your rhythm playing:
1. Develop good timing.
Practice with a metronome, with drum loops, with songs you love, and with other people. You should treat rhythm as a musical skill that deserves attention on its own. Learn how to FEEL the beat, not just count.
2. Learn to strum with fluidity and confidence.
Too many people just focus on the ups and downs and never notice how stiff their playing is. This is a topic I’ve written extensively on, check out my “Strum Secrets” posts for valuable tips.
3. Grow your chord vocabulary.
This might mean finally mastering those frustrating barre chords, or learning new “color chords” to add flavor and interest. You’ll keep on using the basic open chords for your entire playing life, but there are so many other things you can learn to do and many of them aren’t difficult at all.
4. Play songs.
The whole song, beginning to end. If you don’t sing, sing anyway – or at least in your head – to make sure you get through the whole thing. Can you hold the tempo all the way though? Is it challenging to maintain a rhythm pattern for three or four minutes? These are basics that create a foundation for everything else you learn to play.
5. Play with others.
It’s one thing to be able to play along with a metronome, but it’s something else entirely to fit into a group and groove. Play simple parts and simple songs to start with…you don’t want to be distracted by the guitar part. Concentrate on being a part of the whole, and how your part relates to the others. After a while you won’t have to think so hard and you’ll be able to just feel it.