Every aspiring rockstar or guitar virtuoso has probably dreamed of getting on stage and playing guitar solos that make everyone in the audience lose their mind. Even if the lead guitarist often gets to be the center of attention, a band would be nothing without a skilled rhythm guitarist.
Rhythm guitar is often an unappreciated member of the band who sometimes is left in the shadow of the band’s lead guitarist. However, now it’s time to give the rhythm guitar and all rhythm guitar players all the love and praise they deserve. Let’s dive deeper into the exciting world of rhythm guitar and the criminally unappreciated rhythm section of the band.
What is rhythm guitar?
First of all, rhythm and lead guitar aren’t two different instruments – you can play rhythm guitar both with an electric guitar and an acoustic one. Instead, rhythm and lead are two different ways to play the guitar and they hold two very different roles and functions in the band.
In short, rhythm guitar works together with the rhythm section of the band (drums and bass) to accompany the vocals, and tends to combine chords, single notes and some other techniques we’ll look into below.
Even though many bands have both a lead and rhythm guitar player, some bands decide to go with a single guitarist who plays both the rhythm and lead guitar. Good examples of this would be Kurt Cobain of Nirvana and Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath.
One aspect of good rhythm guitar playing is timing. If your timing is off, the whole band can fall apart. In addition, many lead guitarists wouldn’t sound nearly as good if it wasn’t for the support provided by the rhythm guitar. Just think of an epic guitar solo or piece of improvisation by the lead guitarist without the support of a rhythm guitarist. Likewise, the iconic triple guitar attack of Iron Maiden wouldn’t be possible without the backing of Dave Murray and Adrian Smith.
Is playing rhythm guitar easier?
Just like the other crucial parts of any band’s rhythm section – bass and drums – a good rhythm guitarist is the backbone of the band. Although rhythm guitarists aren’t often known for their mastery of intense soloing and other flashy playing techniques, we shouldn’t think that the rhythm section is any less talented. Rhythm guitar has an essential role in driving forward the song and if there’s something wrong with the rhythm, the whole band is going to sound bad.
In other words, you can think of the rhythm guitar as one of those things that you’re not going to notice until something goes wrong. It might be difficult to appreciate the skills of a rhythm guitarist, because when they’re doing their job well you probably don’t pay too much attention to them.
So, in other words, many guitar players can play rhythm guitar. However, Being a good rhythm guitarist isn’t any easier than being a talented lead guitarist.
Rhythm guitar playing techniques
Although the rhythm guitarist can do a wide variety of things and use many different techniques, there are some techniques that are used a lot when playing the rhythm guitar. Next we’ll walk you through the most important ones. These include open chords, power chords, barre chords, riffs and playing muted notes.
You might be familiar with some or all of these already and think they’re easy. However, these are also some of the most important tools in your guitar playing arsenal, so make sure to learn them before trying your hand at guitar solos or other advanced techniques.
Knowing how to play open chords is a crucial skill for any guitarist, not just those playing rhythm or an acoustic guitar. But what are open chords exactly? In short, open chords, just as their name implies, include at least a single open string. These chords are beginner-friendly and probably some of the first ones you’ll learn. Sometimes open chords are also called ‘cowboy chords’. Some of the most common open chords include the major chords E, C, G and D as well as the minor chords Em and Am.
Luckily for many beginners who are just getting the hang of playing rhythm guitar, power chords are perhaps the easiest way to go. This is simply because power chords are made up of only two notes. However, if you want to make power chords sound even more powerful, you can add another note to double one of the two notes.
Without getting too in depth with the theory behind them, power chords consist of the root note of the chord as well as the fifth of the chord. So it takes only two (or sometimes three) fingers to play a power chord while the other strings aren’t played at all. An exception to this would be the power chords played at the very top of the fretboard: E5, A5 and D4. However, these are even easier as they require you use only a single finger on the second fret and another open string.
A good example of how you can use power chords to provide rhythm is in the main riff of ‘Rock You Like a Hurricane’ by Scorpion.
Barre chords can make cold sweat rise on many guitarists’ brow, and for a good reason. Learning to play barre chords and making them sound good can be quite a challenge and an uncomfortable experience. Unlike with many open chords where each string is held down with just one finger, with barre chords you have to hold down multiple strings with a single finger.
The challenge of barre chords is positioning your finger so that it holds down all the right strings and with enough pressure. If you’re unable to hold down a string, the barre chord won’t sound like it should. However, once you get the hang of playing barre chords, you can use the same chord shape and just move up and down the fretboard.
In case barre chords are making your fingers ache and pose too great a challenge, make sure to check our guide to learning barre chords.
When you think about some of the biggest classics in rock music, what comes to mind? In many cases it must be some iconic guitar riff that kicks in during the song’s intro or repeats throughout the song. Playing riffs is also one of the important tasks of all rhythm guitarists.
Remove the riffs played by the rhythm guitar from most iconic rock songs and the whole song falls apart. How would ‘Master of Puppets’ by Metallica or ‘Back in Black’ by AC/DC sound without their famous guitar riffs played by James Hetfield and Malcolm Young?
Last but not least, we have palm muting – also known as damping – in our repertoire of essential rhythm guitar techniques. As the name suggests, palm muting is used to mute the strings with the palm of your picking hand. This produces a shorter thumping sound, unlike when playing open chords and allowing them to ring out.
A good example of palm muting can be heard in the main riff to ‘Barracuda’ by Heart. Hear those rhythmic, almost percussion-like, notes played during the intro of the song? That’s palm muting. In guitar tablature, muted notes can be indicated with the letters ‘P.M’. To mute the strings, simply press down the palm of your picking hand (your right hand in case you are right-handed) against the strings below where you pick them. Then strum down and the guitar will produce a short thumping sound.
In addition to palm muting, you can also try muting the string with your fretting hand. To do this, don’t press the string down all the way against the fretboard, but gently lay your fretting finger against the string to stop it from ringing. In guitar tablature this is denoted with an ‘x’. Fretting-hand muting gives the characteristic “chick” sound you hear in the intro of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana or ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ by Jimi Hendrix.
Rhythm guitar examples
We’ve given some good examples of rhythm guitar in songs as well as well-known rhythm guitar players already. In case you want to become a good rhythm guitarist, it’s not a bad idea to learn by following the best. Here are some excellent rhythm guitar players from the world of rock music who are adored by countless skilled and aspiring musicians all over the world:
Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters)
The frontman of Foo Fighters Dave Grohl is a man of many talents. In addition to playing drums in Nirvana and Queens of the Stone Age, he’s also the vocalist and one of three guitar players for one of modern rock’s most successful bands, Foo Fighters. Good Foo Fighters songs for practicing how to play rhythm guitar include one of 90’s rock classics ‘Everlong’ as well as ‘The Pretender’ from their 2007 album ‘Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace’.
Jack White (The White Stripes)
Who said that you need a large lineup to play catchy rock songs? The White Stripes, a duo consisting of Meg and Jack White are one of the most successful garage rock acts of the 2000s and they’ve shown how far you can go with drums, guitar and vocals alone. Easily their most well-known song is ‘Seven Nation Army’, including one of the catchiest guitar riffs of the past decades.
Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers (Iron Maiden)
Unlike the above example, the British heavy metal legends Iron Maiden trust in the power of three guitars. Together with the galloping bass guitar of Steve Harris and the fast-paced drumming of Nicko McBrain, the band’s guitarists Dave Murray, Adrian Smith and Janick Gers create one of the most recognizable sounds in the history of heavy metal. Try learning ‘Wildest Dreams’ or any of the other songs that utilize the power of three guitars.
Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman (Slayer)
In addition to Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth, the infamous Slayer is the fourth member of thrash metal’s “big four”. Not surprisingly, being able to play rhythmic and fast-paced guitar riffs is a must-have skill in a trash metal band–and Slayer’s Kerry King and the late Jeff Hannemann are definitely two guitarists with the skills of playing lead and rhythm. For a good workout for your strumming hand try learning ‘Seasons in the Abyss’. A great track to learn for both rhythm and lead guitar players is ‘South of Heaven’ from Slayer’s classic album of the same name.
Rhythm guitar playing is of course an integral part of mastering the acoustic guitar. Johnny Cash, a legend of the country genre, is a great example of the “man and the guitar” combination. Johnny Cash, AKA “The Man in Black”, is known by many for his unlikely cover version of the Nine Inch Nails song ‘Hurt’. No other instruments than acoustic guitar are really needed here and ‘Hurt’ shows how just a guitar and vocals go a long way.
What is the difference between lead and rhythm guitar?
As you have already learned, rhythm guitar is crucial for any rock band with a guitar player in it, whether the band has only a single guitarist or two (or even three) guitar players. But what about lead guitar? How do lead and rhythm guitar work together? In case you’re interested, stay tuned as we return to the question in our guide to lead guitar. Next time we’ll explore some of the main features of good lead guitar, some of the most important techniques for playing the lead and, of course, the best lead guitarists out there.
Learn rhythm and lead guitar with Yousician
So, are you ready to play rhythm and start learning some of the techniques that we’ve gone through, such as power and barre chords or palm muting? You can start to build your rhythm playing skills with Yousician and it’s interactive guitar playing lessons.
You want to play lead guitar instead? Then you’re in for a treat as Yousician covers both styles of guitar playing and supports both electric and acoustic guitar. Download the app for free on your computer or mobile device and start learning today.