Rhythm Guitar Rules!

Robert Johnson

Hands of the rhythm master

Redefine Rhythm Guitar

Have you ever been talking to a guitar player and they say something like “aw I just play rhythm” in a slightly embarrassed tone?  Or even worse is when somebody refers to you as “just the rhythm guitar player” as if you’re second rate.  It’s a commonly encountered view that rhythm guitar is somehow inferior to lead.  Like anybody who is content with rhythm guitar just isn’t capable of playing lead guitar.  As if only beginners play rhythm.

Well, I call bullshit on that.  Rhythm guitar is a totally separate skill that can actually be more difficult to learn than lead guitar.  It’s also worth pointing out that many lead guitar players are not competent on rhythm.  The best guitarists put a lot of energy into developing their sense of time and knowledge of chord structure.  Hence they have amazing rhythm chops regardless of whether they play leads or not.  What makes a band sound “tight” is the rhythmic prowess of all of the players.  Unfortunately a lot of players brush off developing rhythm so they can learn to solo.  This is a bad idea for a couple of reasons.  First, being a bad ass rhythm player only makes you that much more bad ass when you start soloing.  Second, if you let yourself have time to get into it and really dig in, playing rhythm is a blast!  For a lot of players rhythm guitar ends up being equally as fascinating as lead and takes them to a unique place.

Says Who?

Here is a very short list of excellent rhythm guitar players: Robert Johnson, Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Page, Django Reinhardt, Keith Richards, Wilko Johnson, Buddy Guy, Trey Spruance, Larry LaLonde, Joshua Homme, Alain Johannes, Hillel Slovak, John Frusciante, Brent Hinds, Alex Kapranos, Andreas Kisser, Johnny Mar, Jimmy Vaughan, Tom Morello, Dave Navarro, Dan Auerbach, Carl Perkins, George Harrison, Tim Sult, Kim Thayil, Ed O’Brien, Freddy King, Malcolm Young, Billy Jo Armstrong, Mårten Hagström…  This list could go on for pages.

Wait, there are a lot of lead guitarists in that list!  True.  I encourage you to track down music from every single person in that list – even the ones you already know about – and listen with your ear tuned to the guitar rhythm.  All of the people in that list, whether they also play lead or not, take the role of rhythm guitar very seriously.  They don’t see it as a 2nd class part inferior to lead.  There are also guitarists in that list who just don’t care about shredding.  They take their rhythm skill seriously, they do it extremely well and they make their music far richer (aka less boring).  A lot of great rhythm players that I’ve met actually started out on drums, and retain that ability to make their part fit in as if it were another percussion instrument.  I would actually encourage aspiring guitarists try to get proficient on a drum set.

It all boils down to this.  Rhythm guitar is it’s own thing.  It’s not something to be looked down upon, or to be embarrassed by.  Good rhythm players are worth their weight in gold.  They can add a real depth and tightness to a band.  If you’re a rhythm player, don’t take smack about it, revel in it!  I was in a band where we just put “lead” in front of everybody: lead vocals, lead lead guitar, lead bass, lead rhythm guitar and lead drums!  Consider yourself the lead rhythm player and get deep into your art.  Rhythm guitar rules!

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