First published in Victory Review, December 1999.
When you play rhythm guitar, you have to do more than just keep good time -- a metronome can do that. You want to give the music rhythmic life, energy, and structure, as a drummer would.
Imagine a simple drum beat being played on a drum kit. The drummer doesn't beat away on one drum like the slave driver on a Roman galley, s/he uses the whole kit -- bass drum, snare drum, hi-hat, toms, cymbals -- to create a groove. Most drum beats in Western pop music (rock, pop, R & B, country, blues, folk-pop, etc.) are based on this pattern: bass on beats 1 and 3, snare on beats 2 and 4. As you count "1-2-3-4," the corresponding drums are "bass-snare-bass-snare." Though most drum parts are more complex than that, they use this basic pattern as a kind of template or reference. The hi-hat often plays smaller divisions of the beats such as eighth or sixteenth notes. At the ends of phrases (usually two, four, or eight bars long), there's often a short drum fill that propels us into the next phrase.
The basic bass-snare-bass-snare pattern can also be expressed as "low-high-low-high," which is analogous to the bass-chord pattern that shows up everywhere, from oom-pah brass bands to ragtime and stride piano. It also underlies many guitar rhythms. For example, the traditional flatpicking rhythm in old-time, bluegrass, and country is "boom-chuck-boom-chuck," with a single bass note on "boom," and a chord on "chuck." Visualized in terms of the drums, the bass drum is boom, and the snare drum is chuck. The alternating bass notes in Travis picking follow a similar pattern.
In contemporary rhythm guitar (flatpick), the "boom-chuck" rarely appears overtly. Rather than playing single bass notes on beats 1 and 3, the strumming hand is pretty much sweeping over the strings continuously, playing many of the eighth and sixteenth notes between the beats, and often using syncopated accents.
Even so, the "boom-chuck" is often still implied, giving the strum pattern a recognizable rhythmic backbone. An easy way to do this is to accent beats 2 and 4, which is where the drummer hits the snare drum, and traditional pickers hit the "chuck." No matter how complex your rhythm guitar pattern is, accenting 2 and 4 can often give a nice underlying groove to the whole thing.
To go further, you can imply a drum-like feel by favoring the bass strings (#'s 4-6) on beats 1 and 3, and the treble strings (#'s 1-3) on beats 2 and 4. It's not that you have to literally isolate your strum to one group or the other, just make sure to emphasize the bass or treble as needed to get the proper low-high effect. Combined with the accents on 2 and 4 (above), this creates a nice rocking feel.
Imagine that your guitar is a percussion instrument (which it is). Strum all the eighths or sixteenths, like you're playing a shaker or a tambourine. Accent some strums but not others. Try anticipating beats by accenting the eighth or sixteenth note right before the beat, or do the reverse and accent the eighth or sixteenth right after the beat. Try playing "drum fills" on your guitar to mark the ends of phrases.
You can literally drum on the strings with your strumming hand by letting it actually land on the strings. You can also make the pick produce a percussive "thwack" when your hand lands, which sounds great on 2 and 4. If you dampen the bass strings with the back edge of your strumming hand/wrist when you play them (position your hand just inside the bridge saddle), it sounds a lot like a bass, which works great on 1 and 3.
Such strumming-hand-on-the-strings techniques can be very important in keeping your rhythm part from becoming too loud or "splashy." You want your part to support the vocals, not drown everything out or bleed together like a piano with the sustain pedal held down. Keep your strumming wrist loose and the unaccented strums relatively soft and small, and dampen the strings often to keep them from ringing incessantly.
© Copyright 1999 by Richard Middleton.
All rights reserved.
Richard Middleton is a musician, songwriter, producer, educator, and writer based in Seattle. He is the author of "Rhythm Guitar Secrets" (Countersine), and his music writing has also appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Victory Review, and SingOut! magazine.
96 pages of in-depth instruction to help you keep good time, play rhythm patterns with confidence and power, and much more...