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Got Rhythm? - Part 1

By Jonathan Vipond

Recently there was a debate on a music forum that I frequent about the greatest rhythm guitar player ever. All sorts of names cropped up, some familiar, some not so but all mentioned were people who had turned this into a true art form. It got me thinking about what makes a great rhythm player. What do all these people have in common that makes what they do so essential to the music being made? Without it, where would such legendary moments such as Back in Black, Master of Puppets, Ain't talking 'Bout Love (and my personal favourite) Money for Nothing (sorry!) be? This isn't just restricted to the rock genre. In any great guitar style there is great rhythm guitar being played. This article looks at why in order to be a great, well rounded guitarist and musician you will need to embrace this valuable concept and what you can do to be a better rhythm player.

So what makes a great rhythm guitarist and what advantages are there to studying this? The role of rhythm guitar or indeed any rhythm instrument in music is to bridge the gap between the melody and the rhythm section. In some instances it is the sole backing and sometimes it provides the whole music, in which case a good understanding of all factors is needed. In our own playing, rhythm forms a half of what we do as a musician. One half is of course the understanding of the notes and sounds that we make but what use is that if those sounds are not brought together with a controlled sense of timing? I have known players of many instruments who have worked for years developing their techniques, composition skills and understanding of music but do not simply cut it when asked to play a simple rhythm in time and with style.

For the moment though let us consider this in the context of a band. Rhythm guitars provide the basis for vocalists or soloists to build their melodies on but, as crucially, must work closely with the rhythm section to build groove and drive the music forward. All the best rhythm guitarists have many things in common including:

  • The unwavering ability to hold a strong steady pace.
  • An impeccable sense of time and rhythm.
  • They are able to LISTEN to both what the rhythm section is playing, thereby complimenting this by enhancing their harmonic capability as well as having a keen ear for what the singer or any soloists are doing and creating a non-intrusive, reliable backing for them.
  • Knowledge of theory and harmony and the ability to apply this instantly to a variety of situations.
  • A well balanced tone which fits into the band's recording or live sound.

So what action can you take to be a better rhythm player? Firstly, if you are not doing so, start to get lessons from a great teacher. Check out my article on my site about this here - A teacher will work with you on your timing, aural skills, theory and technique amongst other things that will not only help your rhythm playing but also give your other playing areas a boost.

One of the first things they should encourage you to do is to buy a good metronome. For those who do not know what this is it is a device that is used to keep time by producing a click or a pulse of sorts. The speed and sometimes even the time signature of this can be altered allowing you practice in time to a variety of different beats. For me this is the best £15 I have ever spent and is an essential practice tool that I encourage all of my students to buy.

Next, LISTEN to great rhythm guitar players. Listen to their technique and how they use, muting, accentuation and tone to really make their parts shine and also to hear how they lock in with the other band members to form a solid unit. Each one is accurate and precise in what they do, both in the notes that they play and also the way that they are delivered. Listen to your heroes play and mimic their playing and style down to the tiniest detail. Track down live recordings for further evidence of how tight a band they actually are. Learning and playing along with these recordings is another way to improve and develop your style. This will also greatly benefit your aural skills.

Also, work, play and learn from people who already have a great sense of rhythm and its applications. Drummers are a great choice for this as studying rhythm is obviously a major part of what they do. I remember reading an interview with Dimebag Darrel from Pantera many years ago where he said he and his brother Vinny would just jam for hours when they were younger. Listen to any of Pantera's recordings to witness the special relationship they had and the rhythm powerhouse that developed from that. Better still, learn how to play the drums! Eddie Van Halen started as a drummer and went on to become one of the greatest guitar players in history. I'm sure the development of his formidable rhythm and lead styles was partially due to understanding the importance of rhythm.

Finally, playing with others and being part of a band that rehearses, plays and records regularly is the ideal opportunity to put everything you learn in your lessons and other areas of study into practise and will make you a much better player than just sitting in your bedroom. Even if it is covers or working on original material DO IT! Your playing will thank you.

Go to part 2

Jonathan Vipond

Copyright 2007 - Jonathan Vipond

Jonathan Vipond is a professional guitar instructor in West Yorkshire where he runs the Jonathan Vipond School of Guitar. With over 15 years of practical experience he has written and recorded albums and EPs, toured with several bands and has notched up hundreds of live shows to his name. Jonathan is currently studying with master musician, composer and teacher Tom Hess (

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