It is really important for beginner guitar players to know how to play rhythm guitar, so you can learn to play some of your favourite songs, jam with your friends, or play live music. This post is about learning essential rhythms on the guitar, whether you are brand new to learning rhythm guitar or you’ve been playing for a while and want to upgrade your skills level.

A lot of new guitar players focus on playing lead guitar, but in reality, when you’re playing live or with your friends, 80% of what you play is going to be rhythm guitar.

For a beginner, it can feel overwhelming as there are a lot of things to think about in rhythm guitar. It takes time and practice to become a good rhythm guitarist, and it’s important to work hard for it. However, being a good rhythm guitarist can set you apart from the crowd. If you’re a great rhythm guitar player, people are going to enjoy playing with you and enjoy listening to you. That means you can get gigs easily. So, get ready to improve the rhythm on the guitar.

Check out this one-stop guide to learning guitar rhythms.

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Lead Guitar and Rhythm Guitar: What's the Difference?

For beginners in the world of guitar, the terms lead guitar and rhythm guitar can be confusing. Of course, any type of guitar should always follow some sort of rhythm, whether loose or tight, especially when guitars are very prominent in a song, where it drives the music, but it's not quite lead. The distinction between lead guitar and rhythm guitar can be somewhat arbitrary. Many contemporary bands, such as the Beatles, and Metallica have two guitarists, where usually one would specialize in "lead" and the other in "rhythm".

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Lead or rhythm - which type of guitarist are you? Image credit: Senad Palic on Unsplash

Lead guitar means melody guitar. In other words, the lead guitarist must specialize in playing the melody of the song, so any guitar playing a solo is not a lead. Of course, a lead guitarist may get to solo, but someone cannot be called a lead guitarist simply because he/she plays a solo in a song. A lead part contributes entirely to the melody (as lead guitar means melody guitar), instead of to the foundation, which is carried by the rhythm guitar. This means the rhythm guitarist is the driving source.

The lead guitar uses few or no chords, although sometimes it can be following a chord structure, while rhythm guitar uses the chords to drive the music.

It is also important to remember that lead guitar and rhythm guitar fit into two different parts of a band, although they are played on the same instrument. The lead guitar provides a solo voice and is grouped with the lead vocals, lead piano, etc. Rhythm guitar is part of the underlying rhythm section, along with instruments like bass, drums, sometimes piano, background vocals, etc.

In many cases, these distinctions may get blurred, especially when the so-called lead guitarists play chords and double-stops in their riffs. For instance, a single guitar part provides both the melody and accompaniment (especially power chord riffs, commonly found in rock and metal, and fingerpicking, found in folk guitar). In some other cases, bands (often three-piece bands) may feature a single guitarist who can act as either. This is done by either assuming one role at a time or, in a recording studio, recording a lead track over their own rhythm track.

There are plenty of good reasons to learn rhythms as a guitarist.

Playing Lead Guitar

A lead guitar part is often played on an electric guitar. In such cases, moderate to heavy distortion (also known as drive or gain) is used. It is for this reason, many amplifier manufacturers refer to their distortion channel as a lead channel. Distortion provides a more powerful sustain than a clean channel, and this is often best represented in extreme guitar techniques like shredding and tapping, which some guitarists feel can only properly be done with distortion.

At the same time, the lead guitar can also be played on an acoustic guitar. In such cases, however, some techniques may not be as pronounced as on an electric. The most common techniques for creating lead parts are bending, vibrato, and slides, which provide the basic means of emphasizing notes, allowing for greater expression in the melody. In some cases, the lead guitarists may employ arpeggios or sweep picking to add depth, and the progression of the solo often mirrors the underlying rhythm guitar part.

Playing Rhythm Guitar

The basic characteristic of a rhythm guitar is the playing of chords in patterns. Rhythm guitar is often criticized for sounding "chordy" or not being as interesting as the lead part. However, this couldn't be further from the truth. It is true that a rhythm guitar cannot "express" as much as a lead guitar. However, there is so much to be learned about chords, chord progressions, and rhythm patterns!

The most important thing about strumming is to get the timing right.

Rhythm guitar can be played just as easily on electric or acoustic, clean or distorted. The rhythm guitar technique is less about expressing individual notes, and more about choosing chords or chord voicings that enrich the overall sound. This, in turn, may add its own expressive tone to the music.

A guitar session
You must go on practicing every day if you want to learn the guitar. Source: Udemy

Essential Strumming Patterns for Beginners

Most guitar players start by learning how to play the guitar with the same few open position chords. While chords are certainly important to becoming a better guitarist, the key to unlocking the ability to play a plethora of songs and becoming an expert acoustic guitar player, is to know how to play a wide variety of rhythms and strumming patterns.

Southern Rock

The Southern Rock style combines downstrokes and upstrokes, with the downs striking on beats 1, 2, and 4 and the upstrokes happening on the ‘and’ after beat 2 as well as the ‘and’ following 3.

Light Rock

The light rock sequence introduces muting which is achieved by flattening your fretting hand across the strings without pushing down onto the fretboard and then hitting all the strings as usual. This is easiest to achieve when you use barre chords or power chords, as your first finger is already in the position to cover all the strings.

Learn how to develop great timing as a guitarist.

Country Waltz

The Country Waltz is in 3/4 timing and introduces root note bass picking. When you see ‘R’ on a diagram presented in your online guitar class, it means to simply play the root note of the chord, which will be whatever the first note is that your pick strikes.

Driving Quarters

The Diving Quarters are a little more advanced in the world of strumming and can take some time to truly nail. Despite the name, the ‘Driving Quarters’ sequence introduces sixteenth notes and hybrid picking. Hybrid picking is when you use your fingers to pluck the strings, at the same time as holding your pick.

Soul Sixteenths

In this strum pattern, there are only strums and mutes, but they move around in an interesting way which makes it exciting to listen to and fun to play.

Gypsy Rock

The Gypsy rock formation is a bit simpler as it’s entirely made of eighth notes. It starts with a root note, then does two normal eighth note strums followed by two muted strums. To finish, there’s one more normal strum, then a mute. Again, your online guitar lesson will have a diagram to explain this!

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Learning how to play the guitar is now easier with the help of online websites. Source: Guitar Command

As a beginner, you must understand how guitar rhythms work.

Funky R&B

The funky R&B combo combines root notes, sixteenth notes, and rests. It’s quite simple to play, but with the right chords, it can be extremely effective.

Funky Latin

The funky Latin number is two bars long, and it’s likely to take a bit of practice. It uses eighth and sixteenth notes, strummed barre chords, and mutes.

Folky Hop

This progression combines folk and hip hop. Although it’s only one bar in length, it is arguably the most complex pattern you will learn as a beginner.

Simple Reggae

Reggae rhythm is all about accenting beats 2 and 4, rather than 1 and 3. This one uses eighth notes, with the first two muted, the second two strummed. The third pair is also muted, whilst 4 has a strum followed by a rest.

The best online guitar lessons will not only teach you rhythms but also how to incorporate them into your playing. Both are crucial features of every guitarist’s journey. Once you master rhythms as a guitarist, it will help you in many other areas of your guitar repertoire. Songs will become easier to learn, your timing and feel will become smoother and more accurate, and your creativity will be heightened. Mastering strumming patterns will elevate your playing to that next level.

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Shreyanjana

Shreyanjana is an archaeologist who ironically finds the written word to be the most powerful means of storytelling. A travel buff and a photography enthusiast, she has been writing and sharing stories of all sorts ever since she can remember.