This lesson originally appeared in the twelfth issue of She Shreds, published in April, 2017. Subscribe here and receive your copy of She Shreds’ 13th issue with your subscription.
When I was first learning guitar, I wondered why the left hand has to do all the work. All of the tarantula-like chords, pattern memorizing, stretched calloused pinkies—after all, I was right handed and all of this seemed counterintuitive.
Shouldn’t the right hand be doing all the important stuff? Who designed the guitar anyway? I soon figured out it’s because the right hand is providing the important rhythmic pulse in conjunction with the harmony. Basically the dominant hand is doing all the creative work while the left is a mere pattern template. For example, an E major chord will always be E, G#, and B no matter what instrument you play. So, might as well give the less creative hand the redundant shapes to memorize. Your dominant hand‘s choices will then define the song and pump life into it, lock it into the other instruments, create dynamics, and ultimately define the musical style. And we soon learn that everyone’s strum, fingerpick, flatpick, slap, or tap is as unique as their personal signature.
Just like the formula that makes up an E major chord, there are some formulas and rules for rhythm guitar too. These can be heard in and applied to thousands of songs. Learn the rules, break them, or both.
A rhythmic motif is a short and repetitive strum or pick pattern. Practice just one bar (or measure) motif until it feels natural and like part of your muscle memory. Give yourself time for the muscles to learn! Sometimes the one-bar motif is repeated throughout an entire song, but most often it changes depending on movement from the verse to the chorus to bridge—or however you section the song up.
Start with truly understanding how to count your quarter notes and eighth notes. I can’t stress this enough. It’s much easier than it sounds. This is the necessary foundation for more syncopated or quirkier strums and picking styles to build off of later. And remember to count out loud. This is an important part of internalizing rhythm from ear to hand.
For example, a 4/4 rhythm counted in quarter notes is counted as “one, two, three, four.” Played in eighths, it is counted as “one and two and three and four and.” Every part of the measure is accounted for so you can’t rush it or skip any part of it. No more, no less. The rules. Boom.
Here are the most used time signatures in music:
4/4 time: One and three are characterized by strong beats that alternate with two weaker beats (two and four). The weaker beats are often light up-strums.
4/4 time with a backbeat: Same as above but with emphasis now on the two and four. This ubiquitous pattern creates a rockin’ sound.
3/4 time: Emphasis is on the one. (ONE-two-three.)
6/8 time: Emphasis is on the one and four. (ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six.) Try creating your own mnemonic devices. I have a student that came up with “GLO-ri-a-VAN-der-belt” for a 6/8.
Practice both strumming and fingerpicking in all of the common time signatures for a versatile repertoire. Use a metronome whenever you can.
Now, shouldn’t there be an accent? Most likely, yes. Beware the cheese-grater strum. There’s an often unspoken and unseen musical element to reading rhythm charts that is called the downbeat, the accent or emphasis, that is also known as the pulse. Chords need to sound like, well, music—so don’t scrub ‘em like you’re getting out a stain. Instead, get some style in your strumming hand and be creative.
Rhythmic displacement, otherwise known as syncopation, is a rhythm that’s been altered from the original downbeat rule. This adds flare and personality to your song. Pick another one-bar motif, this time with syncopation, and repeat it.
Utilize dotted eighth notes, ties, and emphasized upbeats. Remember to repeat patterns so unity is consistent throughout the song. You’ll find the same syncopated strumming patterns used over again in music of all different styles and genres. Get comfortable knowing a handful of them. And make up some of your own.
On the other side of the spectrum, and arguably just as important, is the punk power chord down-strum. This can be treated as an equally accented down-strum with no ups. It should sound heavy, almost like a solid bass line—a rhythm guitar driving the song, often in contrast to a jangly or melodic lead. Accents can certainly be used in the heavy down-strum style too, just be sure to practice locking in. With this style, you’ll want to work on getting tight with a metronome or drummer.
Staccato or legato? Play or listen to a strummed or picked measure. Is it made up of short sounds (staccato)? Examples of staccato rhythms are short dampened down-strums, driving, and/or often very percussive beats. Does the chord ring out with a long harmonized tail after a dramatic strum (legato)? Songs are made up of both, so get comfortable playing both styles with variations in between.
Remember this as far as syncopation: If you can hear it, you can play it. Don’t forget to take a moment, or several, to sing the rhythm out loud or tap it like a drum beat. If you’re playing along to a song and it just doesn’t sound right, chances are the accent is in a different place.
The hybrid picking style is a versatile cross-style technique which uses both the pick and the bare fingers. This is the style I cannot live without since I play both rhythm and lead in my band. The general guideline is to hold the pick between the thumb and index finger while the middle, ring, and pinky fingers hit strings one, two, and three alternately or simultaneously. Some people avoid the pinky at all costs and alternate using just the middle and ring fingers on the highest strings. In my experience, that’s a waste, and I believe it’s best to put the pinky to work. Why not? It’s just hanging around anyway, and with it we’ll have more harmonic options.Then, the pick hits strings six, five, and four—often the bass or lower notes of the chord. They can be struck singly or up to three strings at a time, depending on the song.
Hybrid style also comes in handy for volume control when playing without a bassist. You can aim for a solid, low, flat picked articulation, like a bass player using a pick, while the treble strings, when present, won’t be louder or interfere with the chord. This also allows for two different sounding tones at the same time; the bassy strike makes a nice contrast against the softer fingerpicked arpeggiated (when a chord’s strings and notes are played one at a time) plucks.
Practice playing hybrid style chords with accurate articulation, both with even volume between notes and with dynamic contrast. Aim for a steady rhythm throughout. Hybrid style also allows for playing ease with non-adjacent strings, inversion chords, or simply different voicings for a fresh sound. This is unlike the standard strumming technique in which all of the strings are played in succession.
Hands down, the most useful part of hybrid picking is that it allows you to quickly revert from strumming to finger picking in the middle of a song or set. Sometimes the verse is strummed and then sprinkled with a series of arpeggiated chords. Hybrid style allows for quick turnarounds into harmonic leads, double-note runs, and melodic jumps. These can be executed all the while effortlessly jumping back or simultaneously playing a solid strumming pattern. Sometimes a drone or pedal bass string sounds great ringing out while the treble strings are fingerpicked in a percussive staccato.
Mix and match your own one-bar motifs, from repetitive strumming patterns to complex single note lines. Internalize the rules by listening for 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, and other time signatures. Learn how to read rhythms in print or sheet music, listen for motifs in TV and film scores, and become aware of accents when you’re listening to music anywhere. Study rhythms from other instruments such as the drums, bass, and horns, as well as vocalists’ melodies, for new rhythmic ideas and motifs.