In modern-day music, the terms “lead” and “rhythm” are almost completely irrelevant.
Most players do a bit of each, depending on what the song calls for, but to say you’re a RHYTHM guitarist is kind of like…what? All guitarists should be rhythm guitarists!
Today, if you wish to be an excellent guitar player you need to know how to fit into whatever situation is called for.
Rhythm is so important for all guitar players that the distinction between rhythm guitar and lead guitar almost doesn’t make any sense. Lead players, as well as those who are just playing chords, need to have an impeccable rhythm to drive the song.
If you have excellent timing, individuals will enjoy listening to you and they’ll enjoy playing in addition to you.
So let’s look at some exercises on how to improve our rhythm, whether we play lead or rhythm guitar.
Among the crucial elements to developing your timing is practicing with a metronome. For these exercises I will show you I have included a drum beat as a substitute—either one will suffice at the end of the day.
But what I will show you will slowly require you to hear the subdivisions in your head!
That means that you are not relying on the metronome but using it as a reference to hear the notes in your head.
Let’s take alternating between some simple chords: E, Am for example. You can also use chords to any of your favorite songs.
You can use a strumming technique such as down-up (strumming once down then up, and alternating).
You can also apply this to anything else, like fingerpicking with your thumb alternating, or you can even use scales in this exercise.
If you were to use the fingerpicking exercise it would look like this:
Our exercise will consist of practicing changing from quarter notes to 8th notes.
Quarter notes are counted by ‘1, 2, 3, 4,’ and 8th notes are counted by adding an ‘AND’ in between those notes—doubling the notes you are playing.
Eighth notes are counted: ‘1, and, 2, and, 3, and, 4, and,’.
Play quarter notes on the bass and snare drum, then practice switching SEAMLESSLY to eighth notes.
Now take a strumming pattern and do the same with these chords. Try the strumming pattern up, down with a pick and try to really lock in with the snare and bass. Then speed it up to eighth notes and do the same.
This drum loop is in 4/4 time so for eighth note triplets, we have 12 notes in each measure. We have 16 sixteenth notes in each measure.
Let’s hear what triplets sound like against the beat. Listen to the beat below and hear how now there are three hi-hat notes between each bass and snare.
Listen to this drum beat above! Attempt to lock in with the hi-hat for all your strums. Remember to keep all your strums spaced equally.
So our strumming pattern, up-down, will change for each bass and snare drum. Each beat will land on a downstroke, and the next, an upstroke.
If you’re having a problem playing eighth-note triplets, you can invest some time simply tapping it out with your hand while listening to the beat. Remember to keep your strums spaced out uniformly.
The next notes we will learn are sixteenth notes. There are 16 notes in a bar of 4/4 (easy, right?).
Sixteenth notes are counted as ‘1-e-and-a 2-e-and-a…”
Now listen to the beat and tap along with your fingers.
This may be a pretty fast tempo, so feel free to adjust it in the app above!
Once you’re comfortable with these sixteenth notes with your hands, try them with strumming.
Again we want to just practice at first switching between two chords (practice some other chords once you get ambitious!).
What was the whole point of this exercise? It is to understand the beat inside and out and have the ability to change subdivisions in a moment.
If you can master this, it will hone your rhythm and set you apart from a lot of other guitarists.
You want your internal clock to be so well calibrated that switching between this stuff is completely natural.
Listen to this beat. It is just playing the quarter notes. I want you to play two measures of this beat (two times through the loop) and then switch subdivisions. We’ll go up the subdivisions and then back down.
Play through quarter notes, 8th notes, 8th note triplets, 16th notes, and then work back down—8th note triplets, 8th notes and quarter notes.
I used to practice trying to playing super fast but when I tried to actually get my groove down, it was a lot more difficult. This exercise (and you can apply it to playing scales too!) was one of the most valuable things I’ve practiced as a guitarist.
As if it wasn’t just enough to practice all this just against the quarter notes, my teacher asked me to practice the standards we were working on “with the metronome on two and four,” to get a better sense of swing.
Suddenly what I thought I had dominated had become far more tough, but also more enjoyable.
However, it got my groove to be much better and in the end, I’m so much more comfortable in almost every musical situation.
Try it yourself!
The only notes that are being played are notes 2 and 4 of the beat, so you have to hear (internally) beats 1 and 3 (along with all the rest of your subdivisions!)
Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.