Firstly, let me say that I've been playing guitar for a couple of years now. I know a few scales (Major, Minor, Blues, Harmonic Minor) and the basic chords with it's different shapes. I've also learned a few licks, which allows me to do some simple improvisation (mostly bluesy/rock licks). All in all, I have very basic knowledge on music theory.

I'm in a band and my rhythm playing basically consists on playing the chords on every beat, with some variations (strumming pattern changes, arpeggio, etc), which gets a little boring (at least to me).

I would like some advice on techniques for improving my rhythm guitar playing (and ways to develop such techniques). Maybe some way to play along with the melody while still playing chords, using fills between chords change (like David Gilmour in Time for example), chords substitutions, etc.

Just to help showing where I'm aiming at, I really like Eric Clapton's arrangements (I like most of his work, but I'm focusing here at the Cream/Layla era) and I love Hendrix' rhythm playing (Hey Joe for example). Basically, blues and blues rock rhythm playing.

Thanks a lot!

  • 2
    Hendrix really played rhythm in his head, and his actual playing is an endless fill. He also played every song he knew (whether it was his or not) as fill for every other song. For hey joe, try learning the basic structure for remember and then morph it a little and apply it to hey joe. I've simplified it, but this is really the key to his playfulness and confidence in playing.
    – horatio
    Dec 16, 2011 at 17:42
  • 1
    Excellent question. I feel like I'm at this point with drumming, and I'm sure most musicians feel this at some stage, regardless of which instrument they play.
    – naught101
    Oct 16, 2012 at 13:52

5 Answers 5


It sounds like you are approaching this from a very analytical perspective, which will ultimately leave your music soulless and no more than an analytical exercise.

Music is not analysis. Music is feeling. Guitar can be played by inputting visual patterns and by having your analytical mind guide your note choice. Or it can be played where the player is 100% focused on the pitch/tone/sounds. When music is played from this perspective, it becomes an act of manifestation. Miraculously, if you reach a point of being totally consumed with sound, then your fingers will find the notes on their own.

If you want to enjoy your playing on a far more profound level, you'll need to totally change your approach toward playing.

I can tell already that you aren't learning music by ear. You are learning by YouTube tutorials and tabs, like most players today. Learning music by ear is the most important thing that you can do. It trains your ear, and builds the connection between what you hear and what you play.

The other thing you need to do is start singing the notes that you are playing, ala George Benson or Hendrix Voodoo Child. Do this as often as possible, and make a point to do this every day. You probably can't do this at all, so you'll need to work at it.

If you want to learn how to play better rhythm guitar, then find songs with rhythm playing that stokes you. Then learn it by ear. Use a program like Capo or Amazing SlowDowner to loop, isolate, and slow down the parts.

At some point, it will be useful to learn some theory to be able to understand basic harmonic analysis and to learn your fretboard so that you can make sense of how the parts you are learning fit the chord progression. But this should never be your primary focus, and is really not that important.

Good luck on your discovery. The key is to enjoy learning, and love playing.

  • 1
    Analytical == soulless? Have you never heard of math metal? :P I agree that music is largely about soul, feelings, emotions, and other things that appear far removed from 'analysis', but a little theory and analysis can totally open new avenues for playing, and especially for composing.
    – naught101
    Oct 16, 2012 at 13:57

Rhythm guitar is all about feel, and the best way to acquire a feel is by learning and practicing lots and lots of songs. I'd create a list of the tunes that inspire you and learn them note for note. Get into them and play them over and over again. Then try to incorporate what you've learned in your band playing. There are a ton of transcriptions available in tabulature format at places like Ultimate Guitar of varying degrees of accuracy, but I've found some great ones there and they make a fine starting place for picking these tunes apart.

  • +1 for the advice of learning the tunes note by note. I guess there's really no secret to theses things, there's practice, practice, practice and more practice. Thanks for the answer! Dec 16, 2011 at 13:46
  • beware of tabs however: they are often wrong. One thing one often fails to get from a tab is how the notes are fingered. More often than not, the tab looks like some crazy mess, when it's really just an A-A7-Am and the guitarist miffed a note in his haste.
    – horatio
    Dec 16, 2011 at 17:38
  • Yes, agree with @horatio - think of tabs as a starting point.
    – Joe Lewis
    Dec 16, 2011 at 17:53

You could start with snare-drum exercises to get more interesting (but still simple) rhythms. There's a sort of food-chain in the rhythm section: the percussionist steals from the tap-dancer, the drummer steals from the percussionist, then piano/bass/guitar all steal from the drummer (and each other).

It's hard to answer this question without resorting to a laundry-list of artists to listen to. So, here's ...

A laundry list of Artists to listen to.

  • The Edge. Early U2, like War, Joshua Tree.
  • Tonni Iommi. Early Black Sabbath, the first two albums have one or two "metal" songs, and the rest is Hard Blues.
  • Old Blues. Anything recorded by Alan Lomax. Black Texicans is my current fav.
  • Cake! It's just one awesome riff after another. Like a boogie-woogie hanon audiobook. If you keep the riff in the pocket instead of champing at the beat, it'll stay in the background and shore-up any comp or vamp.
  • Steve Cropper. Sam and Dave. Sam Cook. Marvin Gaye. Blues Brothers! They would often transcribe his guitar parts and give it to the horns; forcing him to write yet another guitar part.
  • Ragtime. Joplin and Jellyroll. That left-hand ain't no slouch.

I'll think of more later, I'm sure. But I'm focusing on "rhythm"-players who "can do lead"; that should complement your list of "lead"-players who "can do rhythm".

  • That's great advice! I'll take a look at these artists. Nice observation on the "lead players who can do rhythm" :). Dec 16, 2011 at 13:49
  • I thought this site wasn't about listening recommendations? +1 for breaking the rules ;)
    – naught101
    Oct 16, 2012 at 13:59
  • 1
    @naught101 While I'm a fan in general of breaking the rules, here I think I'm just bending them. :) You're allowed to offer recommendations (if it supports the answer), but you're not allowed to ask for them (at least not as the primary focus of the question). Oct 16, 2012 at 18:28

It sounds as if what you're doing at the moment entirely involves holding down a chord shape until the next chord change, and doing various things with your picking hand.

The next step is riffing. Riffing tends to involve doing something more involved with the fretting hand, which as you'd imagine, brings more interest into the pattern.

The good news is that guitar magazines, and sites such as Ultimate Guitar, are full of tabs for guitar riffs, and even learning one or two will give you ideas.

The other good news is that many riffs are a lot simpler than you might imagine. Parts that sound rich and full on record, turn out to be played on one or two strings.

For example, the repeating rhythm guitar riff on Howlin' Wolf's Killing Floor is almost completely monophonic; single notes played on two strings (although, it requires speedy bi-directional picking, which is a little challenging at first, but well worth learning to do).

Free's Fire and Water contains a riff with big power chords -- but they're played on two strings. Any illusion of there being more notes in there, is created by the big harmonics of the amp's distortion. This is the case with a lot of rock/metal; for example almost all Black Sabbath songs.

If you're playing covers, find the tabs, learn them, adapt them if you need to.

If you're developing your own parts, find inspiration in the riffs other people have written.

  • It would be good to point to specific tabs on Ultimate Guitar that have good rhythm fills, as most tend to be for the leads and either abbreviate or ignore the rhythm. BTW: White Room, by Cream, features Clapton doing fills throughout. Of course, when you have Jack Bruce on bass, the pressure is kind of off :)
    – Steve Ross
    Mar 2, 2012 at 18:53
  • I should have said Badge, which has some really cool fill licks (as, of course does Keys to the Highway).
    – Steve Ross
    Mar 2, 2012 at 21:52

have you ever thought about passing chords? Play those on the last beat of each bar where a chord change is going to come - a little like me walking bass where I would walk down from G to C (say) and G, B, F# then play a D on the last beat before starting at C on 1 in the next bar. Maybe you could do something like that with chords to liven things up.

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