Rhythm Guitar...


In the context of modern music the drummer and bassist are considered the rhythm section.  Both guitarist and keyboard players are free to choose between playing with the rhythm section or playing on top of it. 

In the Big Band era the piano and guitar were part of the rhythm section.  It was the brass and woodwinds that played the melodies and harmonies.  Freddie Green was the consummate rhythm guitarist with the Count Basie Band.  According the Freddie Green the guitar should be part of the drums, so that it sounds like the drummer is playing chords.  You only notice the guitar when it is not there.

In modern music the guitar has replaced the horns and is the primary instrument along with the keyboard in most bands.  In most cases you are a guitar player, not a rhythm or lead player.  You play rhythm when appropriate and take a solo at the right time.  You may switch between lead riffs and rhythmic chord playing throughout a song.

Most guitarists play by ear, relying more on their sense of rhythm than their knowledge of scale and chord theory.  This means that when they play they concentrate primarily on their left hand while the right hand is strumming instinctively on “auto pilot”.

It is the left hand that chooses the notes and chords and therefore dictates the general direction of the right hand.  The left hand also contributes to rhythm playing by “damping”.  By holding down or releasing fretted notes, the left hand acts as sustain control, and may also allow certain notes to ring while damping others.

Since the main function of the left hand is to select notes and control their sustain, it could be compared to the piano.  In this case, then the right hand is like the drummer.

Playing fingerstyle, or with a pick, the four right hand techniques – downstrokes – upstrokes – alternate strokes and right hand damping give the guitarist control over timing, volume and dynamics.  Combining the effects possible with both hands produces a wide variety of rhythm styles for which the guitar is known.

The musical identity of each rhythm style results from a combination of six basic factors.


  1. The choice of plectrum (pick) or fingerstyle
  2. The choice of chords – their complexity and application
  3. The degree of sustain of damping
  4. The subdivision of the bar into a rhythmic pattern
  5. the beats that are accented or emphasized
  6. The tone of the guitar


Rhythm is made up of four components:  The tempo, the time signature, the note and rest values and the accented beats.  Refer to the section in music theory

Understanding these components will give you a solid understanding on how rhythm works and will allow you to both write and play from written chord charts and rhythm charts.

In popular music you can divide rhythm styles into general sources or categories.  I have chosen five.


  1. Folk and Country
  2. Blues and Rock
  3. Spanish and Latin
  4. Soul, funk and Reggae
  5. Jazz


Listen to these styles and try to isolate the rhythm, noting the role of each musician.  You will find that in rhythm playing, the spaces between the chords are as important as the chords themselves.