The conventional idea of ââwhat makes a “great” player often centers on the expectation of flamboyant solos and electric guitar pyrotechnics. Of course, experienced guitarists know there is more to it.
Think about your favorite players. Whoever they are, even though they’re best known for their mind-blowing solos, we expect them to have some razor-sharp rhythm guitar skills to match. When it comes to rock music, rhythm playing is a particularly broad church.
It is not enough to be a competent strommer. You could tackle single-note pentatonic, chords and arpeggios of all flavors, countless altered and drop tunings, and rhythms ranging from straight eighths to syncopated math-rock in wacky time signatures.
As they say, there is a lot of ground for the well-balanced guitarist to cover. Here we take a look at the styles of some of the greatest guitarists of the past 50 years.
There’s a lot to learn from each example – you’ll learn how individual players approached rhythm guitar, and you’ll also get broader, genre-based tips along the way. We’ll start with an overview of a well-used modified setting …
1. Open G Blues Rocker
The Open G (DGDGBD) setting is used by everyone from Rolling Stones to Black Crowes. The open string major chord is ideal for slides and barre chords on the first finger.
Adding your second and third fingers to the mix results in some great riffs that would otherwise be impossible in standard tuning.
2. Misty blue riff
The classic Hendrix meets here modern blues-rockers, Josh Smith, Philip Sayce and Orianthi, in a syncopated blues riff. The D7 # 9, but not the full Hendrix form, is a classic chord that sounds great with overdrive. Combined with simple lead phrases, it expands the sound of the G blues scale without sounding like a lead guitar.
3. DADGAD Rocker
While Jimmy Page has helped put alternate tunings on the rock map, our tuned riff to DADGAD is more aimed at helping you visualize the neck a little differently.
Because all the fingerings you’re used to sounding are different, you can create new ideas just by using your ears and letting your fingers go wild.
4. Punky barre chords
The half-tone âapproach from belowâ riff in bar 1 is pure punk rock a la Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash and so on. The barre chords in bar 2 are more suited to punk and garage rock, from Joan Jett to The Hives. Down-pick in bar 1, then switch to looser strumming in bar 2.
5. Pop-Punk Powerchords
In the 90s and 00s, bands like Green Day, Sum 41 and Blink-182 brought old-school punk back to life with high gain tones, polished production and a new slacker / skater vibe.
Pleasant chord sequences like the IV-VI-IV-V (GD-Em-CD) in bars 3 and 4 differentiate their exit from the more po-face early punk.
6. Australian rock chords
We’re unabashedly in the style of the late AC / DC rhythm legend Malcolm Young here, though bands like The Darkness and Greta Van Fleet are also in our sights.
The essentials of the riff are staggered chord changes, a mixture of muted and unmuted notes, and the flipping of two chords at the end. Instant “DC!”
7. Purple Ostinato Riff
Think of players like Ritchie Blackmore, Lita Ford, and KK Downing and you’ll probably come up with an ostinato riff like this.
The trick is to wrap your thumb around the neck to fret the low G note without interfering with the fretting of the other chords. Aim for a juicy vibrato on the last tiara, using your third and fourth fingers for maximum movement.
8. 16th Blizzard
Ozzy’s guitarists (think Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee, Zakk Wylde) have recorded countless examples of this type of riff. The quick-firing sixteenth notes that underpin chords require a steady mute to keep things tidy, but two- and three-note shapes should sound clean.
9. Gallop with two guitars
Bands like Iron Maiden and Heart may have pioneered this galloping rhythm and third-party harmony, but modern players like Nita Strauss also enjoy high energy and technical precision.
We have shown the high harmony notes in our riff as a separate part for a second guitar in red here. Try both parts!
’80s shredders like Eddie Van Halen, Steve Vai, Jennifer Batten and Paul Gilbert loved this super-fast swing style. The secret is to focus on your alternative choice.
Keep it strict throughout, so that when performing a pull-off you’re still doing a picking motion. Timing is a challenge at this speed, so slow down as you work out.
11. Cowboy arpeggios
These are typical sus2 and add9 âcampfire chordsâ. Think about bands like Poison and Guns N ‘Roses and you’ll understand. Hammer-ons and pull-offs expand the sound of basic chords – again, typical stuff.
Aim for a “pickaxe in the direction of the next note” approach and try to keep your opening pick hand movements as efficient and clean as possible.
12. Illusions of powerful chords
Dividing two guitars into separate parts of the power chord is a great idea that has been promoted by Slash and Mick Mars, among others.
The idea is to use an âinverted powerchordâ – just drop the bottom root note of each chord. The second guitar can then play this as a single note riff, with much more freedom to develop the basics.
Metallica, Megadeth, and Slayer were the greatest exponents of this style of thrash metal in the ’80s and early’ 90s.
The muted open sixth string root notes are essential, and powerchords, including the F5 fret one above the root, are typical dishes. Keep your opening pick hand close to the strings and aim for small, efficient movements.
The great and late Dimebag Darrell was famous for his brutal, syncopated riffs. Developing the theme of ’80s thrash, but at a slower tempo allows for more rhythmic complexity and Dime’s signature sense of groove.
Use an alternate selection throughout (you’ll be hitting a lot of upstrokes here!) And use your fret hand to keep the inactive strings muted.
15. Korn Bizkits
The seven-string explosion of the late ’90s was dominated by Limp Bizkit’s Wes Borland and Korn’s Munky and Head. If you want that sound, you have to tune it low!
Borland prefers BF # BEG # C # C #; the Korn pair goes down to ADGCFAD. Try tuning a six-string guitar to the lowest notes of these chords; we opted for BEADGBE here.
16. math homework
Math-metal is characterized by complex rhythms. Think of our Meshuggah inspired riff as a variation of the 4/4 beat, with an extra eighth note added to the 4 beat.
It’s hard to get the feel, so count â1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & aâ to keep time. Practice playing each group of âpushedâ notes separately before playing with our audio track.
17. Emotional chords
While the drop-D setting adds heaviness and simple barre chord shapes to the first finger, it can inspire smoother sounds as well. Think of the early 2000s emo and post-grunge and you’ll get what we’re getting at.
It also shows that hard rock doesn’t need to be in scary minor tones. A mix of major, minor and sus chords sounds here in our riff.
18. Grunge Five
This riff is inspired by Jeff Buckley, Radiohead and even Soundgarden – acts that use a left-field songwriting approach, using odd beats, complex chords, and non-standard tunings.
Everything here revolves around an open D-shaped drone, but the key is not set in stone. The chords come in and go out in different modes, giving a slightly psychedelic vibe.
19. Golden rules
We take inspiration here from Biffy Clyro and Royal Blood by exploiting the clarity of single-string riffs and octaves rather than “denser” powerchords.
The octaves can be as melodic as you want, so experiment with moving them around the neck. Sixteenth notes in bar 2 are a matter of consistency, so use a regular alternate selection.
20. Prog and Math-Rock
Plini and Yvette Young often eschew the distorted tones of traditional shred, delivering intricate rhythmic work that picks up where the mathematical metal leaves off.
Rich finger chords with melodic lines and Satriani tapping are essential. Familiarize yourself with the (relative!) Basics of bar 1, with a capo chord groove followed by a tap in bar 2.