Excerpt from the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar | By Cathy Finck
I’ve always found playing rhythm guitar very satisfying. While some players – and listeners – might find the lead guitar more exciting, the rhythm plays a very important role as the song’s backdrop. In an ensemble setting, the rhythm guitar can drive the whole band along, while in solo it acts as its own band. The value of practicing rhythm guitar cannot be overstated. The best players in the world do, and becoming a rock-solid rhythm with excellent timing, tone, and variation of techniques is a worthy goal for any guitarist. In this lesson, I’ll show you a bunch of exercises to achieve that goal, in contexts ranging from country and bluegrass strumming to swing accompaniment.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises comprised of engaging technique workouts that will challenge your fretting and picking fingers in a variety of ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore fingerboard.
week one: Boom-Chuck with metronome
I’ll start with some basics, like using a metronome to help solidify your timing. Any metronome will work, whether it’s a free app or an old-school mechanical device. I often use an app on my phone, listening with just one earbud so I can hear both the click and my playing.
Start with a moderate tempo, say 100 bpm. Try strumming only with muted strings, first on beats 1 and 3 (Example 1a) then 2 and 4 (Example 1b). Once you’re confident with the rhythm, try playing the root (G) and fifth (D) of a G chord on beats 1 and 3, respectively, as shown in Example 2. Then, using only downstrokes, strum a full G chord on beats 2 and 4 (Example 3).
End the week by combining bass notes and strumming in what’s known as the basic boom-chuck pattern — heard in country, bluegrass, and other American styles — as shown in Example 4. Again, use downward strokes throughout. Gradually increase the tempo past 100 bpm, making sure to stay in sync with the click.
Beginner Tip #1
Be your best teacher by recording yourself as you practice with a metronome, really hearing whether you’re playing tight or not with clicks.
second week: Country and Bluegrass Rhythms
This week, you’ll hear simple country and bluegrass beats. Example 5 is based on the same boom-chuck pattern as the previous examples, but adds the IV (C) and V (D) chords in the key of G. Continue to use this metronome for this exercise, as well as the others in this lesson. You can try playing bass notes and strums alone first before combining them. Note the use of walk-ups – single bass notes that lead from chord to chord, as seen in the repeat in bar 2, connecting chords G and C, and in bar 6, connecting D and G.
Now let’s add a new twist to the rhythm – a tasteful upstroke on beat 4.5, as shown in Example 6. You can also use this approach on beat 2 and mix and match beats freely. To verify Example 7which shows how the concept works on a longer progression, still based on the I (G), IV (C) and V (D) chords.
Beginner Tip #2
Figure out your target tempo for a rhythm part, then cut it in half to see if you can play the game. to play slowly in order to manage faster tempos with good timing.
Third week: Rhythms 3/4 Waltz
Over the past two weeks, you have learned strumming patterns based on a double meter, containing an even number of beats. Now I will introduce some triple meter ideas, namely 3/4 or waltz time. It’s a very good dance step, and many beautiful songs are waltzes: “Ashokan Farewell”, “In the Pines” and, of course, “The Tennessee Waltz”, to name a few.
To play some waltz patterns, let’s switch to the key of C major and again focus on the I (C), IV (F), and V (G) chords. (Note that in the video I’m using a capo at the second fret, transposing this week’s examples to the key of D.) As shown in Example 8, the basic concept of strumming is bass note/strum/strum, all quarter notes. Note that each chord has a two-bar repeating pattern where you play a root note in the first bar and a fifth in the second bar.
To liven things up, you can add the rising strums you learned last week for the boom-chuck pattern, while playing a pair of eighth notes for the bass pattern on each downbeat, all demonstrated in Example 9. Note that this exercise also includes rises in waltz time – in bar 4 connecting the G and C chords, and in bar 8 helping to move between C and G. Do you find that you tend to slow down when working on more complex patterns like these? Simply drill the difficult points until they are comfortable, then put them back into the exercise set.
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Beginner Tip #3
The way you hold the pick makes a difference in tone as well as your technique and ease. Experiment with different positions to see what works best for whatever you’re playing.
Week 4: Swing Rhythms
This week, it’s back to common time to explore swing rhythms, a completely different accompaniment sound. The chords you use will be more colorful than previous weeks, with sixths and sevenths giving a jazzy flavor. Begin with a simple I–IV–V–I progression in the key of G (G6–C6–D7/A–G6), as shown in Example 10, keeping a loose wrist and strumming a chord per beat. Note that on the G6 and D7/A shapes, an inner string is muted by the underside of the third finger. These muted notes help give the swing guitar accompaniment (aka “comping”) its percussive and driving sound.
What’s cool about this style is that it’s usually based on moveable chord shapes, meaning they can be shifted up or down the fretboard so you can easily play the same progression in different keys. For example, Example 11 moves the shapes in Ex. 10 up two frets, transposing the progression to A major. Note the use of an alternate form for the sixth chord (A6). As you did with boom-chuck patterns, you can mix things up by not always strumming full chords. Example 12 demonstrates good possibility in the key of G. Simply aim for the lowest string on beats 1 and 3 – it doesn’t matter if you also hit strings 5 and 4 – and strum the full chords on beats 2 and 4. Once that you have mastered the exercises in this lesson, you will not only have a better sense of timing,
you’ll be better equipped to play backup guitar at your next jam session.
Beginner Tip #4
When working on swing guitar rhythms, your hands can start to get tired, as the style mostly uses closed voicings and a lot of muting. Don’t overdo it! Practice these sample swings for five minutes at a time, and your restless hand will be building the necessary muscles before you know it.
Take it to the next level
Here’s a swing chord progression I borrowed from Patsy Montana’s “That’s Where the West Begins,” making it a challenging exercise. It introduces a few chromatic movements, from F#6 to G6 (sounding like A6-Bb6, due to the capo) and new chord shapes: the ninth as well as the diminished seventh, commonly heard in swing. Plus, there’s a lot of muting going on. Practice this example slowly at first, until you can swing to the tempo I play in the accompanying video.
Cathy Fink is a Grammy Award-winning multi-instrumentalist based in the Washington, DC area. She teaches bluegrass and Americana guitar and performs worldwide with her partner, Marcy Marxer.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic guitar magazine.