From the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Cathy Fink
I have always found playing rhythm guitar to be very satisfying. While some players—and listeners—might find lead guitar more exciting, rhythm plays a mighty important role as the backdrop to the song. In an ensemble context, the rhythm guitar can drive the whole group, while in a solo setting it acts as its own band. The value of practicing rhythm guitar cannot be exaggerated. The world’s best players do it, and becoming a rock-solid rhythm player with great timing, tone, and variation of techniques is a worthy goal for any guitarist. In this lesson, I’ll show you a bunch of exercises for achieving that goal, in contexts from country and bluegrass strumming to swing accompaniment.
Weekly Workout is a series of monthly guitar exercises made up of interesting technical workouts that will get your fretting- and picking-hand fingers working in different ways, and offer musical studies that will help you visualize and explore the 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 a free app or an old-school mechanical device. I often use an app on my phone, listening with only one earbud so that I can hear both the click and my playing.
Begin with a moderate tempo, say 100 bpm. Try strumming just with muted strings, first on beats 1 and 3 (Example 1a) and then on 2 and 4 (Example 1b). Once you’re confidently locking in with the beat, 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 downstrokes only, strum a full G chord on beats 2 and 4 (Example 3).
End the week by combining bass notes and strumming in what is known as the basic boom-chuck pattern—heard in country, bluegrass, and other American styles—as notated in Example 4. Again, use downstrokes throughout. Gradually increase the tempo past 100 bpm, making sure to stay in sync with the click.
Beginners’ Tip #1
Be your own best teacher by recording yourself when practicing with a metronome, really listening for whether or not you are playing tightly with clicks.
Week Two: Country and Bluegrass Rhythms
This week you’ll get some simple country and bluegrass rhythms going. 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. Keep using that metronome for this exercise, as well as the others in this lesson. You might try first playing the bass notes and strums on their own before combining them. Note the use of walk-ups—single bass notes that lead from one chord to the next, as seen in the repeat of bar 2, connecting the G and C chords, and in bar 6, bridging D and G.
Now let’s add a new twist to the strum—a tasteful upstroke on beat 4.5, as shown in Example 6. You can also use this approach on beat 2, and freely mix and match the rhythms. Check out Example 7, which shows how the concept works on a longer progression, again based on the I (G), IV (C), and V (D) chords.
Beginners’ Tip #2
Figure out your tempo goal for a rhythm part, then cut it in half to see if you can play along. Sometimes slower tempos can be challenging because there is so much time between beats, but you need to be able to play slowly in order to handle faster tempos with good timing.
Week Three: 3/4 Waltz Rhythms
In the last two weeks, you learned strumming patterns based on duple meter, containing an even number of beats. Now I’ll introduce some triple-meter ideas, namely 3/4 or waltz time. This is a really great dance step, and many beautiful songs are waltzes: “Ashokan Farewell,” “In the Pines,” and, of course, “The Tennessee Waltz” to name just a few.
To play some waltz patterns, let’s move to the key of C major and again focus on the I (C), IV (F), and V (G) chords. (Note that on the video, I use a capo at the second fret, transposing this week’s examples to the key of D.) As shown in Example 8, the basic strumming concept is bass note/strum/strum, all in quarter notes. Note that each chord has a repeating two-measure pattern where you play a root bass note in the first bar and a fifth in the second bar.
To liven things up you can add the upstroke strums you learned last week for the boom-chuck pattern, while also playing a pair of eighth notes for the bass pattern on each downbeat, all demonstrated in Example 9. Note that this exercise also includes waltz-time walkups—in bar 4 connecting the G and C chords, and in bar 8 helping move between C and G. Do you find that you tend to slow down when working on more involved patterns like these? Just drill any tough spots on their own until they are comfortable, then pop them back into the whole exercise.
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Beginners’ Tip #3
How you hold the pick makes a difference in tone as well as your technique and facility. Experiment with various positions to see what works best for whatever you are playing.
Week Four: Swing Rhythms
This week it’s back to common time for exploring swing rhythms—a whole different accompaniment sound. The chords you’ll use will be more colorful than in the previous weeks, with sixths and sevenths providing a jazzy flavor. Start with a simple I–IV–V–I progression in the key of G (G6–C6–D7/A–G6), as notated in Example 10, keeping a loose wrist and strumming one chord per beat. Note that on the G6 and D7/A shapes, an interior string is muted by the underside of the third finger. These deadened notes help give swing guitar accompaniment (aka “comping”) its percussive, driving sound.
The cool thing about this style is that it is usually based on chord shapes that are moveable, meaning they can be shifted up or down the fretboard so that you can easily play the same progression in different keys. For instance, Example 11 moves the shapes in Ex. 10 up two frets, transposing the progression to A major. Note the use of an alternate shape 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 one good possibility back in the key of G. Just 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 you’ve mastered this lesson’s exercises, you’ll not only have a better sense of timing,
you’ll be better equipped to play backup guitar at your next jam session.
Beginners’ Tip #4
When working on swing guitar rhythms, your hands may start to tire, as the style uses mainly closed voicings and lots of muting. Don’t overdo it! Practice these swing examples for five minutes at a time, and your fretting hand will build the required 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,” which makes for a challenging exercise. It introduces some chromatic moves, from F#6 to G6 (sounding as A6–Bb6, due to the capo) and new chord shapes: the ninth as well as the diminished seventh, commonly heard in swing. Plus, there is lots of muting going on. Practice this example slowly at first, until you can swing along at the tempo I play it 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 around the world with her partner, Marcy Marxer.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.