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How to Play Rhythm Guitar (Complete Beginner’s Guide)

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Tackling rhythm guitar is a great place to start as a beginner. All you need are a few chords, a sense of timing, and a desire to improve! With rhythm guitar, there is plenty of room to grow and learn new techniques. For now, though, let’s start with the basics.

What Is Rhythm Guitar?

Rhythm guitar is essentially what the name implies—it follows the rhythm of the song. You may think that keeping the beat is the percussionist’s job, not a guitarist’s, but they can both take part.

Since the rhythm is the backbone of a song, the more instrumentalists are focused on the beat, the better. In fact, the lead guitarist—the one handling the solos—would be lost without a rhythm guitar to keep the whole song on a strict beat.  

Learning rhythm guitar is a great place to start as a beginner because you don’t have to worry about the intricacies of the melody or detailed solos. As a rhythm guitarist, you can focus on the following:

How to Play Rhythm Guitar: The Basics

Rhythm guitar may seem easier than lead, but looks are often deceiving. Keeping a steady beat, consistent strumming patterns, and solid chord progressions can be a challenge—but one worth conquering! 

Here are some of the essential steps to mastering the rhythm guitar in no time. 

Understanding the Beat

The beat is the heart and soul of music—and the key to mastering rhythm guitar. If you can’t find the beat, you won’t be able to master rhythm guitar. So, where do you start?

If you’ve ever found yourself tapping your foot or nodding your head along to a song, you already have an ear for the rhythm of a song. Take that natural feel for the beat and start counting along. 

As a general rule, you can count to the music in sequences of four: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4. This time signature, called 4/4, is the most common in popular guitar songs. It will not work for every song, but more often than not, it will fit nicely.

The first “4” shows that there are four beats in each measure, or each small section of music. The second “4” means that a quarter note carries the beat. In other words, every time you count to four, you’re counting four quarter notes. 

While the quarter notes carry the main beat, you’ll need to break them down more to learn how to play rhythm guitar. For example, you’ll need to cut those quarter notes in half and count eighth notes.

For every one quarter note, there are two eighth notes. While there are four quarter note counts in a measure, there are eight counts of eighth notes in a measure (hence the name). To count with eighth notes, you can use the following: 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&. Here, the number and the “and” each count one eighth note. 

To take it a step further, we can break the eighth notes in half as well, making sixteenth notes. Yes, you guessed it—there are 16 counts of sixteenth notes in one measure. To count them with the music, you can say: 1-ee-&-a-2-ee-&-a-3-ee-&-a-4-ee-&-a.

When learning how to play rhythm guitar, following and counting the beat is essential for two main reasons. First, you need to follow the other musicians and keep track of where you are in the song. Second, you need to provide a steady rhythm for the lead guitar and vocals through strumming.

Strumming with the Beat

While you’re counting in your head—or out loud if you need to!—you’ll need to match your strumming pattern to the count. This is where things may get a little tricky as you need to keep the beat completely steady while strumming and playing chord progressions. A chord that is a fraction of a second late could push the whole rhythm off course.

The best way to practice rhythmic strumming is to practice. Here are some tips to get you started: 

  • As you listen to your favorite songs, try counting along to the beat to get used to it.
  • Get a metronome! If you don’t want to buy your own, you can download an application (or use our online metronome tool).
  • When you’re ready to practice with your guitar, turn on the metronome to about 80 beats per minute.
  • Pick one chord and strum down on every beat (quarter note).
  • Challenge yourself by increasing the beats per minute or by adding in some chord changes.
  • When you’re ready, try playing eighth notes. If you remember, the count is 1-&-2-&-3-&-4-&, where the numbers are downbeats and the “ands” are upbeats. An easy strumming pattern is to strum down on the downbeats and up on the upbeats. The pattern would be down-up-down-up.
  • Take the simple down-up-down-up strumming pattern and apply it to the sixteenth notes.
  • When you’re ready, add in chord changes and new strumming patterns, like down-down-up-down.

No matter what song you’re playing, always be sure to stay on the beat. Don’t be afraid to play with a metronome—even the pros use a metronome at times to help keep them on track. 

Also, keep in mind that for some songs you won’t always count one type of note. Many songs require you to switch between counting in quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes. Once you have a solid foundation by following the guidelines above, you’ll be able to conquer the rhythm guitar for even the most complex songs. 

Read next:

How to play acoustic guitar

Guide to learn to play electric guitar

Starting to learn guitar – beginner’s guide