“I’m the rhythm guitarist…” is not a response you hear often when you ask a guitarist if they play rhythm or lead. Back in earlier days of rock ‘n’ roll, there seemed to be a clear delineation of roles in a band. The Yardbirds had Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Eric Clapton and later Jeff Beck on lead. Even though Brad Whitford of Aerosmith contributed notable solos, he was mostly known for holding down the rhythm. Keith Richards recorded more memorable solos than most realize, but it’s his rhythm guitar style that has become the blueprint for rock rhythm guitar. Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes is a modern-day notable rhythm guitarist. He too contributes stellar lead playing, but along with his songwriting, it’s his rhythm parts, playing and tone for which he’s recognized.
Playing rhythm is not necessarily a relegated role or somehow inferior to taking the lead guitar spot in a band. It requires a different mindset and is every bit as demanding. I’m equally challenged, if not more so, when playing rhythm. There are a lot of factors you have to consider when playing rhythm guitar versus being solely a lead player—who embellishes and usually tends to play on top of everyone else, sometimes to the detriment of the song! First and foremost, when playing rhythm, you have to have just that: rhythm. You must be able to fall into the groove with the drums and bass. Ahead of the beat? Behind the beat? You have to be solid, just like the drummer and bassist. If you drop out, drop your pick, stumble on a beat, it’s noticed. And you’ve got to have tone.
With that in mind, here are some ground rules for being a stellar rhythm guitarist.
Lock in with the drums and bass. I like to huddle in with the drummer and bassist when playing rhythm guitar. I’ll have the drums in my in-ear monitors, primarily the kick, hi-hat and snare. Our drummer in Sheryl Crow’s band, Jeremy Stacey, is very quick to make comment or complain if he feels any of us rushing or dragging behind him, which makes us very aware if we’re slacking off. We’ll usually come back at him with a few derogatory remarks about being a Brit (he’s from London), but in the end we know he’s right.
Rhythmically, find a groove that works around the beat of the drums and bass. Creating a rhythm part like this most often becomes a significant hook of the song you’re writing (all parts should have a hook, actually). Use space, breaths and silence as well.
Have your tone dialed in. That can mean a lot of things, depending on what style of music and band, but there are some common sense factors. Make your sound full and pleasing to hear: not too much harsh treble; clear, maybe with less distortion. If your band has a high-gain kind of sound, make it the best—complex and full with rich body and overtones (sounds like I’m describing a coffee blend). All of this usually means getting a good amp.
Be careful not to dial too much bass into your tone, lest you conflict with the tonal spectrum of the bass guitar. Find your own tonal space. Also take care not to dial in too much midrange, or you’ll fight with the lead guitar and vocal. I find the bass control on my amp barely exceeds 3–4. In the past, I’ve had hi-gain amps where I’ve had the bass completely off.
Your sound engineer can help with this on a gig. Listen to the way it sounds out front. Don’t argue with him, just fine tune your tone accordingly to blend with the band. Sometimes it may even sound a little sucky from your perspective onstage, but it will be just right out front.
The same goes in the studio. Choose amps that sound good specifically for rhythm playing. You’ll know you’re onto something when the recording engineer places a mike in front of your cab, takes all of one minute to dial your sound at the console and says, “Okay, next!”
Choose your notes carefully. Rhythm playing isn’t all about playing barre chords. As far as note choice, you play with the bass guitar—or better yet, play off the bass guitar. You’re part of a mini-ensemble, not the entire band, when it comes to playing rhythm. If your bassist is holding down the root notes for the majority of a bass line, try building chords that start with the third or fifth on the bottom. Try using spatial three-note chords. This trick was the creation of guitarist Freddie Green, the big band jazz legend of the ‘40s, who developed a style that most often avoided the roots in his chord structure, playing only the most important notes in relation to everyone else. He’d prefer thirds, fifths or sevenths, with wide intervals between notes. This made his sound bigger than playing chords with four or five voices.
In the end, you can rest assured that being the rhythm guitarist always equals cool, whereas the lead guitarist often equals jack-ass!
Peter is co-founder of 65amps.