Mastering The Basics Of Rhythm Guitar

Rhythm is the single most important aspect of music and the second most important skill to have as a musician. Having your rhythm skills mastered will make every thing you play sound better, tighter, cleaner, more catchy, more in depth, and capture your listener on a deeper level.


When your teacher tells you that practicing rhythm is important, she is understanding its significance.


While most teachers understand rhythm's significance, they rarely teach it as its own subject. Rhythm is usually bundled in with other topics such as songs or technique. While this is a good approach, it is incomplete. Sometimes you have to start from the basics and later integrate rhythm with the other things you know. I know I had to (and still do)


So, how do we practice rhythm? There are many ways and, depending on your instrument, some ways work better than others. There is no way to practice strumming on a piano, but you can work on playing chords or notes to a beat.


Many examples I'll show you will be based on the guitar, but can be applied to every instrument, even vocals.


Essentials For Understanding Rhythm


(This assumes you have some basic knowledge about what some notes are and how long they are played for. If you don't know, that is ok! A quick Google search will clear things up and I will also have these examples played so you can hear how long they are played for.)


We are going to start from the very bottom and build up, so that you have a solid foundation to go forward and master rhythm playing.


A bar of music typically has 4 beats in it, spaced evenly. The music that fills every bar of music can have different rhythmic values (or lengths).


If you did music class in primary school then you should have a basic understanding of this. If not, then I'll have to assume you've listened to at least one pop song in your life.

A whole note is typically played for 4 beats and takes up a whole bar of music by itself.   

Half Note 

A half note is typically played for 2 beats and takes up half of a bar.

Quarter Note 

A quarter note is typically played for 1 beat and takes up a quarter of a bar (noticing a pattern here?).

Here's where things get a little trickier.


Eighth Note 


An eighth note is typically played for a half a beat, meaning you can fit 2 eighth notes into one beat of music. You can fit 8 eighth notes into one bar of music. The way to count this is 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &: pronounced/counted: one and two and three and four and 

So now that you have an understanding of the basics of rhythm, how do you go about playing (and actually practicing) rhythm?

Let's do this in levels. What I mean is, let's take the examples above and play them in different ways. You'll see those ways soon enough.


Have you ever counted to four before? Good! We'll need those skills to get us through mastering rhythm!


For the first level you need to go through each example above clapping all the notes and saying all of the beats.


For the whole note you will say, "1 2 3 4" and clap every time you say the 1.  


For the Half Note, you can count 1 2, 1 2, 1 2, 1 2. So you clap on the 1 and let it ring for the whole 2 count.


For the Quarter note you can count as 1 1 1 1, and clap on every count and for eighth notes you can count as 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &, and clap on the number as well as the "&"


Go ahead and do that along with the audio examples above right now.




Now we can move on to the next level which is mute strumming. Simply take your guitar and use your fretting hand to mute the strings and just strum with your picking hand. If guitar is not your instrument, just pluck or hit or sing a single note for now.


Go through the examples above again and mute strum your way through them. Now you're getting real practice on the instrument after building a solid foundation!


I've found from teaching dozens of students rhythm that if they can't say it, they wont be able to play it. This is why we focus on clapping and speaking first: to get the mind to understand what to do so it can tell the body what to play. If you are trying to process what to play, then send the signal to your hands to play, to have them play, to hear if it was good or not, reprocess that information, and make adjustments...




Now that you've got the hang of the rhythm, lets actually try it with full chords. Pick a chord you know, any chord! Go through the examples above and play them all with one full chord. Don't worry about changing chords just yet, just get used to playing rhythm with a single chord.




Now we can focus on changing chords with rhythm. Play each example above several times in a row, and every bar or every other bar, change to a different chord. Don't worry if it is not in time and smooth yet, that comes with practice. Many people struggle with this aspect of rhythm (I have too!) so don't beat yourself up or think you're never going to get it. You WILL get it, just give it time!


Try and smooth out the changes as best as possible, and ask your teacher to show you some effective ways of practicing chord changes.




This is where things get really interesting. Up until this point we have focused on one note value at at time. Now we are going to mix and match them up to create some interesting combinations.


With the examples below, take them through the first 4 levels to ensure you have a solid foundation and understanding of them to move on.


THIS IS CRITICAL. Even if you think this is easy, just do it. If its easy, then doing each one 8 times in a row will take no time at all.


The first example is a half note plus two quarter notes so the claps land on beats 1 3 and 4.

 The second example is a quarter note followed by a half note followed by a quarter note. The claps land on beats 1 2 and 4.

The third example is two quarter notes followed by a half note. The claps land on beats 1 2 and 3.


Now we move on to using eighth notes!

The fourth example is two quarter notes followed by four eighth notes. So the claps land on beats 1 2 3 & 4 &. Have a below to hear when to clap or play.





The fifth example is a quarter note followed by an eighth note followed by a quarter note followed by three eighth notes. The claps land on beats 1 23 & 4 & . Pay attention, the note on the 2 count here is an eighth note, and hence gets a shorter duration, compared to the notes played on count 1 and 3. 

The sixth example is an eighth note followed by three quarter notes followed by an eighth note. The claps land on beats 12 3 4 &  

Now that you have a good understanding of some basic rhythm concepts, it is time to branch out and explore.

Search up other patterns containing these types of notes, or create your own! These examples above will set you up for success for the rest of your musical life if you follow the instructions.


About the author:


Bryce Gorman is the owner and instructor at the first professional guitar school in Lethbridge Alberta, with a passion for helping his students become the best players they can be! If you are interested in taking , then be sure to contact Bryce!