Developing Solid Rhythm Skills
John Frusciante, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn all have things in common. What is it? They are all respected players but what I wish to express is their ability to transmute the energy inside of them into rhythm playing power.
Have you ever tried to play funk-rock? Have you tried to make it sound good but found yourself not being able to do it correctly? The tools needed to make any riff sound funky, mellow, aggressive or any other emotion that you feel are needed by all guitar players.
In a previous article entitled “Variations in the Blues,” we turned a regular blues progression into several hot blues riffs, expanding our options a little further. Below is an example of one of them:
Let’s stick to the first two measures for now.
This kind of rhythm guitar playing is a bit difficult when you start, but mastering it will liberate your guitar playing. In “Variations on the Blues” I mentioned that if you are having some difficulties with the correct downstrokes and upstrokes with your picking hand you can play the examples at half speed. Do the same for the following:
If you are not well versed with this kind of rhythm playing you might run into some trouble with the rest of the strings that are not being played. Hitting the strings as hard as possible is the main idea behind this style of playing. You will have to mute the strings with your fretting hand thumb and fingers in order to do this.
It will take some time but the time you put into it will reward you whether your goal is to be a rockstar or a bluesman. Below are some exercises to get you started.
There is some difficulty in mastering this so let’s look first at what you can practice if you’re not at this level of playing yet.
Starting with the A minor pentatonic scale use your index finger for all of the following notes on fret 5. You can then move on to using the rest of your fingers. As you move towards the high strings it will get a little bit trickier.
Here is the scale played in order:
We will now use this idea while applying it to a blues shuffle. Focus on mastering the muting of the strings that are not being played by using one note at a time as you see below:
In order to get this shuffle rhythm down, play muted strokes on each upbeat using alternate picking. Use this next example:
It is quite popular that many players at an intermediate level usually play this ‘dry’ riff without muting the rest of the strings, thus playing it incorrectly. This is due mainly in part to not seeing the tab laid out as I have done for you here. It is uncommon for tabs to show the X’s (the muted notes) on the strings.
Where do we head to next? Let’s say that you have these exercises down but you’re still getting unwanted string noise. You might be getting a lot of this so lets practice on getting rid of it. If you want to dominate on your instrument you must know that it could take several months to get this technique mastered. Stay with me though, this is simply the price to pay for domination. Are you with me?
Start playing 8th notes to a click track or a metronome. You may want to go back to the first exercise and play without the click if you’re hearing a lot of unwanted string noise. Do it at your own tempo but slow it down! Yes you can do this all you have to do is focus! Start off with downstrokes then go back and use upstrokes only. After you have done this move on to using both downstrokes and upstrokes. It’s quite a workout but well worth your time.
Something else you can do is to play your basic blues shuffles and riffs with the muting technique added to it. You will need to practice envisioning the X’s in your head because they are not in the tabs listed below. This is part of the reason why many players do not get the sound or feel they want like SRV can. They see the tabs but forget to mute correctly in order to get that aggressive sound.
Revisit the “Variations in the Blues” article and go through all the examples with this muting technique.
More Advanced Excercises
You eventually want to come up with your own blues riffs and apply the muting techniques to them. If you like playing covers then those songs can also be used to practice these ideas.
I have listed some well known riffs below:
- SRV’s “Couldn’t Stand the Weather,” and “Cold Shot.”
- Red Hot Chilli Peppers “Give it Away,” and “Can’t Stop.”
- Joe Bonamassa’s “You Upset Me Baby”
Getting Creative with Blues Riffs
You want to get as much out of your playing as you possibly can from this technique and you want to do it in a way that sounds musical. A term I like to use is ‘Creative Application’ and is a great way to invest your time.
The minor pentatonic scale is great for practicing and getting some ideas from. The box shape is a great way for this kind of rhythmic playing. You can always use other scales but focus on the minor pentatonic for now. You can borrow notes from other scales but focus on staying within this scale.
Using hammer-ons, pull-offs, double stops, slides and vibrato are all ornaments you can experiment with. A lot of players improve their phrasing when they first start out by using these ornaments in their lead playing but fail to apply these useful ideas to their rhythm playing.
You will able to express your feelings much clearer with your rhythm just as you will with your lead.
Dynamics in Blues Guitar Playing
There are many different dynamics and ‘feels’ you can incorporate into your rhythm. You can go from soft playing to loud playing, aggressive playing to smooth playing or from a chunky sound to a funky sound. Muting the unwanted strings and not playing single string riffs will help you utilize the full range of dynamics to better communicate what you want to say through your guitar.
My hope is that I have given you some fresh ideas to use so that you can sound more and more like a professional. Don’t only practice this technique it is important that you apply it both to your rhythm, and your lead.
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