How To Play Tight Rhythm Guitar Like A Pro

By Tom Hess

Common-Rhythm-Guitar-MistakesWhat is the secret to playing really tight rhythm guitar like a pro? Is it learning many different guitar riffs? No. Is it jamming with others? No. Is it practicing to a metronome? No.

Tight rhythm guitar playing is a result of:

  • Training your ear to focus on the right things when you practice. This ensures that your practice time isn't being wasted and you are focused on the right things.
  • Identifying sloppy rhythm guitar playing mistakes and fixing them. (You can do this with any rhythm guitar exercise if your ears are trained to focus correctly.)

This video shows how to fix a very common rhythm guitar flaw (watch the video until the end to get the most from the rest of this article!):

Question: “Tom Hess, how does training one’s ear improve one’s rhythm guitar playing? Isn’t ear training about identifying intervals, chords and scales?”

Answer: Ear training consists of many things. Training your ear to identify chords, scales and intervals is one aspect of ear training. Identifying rhythms (note values) by ear is another. Identifying rhythm guitar playing flaws is a third area of ear training. (There are other elements of ear training that are specific to lead guitar. They include: telling good vibrato apart from bad vibrato, hearing consonance and dissonance and identifying chord functions in a chord progression.)

How good are you at identifying rhythm guitar mistakes? Take this rhythm guitar playing test to find out.

Avoid these common rhythm guitar playing flaws:

How To Play Tight Rhythm Guitar

Rhythm Guitar Mistake Category #1: Palm Muting Flaws

Mistake #1: Palm Muting Everything You Play

Palm muting everything makes it hard to emphasize important notes or chords in your rhythm guitar riffs. When done all the time, this makes your playing sound boring and repetitive.

The purpose of muting some notes and not others is to create a contrast between muted and unmuted notes (and chords). The contrast makes the unmuted notes emphasized. The other reason to mute notes is for the percussive sound and tighter control over the strings when playing.

Watch the video (starting from 0:09) to hear the difference between good and bad palm muting.

Mistake #2: Inconsistent Palm Muting

There are 2 types of inconsistent palm muting:

  • Type 1: Randomly changing which notes are muted. Listen to an example. You first hear a rhythm guitar riff played with consistent muting, followed by the same riff played with inconsistent muting.
  • Type 2: Randomly varying the intensity of your palm muting. Listen to an example. You first hear a power chord played with consistent muting, followed by the same power chord played with inconsistent palm muting. Sometimes the muting is just right, sometimes it is too weak and other times it is very aggressive.

Both versions of inconsistent palm muting tend to occur together.

Note: Randomly inconsistent palm muting is NOT the same as intentionally varying your palm muting. The former is a result of sloppy guitar playing. The latter is done on purpose to create rhythm guitar variations.

Question: “Tom Hess, can one really tell the difference between randomly inconsistent palm muting and palm muting that is varied on purpose? Isn’t it a matter of one’s opinion?”

Answer: Inconsistent palm muting is very easy to spot. It leaves behind many clues, such as:

  • Inconsistent palm muting often falls on awkward places within the riff. Example: muting the downbeat and playing the rest of the riff unmuted.
  • Inconsistent palm muting is often accompanied by sloppy string noise and weak articulation (and other mistakes described below).
  • Inconsistent palm muting has no predictable pattern to it. This makes your playing sound random.

An expert guitar teacher can analyze your rhythm guitar playing and give you honest feedback on its tightness.

Rhythm Guitar Mistakes Category #2: Timing Flaws

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Common rhythm guitar timing flaws include:

  1. Playing ahead of the beat. This means your notes are displaced and occur before the metronome or drum beat.
  2. Playing behind the beat. This means your notes are displaced and occur after the metronome or drum beat.

The goal is to play on the beat. This means your notes and chords fall exactly on top of the metronome or drum beat.

Listen to an audio example of rhythm guitar played in time.

Listen to an audio example of rhythm guitar played ahead of the beat.

Listen to an audio example of rhythm guitar played behind the beat.

Taking rhythm guitar lessons (with an expert guitar teacher) helps you master perfect timing a lot faster. As your ears improve, test your rhythm guitar playing to track your progress.

Rhythm Guitar Mistakes Category #3: Picking Articulation Flaws

Good picking articulation makes it easy to hear each note (or chord) in your guitar riffs. Poor picking articulation makes it hard to hear what notes are played.

Poor rhythm guitar articulation develops from:

Weak Pick Attack - this means picking the notes too lightly when you play rhythm guitar.

Inconsistent Pick Attack - this means hitting some notes loudly and others softly. This imbalance makes it hard to articulate the notes clearly.

Sloppy 2-Hand Synchronization - this means your hands are picking, fretting and releasing a note at different times. The faster you play, the more obvious 2-hand synchronization problems become. This makes it much harder to articulate the notes clearly.

2-hand synchronization problems are caused by sloppy guitar technique and poor practice habits. This eGuide shows how to improve your lead guitar technique and play guitar fast.

Action Steps To Improve Your Rhythm Guitar Playing:

  1. Record your rhythm guitar playing regularly and analyze your recordings. This trains your ear to identify weaknesses that hold your playing back.
  2. Make a list of specific problems you want to fix. This helps you avoid overwhelm and tells you what to do next to improve your guitar playing.
  3. Focus on the problems you want to fix. You can do this in 2 ways:
  • Focus on one problem in isolation until it is fixed. This tactic is best for short-term problems that can be solved quickly.

  • Rotate your focus among several problems in the same practice session. Example: repeat a guitar riff for 30 seconds focusing on palm muting. Then play it for 30 seconds focusing on playing in time. Next, focus on your picking articulation for 30 seconds. Rotate through this mini circuit over and over for 10-15 minutes. This tactic works best for long-term development.
  1. Get feedback on your playing from an expert guitar teacher to track your progress and become a better rhythm guitarist a lot faster.

This free rhythm guitar test tells you how close you are to mastering rhythm guitar playing.

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