Why it’s okay to be a rhythm guitarist

Marco DiSandro

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As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 4.

The first step to being a great rhythm guitarist is not purchasing a metronome. It’s not even learning chords or performing with other musicians. It’s admitting to yourself that it’s okay to play rhythm guitar.

The glamour, attention, and title afforded to a lead guitarist would make any band member jealous, and the appeal would make any guitarist want to demand, “It’s lead or nothing!”

Aside from the lead singer, the lead guitarist is overwhelmingly considered the most important member of the band – certainly the most pivotal instrumentalist in the group. However, such considerations are simply inaccurate and stem from a lack of understanding of band dynamics, how songs achieve their sound, and guitar-playing in general.

Most music fans don’t think about the importance of rhythm guitar; the sound of one rhythm guitar can create a group’s sound, influence the music it makes, and even direct the lead guitarist. As a rhythm guitarist, you’re more marketable than you – and others – realize. You have skills and knowledge that can be applied to various aspects of the music community. You just don’t know it yet.

Let’s take a look at a few reasons why it’s okay to stand in the background, strum some chords, and be satisfied with playing second guitar.

The band needs you

To be a rhythm guitarist, you have to have, well, rhythm of course. You and the bass and drums are working in tandem. You three are the backbone, if not the entirety, of the song you are playing.

The lead guitar is off on its own, doing its own thing, not explicitly contributing to the foundation of the song. The flashiness of a guitar solo is sensational and energizing, but it’s ephemeral to the point that it can be changed up in a variety of ways each time the song is performed. The lead has the luxury of improvising and being spontaneous with their guitar playing. A lead guitarist can accidentally drop a pick, go find a new one, and jump right back into the song, saying, “Oh, I meant to do that.”

The rhythm, however, needs to remain steady and dependable, giving the song a systematic arrangement that listeners recognize and – hopefully – love. After all, the lead is simply adding its part to the song that the bass, drums, and rhythm guitar have already laid down. The improvisation of the lead guitar is based on the arrangement and key established by the rhythm section, which makes you wonder – Who’s leading after all?

Just know that if you play rhythm guitar, your role is key. Think about your favorite song that has a guitar solo. Consider what it would sound like with the solo removed. It may seem a little odd since you expect that void to be filled by the lead guitar, but the greatness of that song would still exist without a second guitar. Sure, songs with epic solos like “Freebird” are all about the triple-guitar attack, but the vast majority of songs can exist without the lead taking a solo.

If you’re struggling with the idea of just being a rhythm guitarist, remember: The song, lead guitarist, and entire band need you – not the other way around.

Keep your options open

By being a rhythm guitarist, you’ve got job security. With the ability to play rhythm, you can keep your options open as far as what band you join and what style you play. A strictly rhythm guitarist is flexible, in that he or she can play any genre and perform in any band.

Aside from performing, songwriting is a trait often exhibited by rhythm guitarists. Whether you’ve tried songwriting or not, as a rhythm guitarist, you’re simply more adept at understanding more complex and intricate chord progressions and melodies. This understanding can come through in developing your song structure. Beginning with riffs and grooves based on chord progressions familiar to the rhythm role, you can more easily sketch out ideas for new melodies, as well as rearranging prior works.

While anyone can write a song, the ability to write a good song isn’t a skill found in everybody. Just ask any member of an ‘80s cover band. Since quality songwriting is so hard to come by, being a rhythm guitarist will help you hone your songwriting skills and be in demand.

Once you have rhythm guitar down, there’s no reason you can’t eventually move into the lead guitarist slot – if that’s what you truly want. Knowing backing rhythms, complete with beats, measures, intonations, and idiosyncrasies that come with playing rhythm, assures many rhythm guitarists have an easier time moving into the lead position, as opposed to switching from lead to rhythm.

Overall, being a skilled and committed rhythm guitarist can help you write songs, maintain a regular performance schedule, and remain in demand.

Delve into side projects

Similar to keeping your options open, as a rhythm guitarist, you can channel your knowledge and skills into other musical avenues and endeavors.

Rhythm guitarists have a seemingly limitless knowledge of chords and rhythms and truly understand how to lock in and communicate with other players. They know how to provide a good foundation of patterns, beats, and tempos with which the rhythm section and vocalists work.

This is why rhythm players make great guitar teachers. Despite what is already available on YouTube in regard to musical tutorials, there is a huge demand for guitar instructors of all proficiencies. If you have experience as a rhythm guitarist, you probably understand elements of music theory such as melody, pitch, duration, rhythm, and tempo that beginner to mid-level guitarists should learn. By teaching, you can diversify your musical endeavors, disseminate your knowledge to novices, and make a few extra bucks.

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Overall, though playing lead means getting the spotlight and fanfare, it also means surrendering a significant level of control over the structure of the music the band produces. If you play rhythm, however, you have more to do with the direction and shape of songs. Your knowledge of chord structures and patterns can help you develop workable songs, and your capabilities and intuition can constructively be passed on to others. Being recognized as the second guitar player in a music group is not a bad thing. Contrary to popular belief, it’s a great thing – for you, your band, and your music career. 

-Photo from Pixabay

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