How To Master Rhythm And Syncopation On Guitar

Learning to play rhythm guitar is only part of rhythm in music.  Understanding rhythm and syncopation will help define standard notation and guitar tablature, rhythm guitar parts, and entire music styles.  This post will feature music and guitar rhythms for guitar players all around the world.  At first, you will find an explanation of simple rhythms in music, then will find a detailed explanation of Modular Phonetic Rhythm.  This new approach to rhythm should help clarify rhythm in music; which is already a difficult written lesson.  And finally I will feature a style of music that is grounded on rhythm and syncopation.  Find it all here at Mike’s Guitar Talk.

Guitar and fedora hat

Rhythm guitarists have been alive in the music industry ever since the guitar was created.  Gibson did a great tribute to some of the greatest rhythm artists to use their guitars and can be found here at

Lead guitar players get most of the glory, but rhythm guitarists supply much of the foundation upon which those lead lines can soar. Indeed, many of classic rock’s finest moments, from The Bobby Fuller Four’s “I Fought the Law” to The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” were forged in the smoldering fire of rhythm guitar. Of course, many great rhythm guitarists – the late Mick Ronson springs to mind – occupied dual roles as lead and rhythm players. Below are 10 rhythm players who rank among rock and roll’s best-ever.


John Lennon famously said, “If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it Chuck Berry.” Berry’s innovative use of double-stops and his newfangled rhythm style comprised the backbone of rock and roll guitar. With an ES-355, or one of its cousins as his instrument of choice, Berry melded country and R&B; into swinging, boogie-woogie rhythms that previously were thought to be the sole province of piano players. His distinctive two-string patterns became a template for the likes of Keith Richards and others.



Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood gets more attention, but when it comes to rhythm guitar, Ed O’Brien’s amazing six-string work is just as integral to the band’s sound. “I’ve been heavily influenced by rhythm guitar players like Johnny Marr,” O’Brien told Guitar Player, in 1997. “He was an amazing, brilliant rhythm player, rarely played solos, so full of sounds. I’m nowhere near as technical, but I’m also into sounds, pedals, rhythmic textures and arpeggio stuff. When you get to the point when you understand what rhythm guitar is really doing, you begin to appreciate good rhythm guitar.”


Recording engineer Eddie Kramer, who worked with countless guitar greats, once gushed that John Lennon ( was “a ridiculously good rhythm player.” Lennon himself summed up his six-string gifts, often showcased on an Epiphone Casino to Rolling Stone: “I’m not technically good, but I can make [the guitar] howl and speak,” he said. Lennon went on to compare his approach to that of Richie Havens. “He plays, like, one chord all the time. He plays a pretty funky guitar. But he doesn’t seem to be able to play in the real terms at all. I’m like that. I’m an artist. If you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”


The late Johnny Ramone often gets short shrift as a rhythm guitarist, but in fact his rapid, down-stroked “buzz saw” technique had a powerful impact on thrash-metal specialists, including the likes of Kirk Hammett and Dave Mustaine. Even six-string virtuoso Paul Gilbert has cited Ramone as a primary influence. Asked by photographer Robert Jones to name his greatest six-string inspiration, Ramone said, “Jimmy Page, of Led Zeppelin. He’s probably the greatest guitarist who ever lived.”


“There are guitar players who are good, and there are guitar players who are really good. And then there’s Kaki King.” That’s how Dave Grohl once described King, the youngest person ever named a “New Guitar God” by Rolling Stone. The six-string sensation attributes much of her rhythm skills to the fact that she was originally a drummer.  “It has to do with the independence of the hands,” she said, in a 2010 interview. “Because I can do something with one hand while the other is doing something totally different, I can get twice as much done on the guitar. People sometimes see what I’m playing and go, ‘Oh, my God!’ while I’m thinking, ‘Actually it’s not that hard.’ I’m using techniques I learned through playing drums, and transferring that to the guitar.”


Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine’s distinctive rhythm style was forged through countless hours of listening to Angus Young, Jimmy Page, Ace Frehley and Michael Schenker. Asked about his current approach to guitar, he told Guitar World, “[Megadeth lead guitarist] Chris [Broderick] does all the work and I have all the fun. But that’s kind of backwards because I’m the one carrying the brunt of the rhythm responsibilities. Chris has a lot of really great abilities as a lead guitarist. I’m more of a utility player, where I play underneath. These days, when it’s time for a solo, I hold the bottom down while Chris plays lead, especially when there’s a difficult guitar rhythm on top, because that’s my strength.”


Angus Young once said his older brother, Malcolm, could likely fill his shoes, but he [Angus] could never fill those of Malcolm. Indeed, Malcolm Young’s sensational rhythm work lies at heart of AC/DC’s distinctive sound. Guitar Player once noted that the secret to Malcolm Young’s guitar technique is playing open chords through a series of medium-sized amplifiers set to low volume with little or no gain. The fact that he uses heavy gauge Gibson nickel round-wound strings, in order to produce a thicker sound, is a key factor as well.


Fans who revere Jimmy Page for his breathtaking solos and extraordinary riff-making should add Page’s rhythm playing to that list. Few guitarists have moved more nimbly between earth-shaking power chords and subtle triads and tasteful arpeggios. Much of Page’s magic emanated from the range of dynamics he achieved with various strumming techniques, which he often employed in acoustic settings. Punk guitar maestro Johnny Ramone once revealed he improved his down-stroke picking style by listening over and over to Page’s playing on “Communication Breakdown.”


Few musical sounds are more instantly recognizable than Pete Townshend’s revved-up flamenco style or his wind-milled power chords. Townshend spoke about his love of rhythm guitar in a 1980 interview with Sound International. “I wouldn’t object at all to have a [lead] guitar player in The Who so that I could just concentrate on rhythm. I love it. It’s a physical thing. It’s like a dancing thing. There’s a strong syncopation element in it. My style has been formally rhythmic. I laid down the beat and John [Entwistle] and Keith [Moon] worked around it.”


Rolling Stones producer Don Was once offered up a terrific assessment of Keith Richards’ greatness as a rhythm player. “[His] rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. But in the Stones’ case, Keith is doing what the lead guitar player normally does.” Richards offered these thoughts: “[Rhythm] has always fascinated me. Mainly because I realized after quite a few years that the thing that really intrigued me, that turned me on to playing, was suggested rhythms going on, or a certain tension. Especially in early rock and roll, there’s a tension between the 4/4 beat and the eighths going on with the guitars.”

Songwriter and guitarist

This next article features simple rhythm and syncopation in music.  It’s a great lesson for guitarists who are new to reading music, whether it is standard notation or guitar tablature.  Find the article here at

Every musician should have a clear understanding of the fundamentals of rhythm. Even if you consider yourself an “ear player,” knowing how to count and play different rhythms while keeping a steady beat is a valuable skill that will help you in a variety of real-life musical situations. By learning the arithmetic of rhythm on paper, you’ll be able to accurately read and learn music from transcriptions, and you will no longer have to rely entirely on the recording for the timing and phrasing of the notes. Just as important, you’ll be able to communicate with other musicians and bandmates, and make rehearsals and performances go more smoothly. Knowing how to count different rhythms can also help you master the complexities of today’s popular musical styles and become a more inventive songwriter and composer.

This month I’d like to begin a series of lessons on rhythm that will help you become a more competent and confident musician. We’ll start by reviewing the basic rudiments of rhythmic notation and learning how to count and play standard rhythmic patterns.



In music transcriptions, a staff is divided into measures via barlines, as depicted in FIGURE 1. Each measure typically contains four beats, as indicated by the 4/4 time signature. Counting “one two three four, one two three four,” etc. enables us to keep track of the individual beats and measures; it also provides us with a clear reference point for organizing rhythm.

A measure of 4/4 time can contain one whole note, two half notes, four quarter notes or any combination of quarter notes and half notes that adds up to four beats (see FIGURE 2).

By subdividing each beat in half and counting “one-and two-and three-and four-and, one-and two-and three-and four-and,” etc., we can divide a measure of 4/4 time into eight eighth notes, as shown in FIGURE 3. Think of a measure of 4/4 as a pizza pie—you can cut it into two halves, four quarters, eighth eighths, or any other combination of fractions that adds up to one.

Eighth notes are often used in combination with other rhythmic values to create an interesting phrasing device known as syncopation. Syncopation means emphasizing the “weak” parts of the beat or measure—anything other than 1, 2, 3 or 4.

FIGURE 4 is an example of syncopation using ties to accent the eighth-note upbeats. A tie is a curved line arcing between two notes of the same pitch. The first note is held for the combined rhythmic values (durations) of both notes. The second note is not articulated. We use a broken arc in our notation system to distinguish ties from slurs (hammer-ons, pull-offs and legato slides).

When playing FIGURES 3 and 4, be sure to tap your foot only on the downbeats (1 2 3 4) and not on the eighth-note upbeats (the “and” counts between the beats, as indicated below the staff). This is an important motor skill for reading and playing music well and requires good hand-foot-brain coordination. Make this a habit until it becomes second nature, and make sure your foot doesn’t start following your mouth or hands. Train your foot to be a living metronome.

I’ve included counting, foot tapping and picking prompts with these exercises to guide you. Proceed slowly until you’ve acquired the coordination necessary to count, tap your foot and play the rhythms correctly. Notice that the “and” counts are omitted whenever the beat isn’t subdivided.

Several of you have written in asking what a grace note is, so I’d like to end this month’s lesson with a brief explanation and example. A grace note is a quick, subtle embellishment or “decoration” of a note, such as a hammer-on, pull-off, slide or bend. In fact, it’s so quick that it is not counted as being part of the rhythm of the measure. A grace note theoretically occurs “by grace of” the preceding or following beat and is written as a small note (or tab number) that’s squeezed into the measure just to the left of the main note it decorates, as illustrated in FIGURE 5. In this example, the grace notes are placed directly over the beat, because they’re played on the beat, which is usually the case.

Rhythm guitar is a support role in the band.  Guitarists should be comfortable with lead and rhythm playing, but more importantly, know how to distinguish between the two types and know when each one is appropriate.  Here is a great lesson that explains the responsibility of a rhythm guitarists in a band at

I’ve often heard it said that “kids should be seen and not heard.” It’s an old saying that I’m going to change to “rhythm guitarists should be barely heard when a solo is going on.”

With inexperienced players getting together you get a lot of people all playing loud enough that they can be heard over everyone else. But that’s a real problem…

It’s a problem because if you listen to a recording, there is always something that is prominent, and other instruments that are supportive. In a jam session, being supportive often means barely being heard at all. And not only is that okay, it’s better.

So in this video, I’ll show you a really easy way to comp (accompany) behind a soloist or a vocalist in a swing feel with some super easy 2 note chords.

Now let’s get down to business with a new approach to music rhythm.  Advanced rhythms are extremely difficult to explain, especially through text.  Fortunately, Chuck Anderson has written a great article on Modular Phonetic Rhythm that I find to be very interesting.  Hopefully you do too, find it here at

Modular Phonetic Rhythm represents a significant advance in the teaching and application of rhythm. Eliminating many inefficient aspects of rhythm education, Modular Phonetic Rhythm streamlines the traditional educational approach, resulting in a reflexive reaction to rhythm.

Jazz guitarists have never had a way to organize the subject of rhythm in a way that would systematically benefit their solos and their comping. Modular Phonetic Rhythm offers a solution.

The concept of rhythm is simple. It’s the duration of a note, a chord or a pattern. Rhythm is integrated into every facet of music. A melody is a sequence of pitches with rhythm. A chord progression is a sequence of chords with rhythm. Rhythm impacts Melody, Harmony and even Lyrics. It’s also a subject in and of itself. Rhythm is so intuitive, that it’s often overlooked as an independent topic of study.

The difficulty in the study of rhythm has always been its abstract nature – and its mathematical approach. Rhythm has traditionally been taught as a function of math, particularly fractions. Though accurate, this approach has missed one of the most fundamental facts of rhythm. Rhythm is a sonic language and is, as such, phonetic not mathematical in nature. The average student exposed to the math orientation of rhythm has rarely absorbed the essence of rhythm. He or she rarely becomes proficient at sight reading or using rhythm effectively. This often remains a lifetime barrier to the developing musician.

Though rhythm can be explained in mathematical terms, this approach does not give you a practical command of the sounds of the rhythms. Rhythm is a series of sounds! How can these sounds be organized?

“The Modular Phonetic Rhythm represents a fresh and innovative approach that helps bring the abstract into focus, examining the core of the real, linguistically aligned processes actually involved in reading, understanding, interpreting, and executing rhythm.”

Arthur Bernstein, Head of Music Department, Liverpool Institute for the Performing Arts
This approach to rhythm is based on the concept of Modular Phonetics. Modular refers to the interchangeability of rhythm syllables and Phonetics refers to the sound of the rhythm syllables. Phonics has always been the key to sound in language. Without phonics, we could not pronounce words. We could not hear the sound of the words. Without Modular Phonetics, we can not hear the sound of rhythm. Without the sound of rhythm, it is difficult to use.

There is a strong correlation between the ability to spell and strong fundamentals in phonics. Phonetic skills allow us to “sound out” words, even words that we’ve never seen before! We understand the principle of sound as it applies to phonetic combinations. The “sight” of the letter combination triggers a reflexive “sound” reaction. If rhythm could be broken down into a system of phonetic units similar to the syllables of language, then rhythm would become an easily recognized and applied aural language.

To illustrate, take the word umbrella. This word could be expressed as 8 letters or as 3 syllables. Treating the word as 8 letters is similar to traditional rhythm teaching. A rhythm pattern could be described as a note lasting one half beat followed by a note lasting one beat followed by a note lasting one half beat. The “sound” of the rhythm is not part of this equation. But using the syllable parallel (umbrella has 3 syllables), the rhythm can be grouped into a phonetic syllable that does have a sound. Now, rhythm can be reproduced in the preferable “eye-ear-hand reflex” – the eye sees it – the ear hears it – the hands execute it!

Modular Phonetic Rhythm is based on 24 basic rhythm syllables. These rhythm syllables vary in length from 1 note to 6 notes and from 1 beat to 4 beats. The system is divided into 4 levels based on the subdivision of the beat. Level I does not subdivide the beat. This is the level in which all notes are struck only on the downbeat. Level II divides the beat into 2 parts. Level III divides the beat into 3 parts. Level IV divides the beat into 4 parts. The levels do not express progressive difficulty, just progressive subdivisions of the beat.

As you begin to use this material, you will find an expansive, new vocabulary which you can then apply directly to your jazz guitar improvisation, your composition and to your accompaniment.

Metronome keeping rhythm

Every music style is based on a variety of rhythms, but one example that sticks out to me first is reggae music.  Reggae is built on distinct rhythms and counter rhythms and feature the guitar in a unique way.  Read more about it here at;=6573432.

A genre of music developed on the Jamaican shores, Reggae music is a form of music which follows rhythm and musical beats. In fact, one of the main traits of this music is that there is stress on the 2nd and 4th music beat of the melody. The guitar takes care of the third beat or the chord for the 2nd beat is held till the 4th one is played. The use of difficult bass lines and the use of speedy third beat is what differentiate the reggae from other genres of music.

Staple characteristics of Reggae melodies:

One of the most important and noteworthy musical characteristics of the reggae music is that it is played in swing time or 4/4 time. This is because of the way and the pattern of rhythms followed in a piece of music. It is characterized by the presence of simple melodies and pieces of music. So simple it is that one may sometimes find just a chord or two in the entire musical piece.

The reggae music is characterized by the use of certain instruments. These are main instruments for this form of music and are below mentioned apart from the regular vocals.

>> Drums such as the Tom-Tom and snare drums are used to create a distinct reggae feel.
>> Percussion includes the use of bongos, cowbells, shakers and the claves along with African cross rhythms.
>> Keyboards play the staccato style to add more melody to the music
>> Bass plays an extremely important role in the music of this sort
>> Guitar techniques such as skank are used and the chords played are on beat 2 and 4
>> Lyrical themes such as light criticism of the society and other person things
>> Horns are used for mainly introductions and counter melodies

Related genres and subgenres:

Dancehall, Hip Hop and Dub are said to be derivatives of the reggae music. The subgenres include Roots reggae, Lovers rock and Reggae en Español whereas the fusion genres include Reggaeton, Seggae, Reggae fusion, Samba reggae and 2 Tone. Countries like Africa, Phillipines, New Zealand, Australia, Nigeria and even Poland are considered to be the hotspots for this particular genre of music.

Reggae Progression over years:

Over the years, one can find a lot of influences of other genres of music on the reggae music industry. In fact, it has been mixed with pop, rock and roll and hip hop music to create music that has enthralled music lovers over the years.

There have been many bands and solo artists who have tasted success by mixing this style of music with other genres. An example in sight is a famous music band Beatle. Their song “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is a rock song with reggae inspired beats. Singers like Bunny Lee, Desmond Dekker, Clancy Eccles, Prince Buster, Larry Marshall, Johnny Nash and Jackie Mittoo are considered to be icons of this music style industry.

Rhythm guitar is one of the best forms of rhythmic foundation in any popular band.  I hope that this series of articles has shed some light on some questions you may have had on rhythm guitar.  There is plenty more to learn about rhythm guitar and more guitar information at Mike’s Guitar Talk.  Subscribe now to have access to it all.

Have fun and stay tuned!




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