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Learning To Play The Guitar

Rock Rhythm Guitar: What Every Guitarist Should Know


While many guitarists are fixated on lead guitar and solos the majority of music required in most rock songs would be labelled “rhythm guitar”. Many players neglect their rhythm playing which forms the bedrock of songs. A great rhythm guitarist can make or break a band. Think of players like Malcolm Young in AC DC and Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones. Without these guys these two extremely successful bands would not sound as great as they do. Here we will look at what every guitarist should know about rock rhythm guitar.

Hard Rock A G D/F# Chords
Angus Young once joked that AC/DC “put out 12 albums that sound exactly the same” and it’s pretty close to the truth! Many of their songs use the same chords which is why they sound so similar. Three chords often played by the band are A G and D/F#. AC/DC songs that use these chords include:

  • Highway To Hell
  • Long Way To The Top
  • Shoot To Thrill

For the A chord strum just the 4 middle strings with just one finger on the fretboard.


For the D/F# chord use the thumb over the top of the neck to play the F# bass note on the 6th string.


For the G chord you can mute the 5th string with the edge of the 2nd finger. This removes the B note from the chord making it a tough sounding G5 (root and 5th notes only) chord.


Another well known song that uses these 3 chords is Wont Get Fooled Again by The Who. Here is a riff that uses these chords in that style.


Mp3 Track

A D/F# G Rhythm | Download
Listen to the audio of the A D/F# G Rhythm.

So if you want a big sounding chord based rock riff see what you come up with using A G and D/F#.

The Rolling Stones D Chord
Another chord often used in rock rhythm guitar is a string version of the D/A chord which includes the F# note being played on the 4th string. This chord shape is used extensively by Keith Richards in The Rolling Stones. (He plays these chord shapes with an open G tuning.) It’s also used by other similar sounding bands such as The Faces and The Black Crowes. The chord is often paired with the open A chord played with one finger. The D/A chord is then played by simply adding fingers 2 and 3. With these chord it’s also good to mute the 1ststring by slightly raising finger 1 off the fret board over that string so that it doesn’t ring out when you strum.


Try the example below to see how this sounds.


Mp3 Track

Rolling Stones D Chord Rhythm | Download
Listen to the audio of the Rolling Stones D Chord Rhythm.

This three string shape can be shifted to other frets on the guitar neck. For example at the 5th fret this becomes C and F/A which are the chords used for part of the Rolling Stones Start Me Up riff.


Mp3 Track

C F/A Chord Rhythm | Download
Listen to the audio of the C F/A Chord Rhythm.

Off Beat Syncopated Rhythms
You may have noticed in the last three examples that the riffs use syncopation where the rhythms land on the off beats (the “ands” NOT the “1 2 3 or 4”). These syncopated rhythms create rhythmic tension and excitement. With your rhythm playing it’s a great idea to add some syncopation to prevent your rhythm playing becoming predictable and dull.

Pedal Tones
Many rock guitar riffs use what is known as a pedal tone in the bass. This bass note helps to fill the gaps and create a driving rhythm. The first example here uses the E string with palm muting applied to create a hard rock/heavy metal sounding rhythm. Many metal bands such as Metallica use this style of rhythm guitar in almost every song. The following example uses power chords with the palm muted open E string. For palm muting tips check out How To Sound Pro With Palm Muting


Mp3 Track

Riff With E Pedal Tone | Download
Listen to the audio of the Riff With E Pedal Tone.

This example uses the open A string creating a slightly lighter hard rock (vs heavy metal) sound like AC/DC. With this example you also palm mute the open A string while playing 2 string power chords.


Mp3 Track

Riff With A Pedal Tone | Download
Listen to the audio of the Riff With A Pedal Tone.

The final example uses the open D string. When combined with the open D chord triangle shape moving up the guitar neck it’s easy to create a cool sounding riff. Songs that are based on this idea include Substitute by The Who and Mean Streets by Van Halen.


Mp3 Track

Riff With D Pedal Tone | Download
Listen to the audio of the Riff With D Pedal Tone.

G & Cadd9 Open String Rock Chords
For acoustic and cleaner rock guitar sounds try these two variations of the standard open string G and C major chords. These chords tend to cut through the sound of a rock band better and make the chord change easier compared to the standard G and C chord.


Many rock bands use these versions of G and C including The Who, Extreme, Bon Jovi, Guns n Roses and Matchbox 20. Try out the rhythm guitar part below that uses these 2 chords and notice how much easier it is change between the G and C chords compared to the standard G and C shapes that would require the hand to twist to place finger 1 on fret 1 of string 2 for the C chord.


Mp3 Track

G & Cadd9 Open String Rock Chords | Download
Listen to the audio of the >G & Cadd9 Open String Rock Chords.

So know you know some of the essentials of rock rhythm guitar. See how you can incorporate these ideas into the rock songs you play.