I have had several students come to me who can play a few chords but struggle to get songs they play to sound like the original and more often than not it is the strumming in the right hand that is the problem. To understand rhythm guitar and how to progress, the first step is to understand what rhythm is and how it relates to the guitar.
What is rhythm?
Rhythm is the placement of sounds through time. The first thing to understand is that music is split into beats and bars. If you put your favourite song on and tap your foot, you are now tapping a ‘quarter note’ beat or pulse. Unless you are into avant guard jazz or Genesis, this song will probably be in what is called 4/4 time, this means that there are four of those ‘quarter notes’ to each bar. You would count 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4 etc. Each four is one bar of music. when you start playing the guitar this would be four downward strums, change chord and repeat.
We are now going to strum an ‘eighth note’ rhythm, from this point on it is vital that your right hand doesn’t stop moving, I liken it to a pendulum on a clock, your right hand is your pendulum, if it doesn’t stop it is very difficult to go out of time. To strum an eight note rhythm move your hand to strum the same quarter note rhythm as before but now we strum the strings on the way back up as well as down. We count this as – 1+2+3+4+, 1+2+3+4+. The 1 2 3 4 are still on a downward strum and the + is on an upward strum. All together we get –
1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
↓ ↑ ↓ ↑ ↓ ↑ ↓ ↑
Better, but still not rhythm as I know it.
The trick now is to play and not play some of these ‘eight notes’. For example we could play –
1 2 + 3 4 or 1 2 + 3 + 4
↓ ↓ ↑ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↓ ↑ ↓ ↑ ↓
Notice that he 1 2 3 4 are still on a downward strum and the +, where there are any, are on an upward strum. As said before, strumming is dependent on keeping your right hand moving at all times. Try writing some rhythms of your own out and try playing them on the guitar. Hopefully this has helped with you understanding rhythm guitar and will make those songs sound more recognisable.
The accompanying video will hopefully help you to understand the concept with a practical approach.