TONE TIPS FROM THE ROAD
“I’m the rhythm guitarist…” is not a response
you hear often when you ask a guitarist if they
play rhythm or lead. Back in earlier days of
rock ‘n’ roll, there seemed to be a clear delineation of roles in a band. The Yardbirds had
Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, and Eric Clapton
and later Jeff Beck on lead. Even though Brad
Whitford of Aerosmith contributed notable
solos, he was mostly known for holding down
the rhythm. Keith Richards recorded more
memorable solos than most realize, but it’s
his rhythm guitar style that has become the
blueprint for rock rhythm guitar. Rich Robinson
of The Black Crowes is a modern-day notable
rhythm guitarist. He too contributes stellar
lead playing, but along with his songwriting,
it’s his rhythm parts, playing and tone for
which he’s recognized.
stumble on a beat, it’s noticed. And you’ve
got to have tone.
“I’m the rhythm guitarist…”
With that in mind, here are some ground rules
for being a stellar rhythm guitarist.
Lock in with the drums and bass. I like to
huddle in with the drummer and bassist when
playing rhythm guitar. I’ll have the drums in my
in-ear monitors, primarily the kick, hi-hat and
snare. Our drummer in Sheryl Crow’s band,
Jeremy Stacey, is very quick to make comment or complain if he feels any of us rushing
or dragging behind him, which makes us very
aware if we’re slacking off. We’ll usually come
back at him with a few derogatory remarks
about being a Brit (he’s from London), but in
the end we know he’s right.
I’m describing a coffee blend). All of this usually
means getting a good amp.
Be careful not to dial too much bass into your
tone, lest you conflict with the tonal spectrum
of the bass guitar. Find your own tonal space.
Also take care not to dial in too much mid-range, or you’ll fight with the lead guitar and
vocal. I find the bass control on my amp barely
exceeds 3–4. In the past, I’ve had hi-gain amps
where I’ve had the bass completely off.
Your sound engineer can help with this on a
gig. Listen to the way it sounds out front. Don’t
argue with him, just fine tune your tone accordingly to blend with the band. Sometimes it may
even sound a little sucky from your perspective
onstage, but it will be just right out front.
Playing rhythm is not necessarily a relegated
role or somehow inferior to taking the lead
guitar spot in a band. It requires a different
mindset and is every bit as demanding. I’m
equally challenged, if not more so, when playing rhythm. There are a lot of factors you have
to consider when playing rhythm guitar versus
being solely a lead player—who embellishes
and usually tends to play on top of everyone
else, sometimes to the detriment of the song!
First and foremost, when playing rhythm, you
have to have just that: rhythm. You must be
able to fall into the groove with the drums and
bass. Ahead of the beat? Behind the beat?
You have to be solid, just like the drummer
and bassist. If you drop out, drop your pick,
Rhythmically, find a groove that works around
the beat of the drums and bass. Creating a
rhythm part like this most often becomes a
significant hook of the song you’re writing (all
parts should have a hook, actually). Use space,
breaths and silence as well.
The same goes in the studio. Choose amps
that sound good specifically for rhythm playing. You’ll know you’re onto something when
the recording engineer places a mike in front
of your cab, takes all of one minute to dial your
sound at the console and says, “Okay, next!”
Have your tone dialed in. That can mean a lot
of things, depending on what style of music
and band, but there are some common sense
factors. Make your sound full and pleasing to
hear: not too much harsh treble; clear, maybe
with less distortion. If your band has a high-gain
kind of sound, make it the best—complex and
full with rich body and overtones (sounds like
Choose your notes carefully. Rhythm playing
isn’t all about playing barre chords. As far as
note choice, you play with the bass guitar—or
better yet, play off the bass guitar. You’re part
of a mini-ensemble, not the entire band, when
it comes to playing rhythm. If your bassist is
holding down the root notes for the majority
of a bass line, try building chords that start
with the third or fifth on the bottom. Try using
spatial three-note chords. This trick was the creation of guitarist Freddie Green, the big band
jazz legend of the ‘40s, who developed a style
that most often avoided the roots in his chord
structure, playing only the most important
notes in relation to everyone else. He’d prefer
thirds, fifths or sevenths, with wide intervals
between notes. This made his sound bigger
than playing chords with four or five voices.
In the end, you can rest assured that being the
rhythm guitarist always equals cool, whereas
the lead guitarist often equals jack-ass!
Photos by Rick Johnson
Peter is co-founder of 65amps.