Whether playing rhythm guitar by yourself or sharing the duties with another guitarist or keyboard player, it’s important to play with intensity, all the while keeping the groove focused, concise, and—as musicians like to say—in the pocket. A nice pocket occurs when everyone in the rhythm section plays the right part at the right time with the right dynamics and feel and is constantly listening and reacting to the other players. In the 12-bar blues example above, the guitar doubles the bass in a pocket that helps define the groove.
Played in the style of Buddy Guy, Albert King, and other blues greats, this riff isn’t particularly difficult to finger. Nailing it down with the right phrasing, however, is another story. It’s not easy to play with consistency while retaining that lively, relaxed, and loose feel that is the mark of a stellar musician. In addition to listening extensively to live performances and recordings in the style you’re pursuing, the following practice techniques will help you nail any blues groove:
- Record yourself playing the line and then listen back. Was your performance (picking attack and fretting-hand execution) consistent? Does the part have the right sound and feel?
- Rerecord each line, but vary your rhythmic emphasis. First, play it “right down the middle.” Match the tempo, sound, and feel from a favorite recording in this style. Next, rush—that is, deliberately play on the front-side of the beat. Notice how that sounds and feels during playback—it should put you on edge and make you slightly tense. Finally, drag—deliberately play on the backside of the beat.
Observe how these different approaches sound and feel, because they have different applications. Some rhythm parts need to sit on the backside of the beat à la the lazy feel of a Jimmy Reed- or Eddie Taylor-style march. Others need to sit right in the middle, or even push the beat a bit. Keep your ears open, and when you stumble upon something that really works, hang onto it and burn it into your fingers.