How To Develop A Professional Rhythm Sound On Guitar –
Playing Advanced Rhythm Riffs Like Stevie Ray Vaughan

What do guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and John Frusciante have in common? Besides being respected lead guitarists, they have the ability to transform the energy they hold in their body into energetic rhythm playing. 

Have you ever tried to play a funk rock riff, only to find yourself in a place where you can play the riff correctly but you are unable to make it rock? Any guitarist needs the tools to make any riff sound funky, aggressive, mellow, or any other type of feeling that you want to express in your music.

In the article ‘how to put more variation in your blues rhythm playing' we expanded our options by turning a regular blues progression into different hot blues riffs. The example below was one of these riffs.

For now let’s stick to the first two bars:

Blues rythm riff 1

This kind of rhythm playing is quite hard to get a grip on at first, but once mastered it will liberate your entire guitar playing. As mentioned in the article ‘variations in the blues’, if you’re having problems understanding the rhythm as applied to the correct down and upstrokes of your picking hand, try playing this example at half speed first.


A minor pentatonic riff 1

Nevertheless, chances are that if you are not familiar with this kind of rhythm playing, you will have a hard time muting the strings that aren’t being played. The whole idea of this style is hitting your guitar as hard as possible. For this to be possible you’ll have to mute strings with your fretting hand fingers and thumb.

Yes, it takes some practice, but, if you want to be either a bluesman or a rock star, practicing these rhythm skills will definitely pay off. Let’s start with some exercises to master this technique. This is actually quite hard to master, but you will get there if you do the exercises I’m going to give you. First of all, let's have a look at what you should start with if your blues rhythm playing has not yet reached the level to play rhythm sections like these.

Exercises to Start In Order To Become A Skilled Rhythm Guitarist

Step 1:

Let’s start off with playing the A minor pentatonic scale while muting the strings you don't play. First use your index finger to play all the notes at the 5th fret. Then play everything with the pinky and ring finger. As you will notice, things will get trickier once you move towards the higher strings.


Step 2:

This is the A minor pentatonic scale played note by note. Try to do the same thing as in the first exercise, but now use the sequence you see in the tab here.


Step 3:

The next step is to put it all together and apply it on a blues shuffle. At first, practise note by note while focusing on getting the muting right.


To get a feel for this shuffle rhythm, make sure to play a muted stroke on each upbeat, as you see in the tab below. Use alternate picking throughout the riff. There are many blues riffs that consist of this kind of playing, but many intermediate guitarists get this wrong and just play the ‘dry’ riff without the muting simply because it’s unusual to see tabs in which all of the muted strings are written out.

Developing Practice Routines That Will Get Your Guitar Playing To The Next Level

So where do we go from here? Let’s say you got the last exercises down, but there’s still some unwanted string noise. Don’t be surprised if there is actually a lot of this! Let’s make a practice routine out of these examples. Nevertheless, you should realize that it might take you several months to master this technique. That’s normal though, it is simply the price to pay if you want to dominate on your instrument. Are you with me?

Take out your metronome and play strictly 8th notes. If you notice a lot of unwanted noise in your playing, go back to exercise 1 and practise without a metronome. Maybe go even slower. Make sure you take your time for this. Do not rush through the exercises, but concentrate on muting the strings thoroughly. Practice using only downstrokes at first, and then shift to only upstrokes. Quite the workout, isn’t it? At last practise alternating between down- and upstrokes.

Another thing you can do is play basic blues riffs and add this muting technique to it.

Look at the very basic blues riff below, you don’t see the ‘x’ anywhere in the tablature, so you need to add them in your mind. This is part of the reason why many guitarists fail to get the sound and feel of blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughan. They look at the riffs in the tablature, but they forget that in order to get this aggressive feel they need to mute properly.

basic 12 bar blues 1

basic 12 bar blues 2

basic 12 bar blues 3

NOTE: This way of rhythm playing is really basic and you want to move away from these basic riffs as soon as possible. In order to learn how to ‘decorate’ basic riffs such as these download my blues rhythm guitar guide here.

Now go back to the first article on variations in blues rhythm riffs and practise the riffs with proper muting.

How To Be Inventive And Come Up With Your Own Highly Unique Blues Riffs

You want to gain as much as possible out of your technique in a musical way. That’s why it’s great to invest your time into practising what I call ‘Creative Application’.

In the end, you will want to create your own blues riffs and apply the muting technique on these riffs. One way to practise is to just take the minor pentatonic scale and develop your own riffs from it. You will notice that the box position is a great fit for this type of rhythm guitar playing. However, it is also possible to use other scales, for now, we are going to focus on the minor pentatonic only, while adding notes from other scales if you wish.

Experiment with implementing different slides, hammer-ons, pull-offs, vibrato, double stops and see what you can come up with. Most people develop their phrasing in the early stages of practising by adding different techniques to their licks, but forget about applying the same techniques to their rhythm guitar playing.

Practicing this will eventually give you the ability to express your feelings not only in your lead guitar playing but also through rhythm guitar.

Fully Express Yourself With Dynamics in Your Blues Guitar Playing

There are many different dynamics and ‘feels’ that you can add to your rhythm guitar playing: from a very soft touch to loud, from aggressive to smooth or from chunky to funky. In order to express this full range of dynamics you’ll eventually need to break free from playing single string riffs, and start playing these ‘Stevie Ray Vaughan’ rhythm styles.

I hope I have given you insight in this article about how to practise your rhythm guitar playing to develop a more professional sound. When you’ve practised this string muting technique, you should apply this technique to your arsenal of lead playing as well.

In order to learn more about building up your blues rhythm guitar playing and being creative with blues riffs check out my FREE eBook on How to play blues rhythm guitar like the blues masters

Ready to take the next step in your blues guitar playing? Learn about the Essential Blues Guitar Soloing Lesson.