Have you ever been at a jam where someone kicks off a fiddle tune at a blazing tempo, and you can’t even get three or four “boom-chucks” in before everything starts to fall apart?
Playing fast bluegrass rhythm guitar can be tricky for beginner and intermediate players, because most of us try to play it the same way we always play it. This is a mistake.
The “boom-chuck” that we all learn in the beginning is kind of the standard foundation for bluegrass rhythm guitar. You’ve got your bass notes on the 1 and 3 beats, and your down-strums on the 2 and 4 beats. It works well up to a certain point.
But what do you do when it gets past that point?
Let’s start by watching Tony Rice during his first-ever gig with J.D. Crowe and the New South. They’re playing “Train 45”:
Now, it’s not easy to see exactly what Tony’s right hand is doing there. It isn’t straight boom-chuck rhythm, it’s something else. But it works.
If you watch that clip closely, you should notice what I think are the three keys to speeding up your bluegrass rhythm guitar:
- Economy of motion
Let’s go through those principles in more detail and set you on a path to playing faster bluegrass rhythm guitar.
Mechanics of fast bluegrass rhythm guitar
We’ll start with the physical stuff.
The most important thing you can do when the tempo picks up is relax and stay loose.
You can train yourself to do this, and you should. Every time you practice fast rhythm guitar, take a few minutes beforehand to release the tension from every part of your body, starting from your head and working your way down.
Your shoulders, forearms, wrist and hands are the most likely to tense up when playing, so pay particular attention to those areas and get them as loose as possible. Keep them there.
If you’re a player who likes to anchor your wrist or pinky on the guitar top, you may need to forego this at faster tempos. Anchoring tends to cause tension. Try to get used to floating your wrist off the surface—at least when the tempo picks up.
Economy of motion
Some pickers use the forearm like a sideways pendulum when they play rhythm guitar. That might work fine for a slow dance tune like “Faded Love,” but it’s not going to work for “Train 45”.
Instead of swinging your forearm from a hinge-like elbow, economize your motion by simply rotating your wrist. Your forearm should rotate slightly like it does when you use a screwdriver. Don’t get too attached to the screwdriver analogy, though—most of us grip a screwdriver pretty tightly and that will cause tension. You’re better off imagining that you’re flicking water off your hand. Keep that wrist loose!
You’ll probably have an easier time staying loose if you tuck in your non-picking fingers slightly toward your palm.
And don’t dig in too hard on the strings with your guitar pick, just brush them.
Simplify what you play
This is the part many players struggle to grasp. You don’t have to hit every bass note and every down-strum like you were taught. You can cut out as much as it takes for you to stay in time.
For example, I tend to play only bass notes when things get fast. It’s almost like I’m a bass player, but I’m picking the notes instead of plucking them with my fingers. I hit the 1 beat and the 3 beat, and occasionally I mix in a few walkup notes. That way, I can stay in time no matter how high the tempo.
Other pickers ditch the bass notes entirely and just play downward strums. They might do this on the 2 and 4 beats. But because the mandolin is chopping on the 2 and 4 beats, an alternative is to just play down-strums on the 1 and 3 beats. Anything goes, so long as it’s manageable and you can stay in time.
Some guitarists just keep that wrist on vibrate and brush the strings with upstrokes and downstrokes in constant motion.
The point is that you can come up with your own style for playing fast bluegrass rhythm. Remember, as the guitarist you’re there to make everyone else sound good. You don’t have to be the show. And if that means you just play a bassline, or you just “chuck” away on the backbeat, that’s perfectly fine.
Take a look at this video in which Tyler Grant gets ready to play “Old Joe Clark” at a blazing pace, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Start watching at 54:19:
Tyler gets it. In a full band context, and certainly at a jam, nobody’s going to know if you aren’t hitting every “boom” and every “chuck.” But they’ll sure notice if you fall out of time. Do what you have to do to stay on the beat, and enjoy it. Play it straight. Don’t worry about embellishments. Why not let a stroke ring for a couple of beats at the end of a phrase while you get ready for the next chord change?
Practice tips for faster bluegrass rhythm guitar
Let’s talk about some things you can do in the woodshed to prepare yourself better for high-tempo jam tunes.
Practice on muted strings
Bluegrass rhythm guitar is mostly about the right hand, so forget about the left hand for a while. Trying laying the fingers of your left hand lightly across all the strings to deaden them, and just work on your rotating wrist action for a while.
Start a metronome and use that loose wrist to get the pick brushing down and up against the deadened strings. Just snap it across the surface and don’t let it get hung up. Keep going and stay in time with the beat. No chord changes, just rhythm. Find the groove.
Practice with a metronome
Since this is all about keeping time, it’s really important to practice rhythm guitar with a metronome.
Rhythm guitar playing requires a certain amount of precision. You need to hit the strings briskly and confidently, but if you dig too deep you’ll get hung up. If you go too light, you might miss them entirely. There is a sweet spot.
The best way to dial in that sweet spot and commit it to your muscle memory is to do so at a very slow tempo using a metronome. You’ll get to know exactly how to hit those strings to get the sound you want. Then, and only then, should you gradually increase the speed.
Don’t be tempted to increase the tempo too quickly. Make sure you’re still hitting those strings just the way you want to before you kick it up a notch. This is how you build muscle memory. Never sacrifice cleanliness for speed.
Those first few practice sessions at low speed might feel awkward. I find it really hard to stay relaxed and hit the strings lightly at slow tempos. But the discipline pays off with practice.
Practice along with recordings
Try to avoid practicing only with a metronome. While the metronome is great for gradually increasing the tempo in just the right increments, the reality is that most bluegrass bands surge and relax the tempo, often within the same song. It’s not always noticeable, but it happens. They’re human. A metronome is a robot and does not do this.
Playing along with recordings will give you a feel for this. It will also help you understand how your guitar fits in with the other instruments, and teach you where you can afford to leave gaps as you begin to simplify what you play.
Faster bluegrass rhythm guitar is all about relaxing, using only as much motion as you need to, and simplifying your approach to the song.
With these tips and a lot of practice, you’ll be able to keep up—and more importantly, keep your fellow pickers on track—when that train picks up steam.
Image at top: Dan Tyminski keeps the rhythm going at a high tempo with Alison Krauss and Union Station. (© Eric Frommer | Creative Commons)