Stop spending all your practice time on soloing: rhythm playing is even more important – and embellishing chords will seriously up your game

John Mayer
John Mayer is a master of adding hammer-ons and pull-offs to add interest to his chord work (Image credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for LiveNation)

Rhythm guitar can be an overlooked part of an electric guitar player’s skill set, with soloing taking the lion’s share of valuable practice time. However, all of us guilty of this should redress that deficit, as the rhythm element is vitally important, and immensely satisfying when played well.

Listening to great rhythm guitarists is an education in itself, as they seem to create layers of often sublime chords combining different technical and musical approaches.

There are, and have been, several iconic players who are masters of this and incorporate these elements into their rhythm playing. Jimi Hendrix, for example, blazed a trail for legions of players with classic tunes like Little Wing and The Wind Cries Mary

Other virtuosi like Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mayer and Mateus Asato share this mastery, plus soul legends and studio greats like Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree, Bobby Womack, Louie Shelton and Reggie Young were among ’60s and ’70s session ‘royalty’, able to come up with the most amazingly musical and catchy rhythm guitar parts – or ‘hooks’ if you will.

A vast amount of songs can be basically played with a staple vocabulary of great sounding, yet rudimentary chords like major, minor, major 7th, minor 7th and dominant 7th, but what do we need to do to improve upon those perfectly legitimate chords in order to play rhythm parts like those iconic guitarists?

Well, if we have some technical tricks up our sleeves like Hendrix-style hammer-ons and pull-offs, Womack/Dupree style double-stops and sliding shapes, Cropper-style country influenced 6ths, mixed with some triads knowledge, a bit of chord substitution and learning some extended chords like 9ths, 11ths and 13ths, we can start to understand how those awesome players made those wonderful sounds.

This is what we’re looking at in this feature. We’re breaking down those approaches into six categories – hammer-on and pull-off colourations, double-stops, sliding shapes, hybrid picking embellishments, harmonics and chords (suspended, 9th, 11th, 13th and Altered). Finally, there’s a full piece at the end which puts many of these elements together.

Each category has four or five exercises which show how those ‘regular’ chords can be hinted at, improved on and made more musical by these various musical ideas.

Read the performance notes and take each exercise slowly, working on technical and musical/stylistic accuracy. And listen to how each section of the exercises and final piece react with the underlying harmony. This will help train your ears to absorb the sound of that approach over the particular chord or progression. Have fun! 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 3, Bass 3, Middle 5, Treble 7

A clean tone is best, though for some bluesy or rocky styles a light overdrive is okay provided chords stay clear. Neck or middle/neck setting are favourites here. Some compression lends consistency to levels, especially on thinner single-coil pickups. Adding reverb and delay provides ambience and depth, while chorus, phaser or flanger pedals can add pleasing flavours. 

HAMMER-ONS & PULL-OFFS

Example 1

We kick things off with a soul groove idea over an Am (A-C-E) tonality.

Bars 1& 2: Hold down your fretting-hand first finger at the 5th fret and play the hammer-on/pull-off embellishments to add the b7th interval (G note - 5th fret, fourth string ,and 8th fret, second string), creating a minor 7th sound (A-C-E-G), and the Major 9th interval (B note - 7th fret, first string) creating a minor 9th tonality (A-C-E-G-B). 

Bar 3: Barre the first finger of your fretting hand at the 12th fret. The hammer-ons/pull-offs create a similar tonality. Make sure each chord shape rings clearly so the notes sound out together as much as possible.

Example 2

This one also has a soul feel and a C major (C-E-G) sound. Bars 1 & 2: Play the Cmaj7 chord (C-E-G-B) on beat one of bar 1, keeping it fretted, using the fourth finger of the fretting hand to play the subsequent embellishments. 

Use the same finger to slide up to the B note (7th fret, first string) and hold it down. Immediately place a half-barre at the 5th fret so the following arpeggiated notes of the chord ring together. 

Bar 3: Fret an E Minor triad (E-G-B) at the 9th, 8th and 7th frets of the third, second and first strings respectively, but add your fourth finger at the 10th fret, first string (D note). This adds the major 9th colour, while the E minor triad substitutes for a Cmaj7 chord, as the E, G and B notes of that triad are also the 3rd, 5th and 7th of Cmaj7

Example 3

We move to a bluesy feel in 12/8 time signature with a G7 (G-B-D-F) tonality, featuring four separate voicings of a G7 chord, each one having hammer-on and pull-off embellishments. Bar 1: Hold down a G7 chord at the 3rd fret, using the second finger of your fretting hand to hammer-on/pull-off the third string (b3rd - Bb, to the 3rd - B). 

The fourth finger can be used for the 5th (D) to b7th (F) move for the hammer-on and pull-off on the second string. Bar 2: This fourth-string root G7 voicing adds the 6th (or 13th - E) at the 5th fret, second string, and the 9th (7th fret, first string). 

Bar 3: Start with three-string G7 voicing, played off the 3rd of the chord (B note - 9th fret, fourth string) with the fourth finger of the fretting hand hammering on and pulling off from the root (G) on the second string, 8th fret, to the 9th (A) at the 10th fret. The second half of the bar, starting on beat 3, sees the next chord shape being fretted.

Example 4

This slow, soul ballad style exercise demonstrates how some of the approaches we’ve seen in the previous three exercises can be amalgamated over a chord progression using the minor 7, major 7, and dominant 7 chord types in a more musical way, adding both interest and tonal colour.

DOUBLE-STOPS

Example 1

Bars 1 & 2: This example has a slow soul or pop vibe with an A Minor 7 sound.Make sure the upper note of the double-stops sounds when the lower one is hammered on.

Bar 3: This is a tricky bar, needing a good recognition of the double-stop shapes; 4ths, 3rds and 6ths shapes are all used.

Example 2

Next comes a soul ballad style over a Cmaj7 tonality.

Bars 1 & 2: Note how these initial 6th shapes cleverly create the overall sound of a C major 9 chord (C-E-G-B-D); each of the shapes contain two notes found in that chord. 

Bar 3: The thought process behind the Hendrix-style double stops in this bar is in visualising an E minor7 chord (E-G-B-D) to substitute for the Cmaj7. This is a great trick to get the tonality of a Cmaj9 chord. 

Bar 4: Another neat idea, this E5 ‘powerchord’ works as a double -top giving the sound of Cmaj7, since the E and B of the E5 chord are the Major 3rd and Major 7th chord intervals of the Cmaj7.

Example 3

Here we’re using doublestops over a G7 sound, and mainly interspersing a funky G7 chord with Mixolydian 3rds (G-A-D-C-D-E-F).

Example 4

Now let’s demonstrate how various double-stop approaches can be applied over a II-V chord progression in the key of C; the II chord being Dm7 (D-F-A-C) and the V chord, G7 (G-B-D-F). Again, a combination of 3rds, 4ths and 6th shapes are employed.

SLIDING SHAPES

Example 1

Here’s how sliding major and minor triads can work over Am7.

Bar 1: The C major triad (C-E-G) is substituted for the Am7 chord (A-C-E-G), with the D major triad (D-F-A) sliding to and fro. These are second inversion triads; 5th-R-3rd.

Bar 2: Here are the same triads, but with first inversion voicings; 3rd-5th-R.

Bar 3: The first two triads are first inversion B minor (B-D-F) and A minor (A-C-E), while the second two are second inversion D major and C major triads again.

Example 2

Again an E minor triad is substituted for a Cmaj7 chord, but here slides from a semitone above or below.

Bar 1: Uses root inversion E minor triad (E-G-B). This bar contains also commonly heard sliding 4th shapes from C major pentatonic (C-D-E-G-A). 

Bar 2: First inversion E minor triads here on the second, third and fourth, and third, second and first strings.

Bar 3: More sliding 4ths plus root inversion and second inversion E minor triads on third, second and first strings.

Example 3. 

This exercise shows how sliding Minor triads can be employed over a G7 chord. The two triads used are an E minor (E-G-B), which creates the the sound of the 6th, root and 3rd of a G6 chord (G-B-D-E), and a D minor triad (D-F-A), which creates the sound of the 5th, b7th and 9th of a G9 chord (G-B-D-F-A). 

This combination of triads sounds great together, especially when slid between each other, and you’ll often hear it used in blues and soul styles.

Example 4

Another sliding triad approach here, this time demonstrating how a G major triad (G-B-D) and an F major triad (F-A-C) can sound good together. When played over a G pedal tone bass note, they imply the chords of G major and F/G.

HYBRID PICKING EMBELLISHMENTS

Example 1

This A minor groove uses a combination of funky-style strumming with a bluesy, hybrid-picked figure. Ensure that you can switch from the strum to the hybrid-picked sections cleanly; keeping your third and fourth picking fingers hanging loose, rather than tucking them up into the palm, can help here.

Example 2

A similar mix of clipped pick strums and hybrid sections, this exercise, played over a Cmaj7-based soul ballad style idea incorporates a more intricate use of hybrid picking. Study the suggested picking-hand approaches carefully, as they will help with your economy of picking.

Example 3

This Steve Cropper-style exercise played over G7 uses some typical country-flavoured soul/R & B hybrid-picking approaches, with double-stops and 6ths.

Example 4

Here we see how a hybrid picking technique can create a bluesy groove utilising root-note pedal tones and upper harmonic movement over a G7 to C7 chord progression. Do you prefer the pick’s sound to be different from that of the fingers, or try to make them sound the same? It’s up to you!

Example 5

This is a similar type of exercise but the hybrid picking technique is more intricate and also features tricky fretting-hand moves within a held-down chord. My preference with this one is to use a fretting-hand barre shape for each chord. Try it, and see if my approach works for you.

USING HARMONICS

Example 1

The first exercise in this section is over an A minor sound and incorporates mainly natural harmonics. The fretted C note in the first bar should remain ringing while the harmonics are played; this will give the overall effect of the sound of an A minor 9 chord (A-C-E-G-B) with a little added ‘something’. 

Example 2

This Cmaj7-based exercise combines fretted chords with natural harmonics.

Bar 1: Play the Cmaj7 chord as indicated, but keep the first finger of your fretting hand on the 8th fret of the sixth string (C) to keep this ringing while reaching for the 12th-fret harmonic with your fourth finger. 

Bar 3: A similar idea here, with the C root on the 3rd fret, fifth string. The combined sound of the Cmaj7 with the D-G-B-E harmonics creates a lovely C Major 9 sound (C-E-G-B-D).

Example 3

This is another harmonics-based exercise over a G7 chord. The fretted G note (10th fret, fifth string) and F note (8th fret, fifth string) are the root and b7th of the chord, and combine with the harmonics to give a G7 sound. 

The ascending harmonic line in bar 3 is G major pentatonic scale (G-A-B-D-E), and in bar 4, the ringing harmonic, first-string E is bent behind the nut, up a semitone to F; this creates a ringing G9 chord (G-B-D-F-A). 

Go easy with the ‘behind the nut’ bend if you’re not used to it, as it can hurt the fingertips! Also, you’ll need a Fender-style headstock as, on Gibson-style pitched headstocks it won’t work.

Exercise 4

This exercise utilises natural, artificial, and tapped harmonics, as well as fretted notes. So it might be easier to play this one with a purely fingerstyle approach. Take it slowly, as this combination of different techniques is quite tricky.

SUS, 9TH, 11TH, 13TH & ALTERED CHORDS

Example 1

This pop-style exercise uses a combination of sus2 (R-2-5) and sus4 chords (R-4-5) in a diatonic progression in the key of C. Note how the sus chords can resolve to either a major or minor chord, and how simple melodies can be created when combining them.

Example 2

Here we see major 9th, minor 9th and dominant 9th chords using regular voicings, plus substitution ideas and slash chords. Bar 1: The A minor 9 chord (A-C-E-G-B) is firstly represented with a Cmaj7 (C-E-G-B) substitution, followed by a regular sixth-string root-voiced A Minor 9. 

Bar 2: A similar substitution idea over the Dm9 chord (D-F-A-C-E) here, but with an Fmaj7 chord (F-A-C-E) creating the substitution. A fifth-string, root-voiced D minor 9 appears afterwards.

Bar 3: Some regular voicings of G9 (G-B-D-F-A) here. Bar 4: Here’s a slash chord approach to a C major 9 chord (C-E-G-B-D). This is a contemporary sounding voicing as the actual chord is a G/C; a G major triad (G-B-D) with a C root note. This gives the sound of a C major 9 but with no 3rd.

Example 3

Bars 1 -4: These minor 11th and dominant 11th chords are voicings of a fifth-string root Dm11 (D-F-A-C-E-G) and sixth-string root Am11 (A-C-E-G-B-D), and fifth and sixth-string root Dominant 11ths. 

Usually, dominant 11ths are played as slash chords – F/G (F triad, F-A-C, with a G root note). The 5th of the chord can be omitted, and the 3rd is too as it clashes with the 11th. The 11th gives an open or ‘suspended’ sound. At the end we see a fourth-string root Dm11 chord.

Example 4

These major, minor and dominant 13th chords are invariably lush and jazzy sounding, and will lend real sophistication wherever you use them.

Example 5

This funky blues style exercise in E utilises altered dominant chords. An altered dominant is a regular dominant chord (R-3-5-b7) but with one or more ‘alterations’ to intervals such as the 5th, 9th, 11th, and 13th; in other words, these intervals will be a semitone lower or higher than their un-altered counterparts, and give real tension to the chord making it want to resolve. 

Although usually played as functioning V chords (where the Dominant 7th chord usually lives), in the case of the 7#9 – aka ‘the Hendrix chord’, this works great as a I chord (tonic), too! Altered chords are very common in jazz.

SPICING IT UP IN PRACTICE

Full study piece

This piece puts together many of the approaches seen in the previous exercises into one full tune. 

From a technique perspective, a pick approach will work throughout, but maybe try hybrid picking for the 6ths shape lick at the end of bar 14 into bar 15, and the D Mixolydian 6ths lick (D-E-F#-G-A-B-C) at the end of bar 17 and bar 18. 

If you’re using the neck or middle pickup setting, it might be necessary to flick the switch to the bridge pickup for the final bar to allow the harmonics to ring out clearly. Throughout the piece, make a real effort to notice how each of the rhythm ‘licks’ relates to the underlying harmony.

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Andy Saphir

Andy Saphir has been a professional guitar player and teacher for over 25 years. Graduating with distinction from London’s prestigious Guitar Institute in 1995, he has gone on to gain a reputation as one of the UK’s top country guitarists. Specialising in country and blues, Andy is a versatile, multi-genre player and has a successful international performing career, touring with numerous shows and bands, including the Blues Brothers Approved. Andy taught on the guitar faculty at London’s ICMP for many years, and is a longtime contributor to Guitar Techniques Magazine, as well as being a Jam Track Central artist. Andy teaches in-person guitar lessons from Cambridgeshire UK, or remotely globally.