Rock’n’roll rhythm guitar is an essential bedrock style for the well-rounded guitar slinger. Join us as we look at some classic moves and add a few possibilities that open the creative gates
Rock’n’roll in its various guises can generally be thought of as the marriage of country and blues – but having said that, rhythm and blues, jazz and skiffle also made hugely important contributors to the style. So, while you had Chuck Berry doing uptempo blues, Bill Haley was more influenced by jazz and country, and Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley had more of an R’n’B and country flavour.
All of them, however, were rock’n’rollers and were, in their turn, a huge influence on their rock successors – from Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles right up to the present day. So let’s look at some of those early moves…
All in 4/4 Time
1: Back to the Future
Exercise 1 is the basic Johnny B Goode riff, as used by Chuck Berry – and Jimi Hendrix – but here we’ve given it a minor third for a more Beatlesy flavour. Play the sixth fret on the G string instead of the fifth for the major. By simply shifting the action to the next set of strings – ADGB – it’s easy to accomplish a satisfying change to the fourth, ie D in the same position.
As you should now see, it’s our basic blues riff, but at a faster tempo, hence the soubriquet ‘rhythm and blues’. All the notes should be played as downstrokes, and the riff can be renewed by playing an Ab and Eb (a semitone below the root) on the last eighth-note of the previous bar. Try it with a shuffle or swing feel as well. It makes an interesting comparison with the classic Ian Dury and the Blockheads tune, What A Waste. The chorus employs the rock’n’roll riff, but rather than using the customary I, IV and V chords (D, G and A), it takes a more chromatic approach.
2: Riff With Descending Bass
Exercise 2 is a similarly chromatic invention that, rather than ascending, like What A Waste, descends in the bass. It’s only one of many possibilities, but here we’re using the R&B/rock’n’roll groove, not only on the sixth and flattened sixth of the key (as opposed to the usual one, four and five), but also a chord rooted, not on the one, but on its flat seventh (the second chord is a D7 with a C bass note).
This is where arrangement and songwriting get interesting; you can play chords not only on their root notes, but also on their sevenths or any other notes that make up the chord, ie the first, third, fifth or seventh (not to mention the ninth and the fourth). Try getting your bass player to play the odd third, fifth or seventh instead of the root. More about this later.Play each of the first three bars twice.
3: Rock ‘n’ Roll Riff
Exercise 3 is another type of R’n’B-based rock’n’roll riff. This technique of combining a single-note riff with the odd chord thrown in is extremely effective and easy to execute. Try replacing the first quarter-note of the bar with two eighth-notes every other time. Have a go at playing this riff through an entire 12-bar pattern. If you hadn’t already realised, this riff is based on an A7 chord.
4: Country Moves
Exercise 4 is more of a country-influenced rock’n’roll style of the kind you might hear played by Cliff Gallup (from Gene Vincent’s band) or Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley). Using a pick and two fingers you can achieve the bounce of an alternating bass at a higher tempo than most country, and with more blues in the harmony – play the E on the D string, in the chord, with the lick.
Try alternating every other second bar with a pentatonic lick in the open E position. You’ll want a fairly twangy tone, too, middle or bridge pickup, perhaps played on an old Gretsch semi-acoustic, if you happen to have one knocking around. You can carry the feel through to the A, as shown; try an open position B7 as well. For an authentic ending, an E6sus2 in the 11th position (as bracketed) should do the trick.
5: Rock ‘n’ Roll To Rock
As rock developed, players started to abandon the sometimes cumbersome movement of the root and fifth to the root and sixth in favour of retaining the thrust of the eighth-note rhythm, while varying the accents in the bar. Exercise 5 is in the style of Steve Stevens from Billy Idol’s band. It’s a rhythm part that accents the first, third and sixth eighth-notes of the first bar, and the first, fourth and seventh eighth-notes of the second bar.
Try just playing the accents on a single note or chord as a useful exercise. This exercise will test your control over the velocity with which you attack the strings – one of the things which makes the difference between an average and a really good player.
Why not change the root notes every couple of bars? Try this sequence; D, G, B and A. By playing the D and A on the G and B strings you should find that you have good access to the bass notes, while being able to mute unwanted strings (you might want to play the B with your thumb, though). For the right sort of intensity, play with downstrokes and use a fairly distorted sound. Try varying the accents.