Rhythm guitar is the use of a guitar to provide rhythmic chordal accompaniment for a singer or other instruments in a musical ensemble. In ensembles or "bands" playing within the acoustic, country, blues, rock or metal genres (among others), a guitarist playing the rhythm part of a composition supports the melodic lines and solos played on the lead instrument or instruments, be they string, brass, wind, keyboard or even percussion instruments, or simply the human voice.
In the most commercially available and consumed genres, electric guitars tend to dominate their acoustic cousins in both the recording studio and the live venue. However the acoustic guitar remains a popular choice in country, western and especially bluegrass music, and is used almost exclusively in folk music.
In popular music, the role of rhythm guitar is most often to provide the chord sequence or "progression" of a composition, frequently providing the rhythm or "beat" as well, usually as part of a rhythm section. In rock music and many of its sub-genres, a typical rhythm section minimally comprises rhythm and bass guitars, a drum kit and frequently a keyboard instrument, but may include a variety of other instruments, such as additional percussion, MIDI instruments, drum machines, turntables (for playing "samples" and "scratching") and equipment for playback of pre-recorded rhythmic accompaniment.
A guitarist "playing legs" plays a sequence of chords either by strumming them or by plucking arpeggios which embody the chord progression or "changes" that support the melody lines performed by the other instruments or voices. In contrast, the role of the lead guitar is to provide melody, countermelody and solos.
In rock music, the most common way to construct chord progressions is to play "triads", each comprising a root, third and fifth note of a given scale, or four-note chords, which include the sixth, seventh or ninth note of the scale. In some cases, the chord progression is implied with a simplified sequence of two or three notes, sometimes called a "riff", that is repeated throughout the composition. In heavy metal (or just "metal") music, this is typically expanded to more complex sequences comprising a combination of chords, single notes and palm muting. The rhythm guitar part in compositions performed by more technically oriented bands often include riffs employing complex lead guitar techniques. In some genres, especially metal, the audio signal from the rhythm guitar's output is often subsequently heavily distorted by overdriving the guitar's amplifier to create a thicker, "crunchier" sound for the palm-muted rhythms. In bands with two or more guitarists, the guitarists may exchange or even duplicate roles for different songs or different sections within a song. In those with a single guitarist, the guitarist may play lead and rhythm at different times or simultaneously, by overlaying the rhythm sequence with a lead line. A recent innovation is the use of a "looping pedal" to record a chord sequence or riff over which the lead line can then be played, simulating the sound achieved by having two guitarists.
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