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Watch the Beefing Up Back-Up online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp

Backing playing is a neglected subject in flatpicking literature. Part of the problem is that flatpickers are very hung up on lead playing – the spotlight, the glory, the roar of the crowd, and all that. As a result, we sometimes don’t think much about variations in our accompaniment style. Another problem is that audiences listen to what’s out front but often don’t notice unusual or tasty background licks. Maybe if the former were less true, the latter would be less of a worry. Anyway, here are some ideas to spice up your rhythm playing.

First I suggest a systematic series of variations on the basic 4/4 bass-strum-bass-strum pattern. Some of these may seem pretty simple, but advanced players might want to check out some of the differences from the usual “boom-chick” pattern. The basic pattern looks like this on an open G chord (Ex. 1):

There is a rule for this pattern: The first note of the measure should be the tonic (root note) of the chord. Notice that each note and strum is given the rhythmic value of a quarter-note and is played with a downstroke.

Now, check the first variation on this pattern (Ex. 2) – playing an eight-note after the strum.

Notice that I have not written this rhythmic variation with two eight-note strums (Ex. 3), which is the way it’s often taught.
The upstroke after the strum should not be another strum, because that makes it too clumsy to control and adds too much clutter. In Ex. 2, notice how the upstroke on just the first string following the strum gives a much cleaner – and equally full – sound. It’s also easier to play.

Here’s an idea you may not have thought of: Instead of putting in an eight-note after the strum, try putting one in after the bass note. It can be on the same string, as in Ex. 4.Better yet, play the extra note on a different string, as shown in Ex. 5. When used once in a while, this little variation sounds fresh, provides variety, and is easy to execute with a little practice. It works well even in fast tempos.

The next variation I suggest is a combination of Ex. 2 and Ex. 5. It involves an upstroke after the bass note and the strum:A few pointers on using all these variations: First notice that the basic bass-strum pattern is still there, unchanged on the counts of one, two, three, and four. The extra notes have been sneaked in between the main beats on the “and” counts. Practice these slowly, so the basic pattern still comes through. Second, use these as variation; move in and out of them to provide variety as you’re playing a phrase or a tune.

Next are some other less systematic, but equally effective, techniques you can drop into your playing. The first (Ex. 7) involves substituting a strum for the bass note. Or, instead of a downward strum, try an upward strum on the first beat. It’s the same idea shown in Ex. 7, but it uses a downward arpeggio from the first string to the sixth, with the pick snapping up off the sixth string to emphasize the low G note as the first beat of the next measure. This would look something like Ex. 8:

For a slightly off-beat accompaniment lick, try using eighth-note rests on the first and third beats (Ex. 9). One final suggestion: When using an alternating bass-note and strum pattern, don’t strum the whole chord. Try strumming only the top three strings and see how much cleaner it comes out; the patterns should sound neat, not cluttered. Finally, remember that if your accompaniment has too many variations, the best variety may come from playing the lick straight and unembellished.