The style and sound of rock music has branched out into many subgenres since the 60s, but the essence of rock guitar has remained the same. Whether classic or modern, the power chords, pentatonic licks, and distorted tones are still at the core of any rock guitarist's sound.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to get started – we’ll cover the essentials for both rhythm and lead playing.
- Power chords
- Muting techniques
- Playing riffs
- String bending
- Hammer-ons & pull-offs
By the time we’re finished, you’ll know the foundation of what makes a good rock guitarist.
Getting started with rock guitar
Rock music relies on attitude more than anything else. It’s not about what gear you have, it’s about the energy and style you bring into your playing.
Only a few basic elements are needed to start rocking.
- An electric guitar
- An amplifier
- A pick
- Leather pants (optional)
How to create a rock guitar sound
The electric guitar is at the heart of every great rock song. The magic of this instrument is in its versatility – the sound can be tweaked and manipulated to fit any of the many subgenres of rock.
The guitar sound of an indie rock band, such as Arctic Monkeys will be drastically different from Black Sabbath, yet both bands are using the same instruments.
In order to create rock sound you’ll need an amplifier and some distortion.
- Guitar distortion is an effect that alters the sound of the guitar, creating a crunchy, gritty tone.
- It is achieved by overdriving the clean signal of the guitar beyond its limits, causing the sound to break up and become distorted.
Many amplifiers come with distortion built in – if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to buy a guitar pedal. This effect can go by a few different names
There are differences between these three terms, but turning up the dial on any of them will get the desired effect.
- Distortion makes your guitar sound dirty – the more you crank the distortion, the dirtier the tone.
Compare Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Snow”. The former is heavily distorted, and the latter less so.
Lastly, rock guitar is almost always played with a pick.
- The hard edge gives more attack/punch to the sound.
- It allows you to play fast and tight lead lines.
- The “chugging” rhythm style in rock requires heavy picking while palm-muting.
The power chord is the most useful chord you will ever learn as a rock guitarist. The basic power chord is used in almost every rock song ever written. It consists of a root note and a 5th, meaning it’s neither a major nor minor.
Power chords are movable and sound great with distortion.
- The lowest note determines which chord you’re playing.
- In the example above it’s a G power chord starting on the third fret of the low E string.
- If you move it up to the 5th fret, it’s an A power chord, and so on.
- Remember to mute any strings you’re not fretting.
You can also play this chord starting on the A string, like this:
In this example, it’s a C power chord since it starts on the 3rd fret of the A string.
Many rock guitarists add the octave above the root note for an even bigger sound:
This makes the chord sound more full and complete. Both are fine, it just depends on the sound you’re going for.
Rhythm guitar for rock
While guitar solos may get all the attention, the essence of any rock song is the riff. That means great rhythm guitar is the real star of the show.
- Rhythm guitar is the foundation of a rock song and drives it forward.
- When starting out, you should prioritize learning how to play to a solid rhythm over everything else
- No matter how good a riff is, if you can’t play it in time it won’t sound good.
If you don’t have a metronome to practice with, use our free online metronome!
One vital technique for every rock guitarist is palm muting. This is when you mute the strings with your picking hand as you strike the strings.
- Choking the sound in this way gives a thicker, staccato quality commonly referred to as “chugging”.
- To do this, lightly rest the outermost part of your palm on the strings as you're playing the note or chord.
- Exactly where on the strings you place your palm will differ depending on the type of bridge, your tuning, and string gauges.
Listen to the main riff of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.
- Notice the “chugging” sound on the low E string.
- The power chord briefly rings out.
- Followed by three palm-muted notes on the open string.
Now compare this to Black Sabbath's “Iron Man” riff.
- Long chords ringing out
- No muting at all even between chord changes
It’s important to get comfortable with applying and releasing a palm mute.
If it seems tricky at first, don’t worry – it will soon become second nature.
Try practicing over this simple progression:
- Play through while palm muting and then without.
- This will help you familiarize yourself with the feel and sound of both.
- The chord progression here is G, C, D, C – based on the lowest note of each chord.
If you’re unsure how to identify the notes on the fretboard by name, we’d recommend you read our article about the CAGED system – you won’t regret it.
Now that palm muting is part of your musical vocabulary, you’ll be able to identify that sound whenever it’s used in a song.
Rock rhythm guitar isn’t only bashing power chords. You’ll also play riffs – and riffs are based on scales. The most common scale in rock music is the pentatonic scale.
- Diatonic scales like major and minor are made up of seven notes whereas the pentatonic scale is made up of only five.
- In greek “Penta” means five, and “tonic” means tone.
- You can view it as a simplified version of the major or minor scale (by removing the 2nd and 7th degrees).
The pentatonic scale is a great way to practice “singing” through your guitar. Try improvising melodic lines over a simple chord. If you need something to play over you can use one of our Jam Tracks.
Lead guitar for rock
Our beginner's guide to rock guitar wouldn’t be complete without some lead guitar techniques. We’d bet it was a lead guitarist that first inspired you to pick up a guitar, so let’s fuel that inspiration!
Here are some fundamental techniques all rock guitarists use when playing melodies or solos.
Bending the string to hit a desired pitch or note is the most common way to add some flavor and emotion to a melody.
- When you bend the string you’re generally aiming for the pitch a half or a whole step up.
- For example, if you bend the B string on the 13th fret, the pitch you want to reach is either on the 14th or 15th fret.
- To bend the string you must develop a good sense of pitch accuracy. You’ll learn that simply by playing and practicing.
Bending is a big part of making the guitar “sing” and an essential skill for expressive rock playing.
- Most players use their third finger to bend the strings.
- Keep the second finger on the same string as you’re bending it for strength, support, and more accurate bending.
- If you’re totally new to this technique it will be tough on your fingertips – but that will pass quickly.
Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
Not every note needs to be played and plucked with the pick. Sometimes it’s more useful to play a note once with your picking hand, then continue to fret the next set of notes on the same string using only your fretting hand.
- In this example, pluck the 7th fret with the pick.
- While it’s ringing, quickly “hammer on” your second finger on the 8th fret without using your picking hand.
- The “h” in guitar tabs refers to this hammer-on technique.
Do this a few times to get used to the feeling.
Next, you want to learn how to pull off, which means playing descending notes without plucking them.
- When you’ve hammered on the 8th fret, lift the finger again to go back to the 7th fret.
- If done correctly there will be no interruption in sound while you go between frets.
You may need to pull your finger down and away from the string slightly instead of just lifting it straight up. Almost like plucking the string with your fretting hand.
Practice this on any strings and on any frets.
- Pluck only the first note, then use hammer-on and pull-off to alternate between the two notes.
- The faster you go, the more synchronized you’ll have to be with your left and right hand.
Again, the metronome is your friend.
To make a power chord more interesting and create some movement, you can arpeggiate the chord. This means that you play the notes of the chord individually, rather than as one.
The G power chord we looked at earlier can also be played like this. Arpeggiating distorted power chords sound fantastic when you palm-mute them.
Take a simple chord progression, like the one we used earlier, and try to arpeggiate each chord.
Tapping is perhaps a little advanced for a new rock guitarist, but it’s fun to practice and sounds impressive immediately once you get a hang of it.
You’ll be playing “Eruption” before you know it!
Tapping is a technique where you use both hands on the fretboard - you don’t use your pick to hit the strings at all.
- On the 5th and 8th fret, you hammer on using your index finger and ring or pinky finger.
- For the 13th note, you use the middle finger of your right hand to hammer on the note.
- You can play it in reverse by using pull-offs too.
What makes a great rock guitarist?
There’s a huge diversity of styles within rock music, so what’s “great” often comes down to personal opinion.
There are however some common factors that make an awesome rock guitarist.
- Creative riffs
- Expressive playing
- Powerful tone
- Unique stage presence
Combine all of those, add your own style, and you’ll be a rock god in no time!
Rock the foundations!
The absolute best advice for any budding rock guitarist is to take it slowly, to begin with.
Of course, we want to jump straight into face-melting solos and crazy riffs, but you’ve got to start with a solid foundation.
- Don’t try to run before you can walk – it’ll just lead to frustration.
- You can play some great rock music without getting too complicated.
- Many of the greatest classic rock riffs are pretty simple to learn and will help you build up those key skills.
Understanding and analyzing what you’re listening to may be one of the most important things you can do as a guitarist.
Rather than just hearing a song, try to listen to what the guitar is doing.
- Are they bending strings?
- What scale are they using?
- How do they play that riff?
- What technique is that?
What are my next steps?
Practice, practice, practice!
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Putting the work in early on will pay off in the long run – guaranteed!
- The main focus is to build a rock-solid technique.
- Refer back to this blog post as many times as you need until you’ve understood the basics and feel comfortable with them.
- Listen to music you enjoy and try to figure out what they’re doing.
At Pickup Music, we offer a wide range of courses for guitar players of every level. Check out our membership page to learn more basic guitar techniques or music theory for beginners.
All new members get a 14-day free trial when signing up.
Rock Learning Pathway
Take a journey through the decades of rock.Learn more
Featured Pickup Music InstructorExplore Lessons