From the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY PAUL MEHLING
You’re dissatisfied with your rhythm playing.
Summarize the range of sounds you can get from your right hand—basically discuss the problem and emphasize that there are ways to fix it. Then break those problems down in a list (with music examples) of specific
exercises or techniques that you can add to your arsenal.
While these are specific to Gypsy-jazz playing, they are applicable to any type of guitar work. Try this:
Many Gypsy jazz players spend the lion’s share of their time trying to play amazing solos, but often cannot play rhythm with credibility and consistency. Additionally, many guitarists have experienced the disappointment of being at a jam session at which the rhythm guitarists are not playing together! In my 30-plus years as a guitarist, I’ve seen it time and again: everybody wants to be Django, but nobody wants to be Joseph (Gypsy-jazz great Django Reinhardt’s lesser-known accompanist brother, who was an amazing soloist, but was equally great as a rhythm guitarist). I tell all of my students, no matter how great you are as a soloist, if you can’t play rhythm (la pompe), as in Ex. 1, you won’t be welcome at jam sessions. It’s a cool fact of the Gypsy-jazz genre that the rhythm guitarist plays in a consistent, unobtrusive way so that the soloist gets all the sonic space needed to create lead lines. When the soloist and accompanist change roles, the same courtesy is extended in kind.
Even if it’s supposed to be played fast, start out slow. Trust me on this. Learn it slow, play it slow.
What exactly do I mean by consistent, unobtrusive rhythm? Think of a blank canvas: devoid of anything to distract the artist from creating in that empty space. Rhythmically, you should try to create the same blank canvas in sound: a smooth, repetitive 2/4 or 4/4 strum that flows from beat to beat, from measure to measure, and from chorus to chorus without interruptions—ticking away like a groovy clock. If you’ve ever heard great Gypsy jazz played, you may not have noticed how unobtrusive the rhythm guitars actually are.
It’s so simple, it’s actually hard! You must find the Zen space within yourself to leave your ego out of the music, and become the rhythm that will allow soloists to play at their best. In return, they will do the same for you. In fact, this is one of the most amazing elements of Gypsy-jazz jams: supporting each other in the most minimalistic, but highly swinging, manner.
Many years ago, the Gypsy-jazz world became flooded with play-along tracks on CDs, websites, downloads, and so on, and a new generation of players came along who played brilliant solos, but could not play rhythm, simply because they had never played along with the play-along tracks as a student of rhythm. Avoid that pitfall by becoming a human metronome. Here’s how:
1. Listen to your favorite Gypsy-jazz guitarists but focus on the rhythm guitar. You may already be doing something like this when you watch a movie: Instead of looking at the person in the foreground, you may be noticing the setting, the background, and what’s going on behind the lead actor’s back. If you watch The Simpsons, you know that when the eponymous family is driving in their car there’s usually super funny stuff on the billboards whizzing by in the background. Same deal here. Listen deeper.
2. Get a metronome and a recording device (cellphone, computer, flash recorder, cassette tape deck—whatever you use) and pick a simple tune. Record it. Now listen back. You’ll notice things you don’t like (possibly wrong chords, sloppy changes from one chord to the next, bad rhythm, bad groove, the inability to keep up with the metronome, getting lost, getting tired, and so on). Don’t despair.
3. Set a slow tempo 80 bpm is a good place to start. Pick a medium-tempo song—maybe not a ballad, but something that doesn’t suck at a slowed down tempo. Play along with the metronome one time through the song. If you feel ready, hit the record button and run through the song five or more times (shoot for two to three minutes). If this is difficult, you’re welcome. You learned the first lesson: you need to develop stamina. After all, you know your recordings of your favorite Gypsy-jazz players are longer than three minutes right? You know jam session tunes will last longer than that! Take a deep breath, relax, and start over again. Tip: using a looper will defeat the purpose of this lesson. There is no shortcut for doing the work needed to be a great rhythm player.
4. If you did well on No. 3, record the same tune at 100 or 110 bpm. You’ll be challenged in the best way possible, and now you’ll have two play-along tracks to practice with. If you’re practicing, for example, the melody (a great thing to do, by the way), you may find it easy to play at 80 bpm, but impossible at 110 bpm. You’re welcome again! You know what to do: Either go back to playing along with your 80 bpm version or record a new play-along track at 85 or 90 bpm! Added benefit: By now you probably have that song memorized.
5. If you did well on No. 4, pick a fast tune and record it at 120 bpm. Wanna be a hero? Record the same song again at 130 bpm or faster.
6. If you’re enjoying this process of recording and collecting your own play-along tracks, you might want to tackle the hardest song you know or one that you don’t yet know, but want to learn. Even if it’s supposed to be played fast, start out slow. Trust me on this. Learn it slow, play it slow. Play it until you master it, then go ahead and make a speedier play-along track. Then make another one even brisker. Challenge: Try making a ridiculously fast play-along track just to see how fast you can play a tune.
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.