You’ve studied the elements of rhythm but need to expand their application to the guitar—and to your creativity.
Put yourself through a concentrated course or rhythm boot camp.
Rhythm playing is one of the most essential, yet often overlooked, areas of guitar playing. Think Malcolm Young—his sense of clear, confident time is an essential part of AC/DC’s sound and gave brother Angus the energetic, rock-solid foundation for blazing solos. Think Tommy Emmanuel—his lead playing drops jaws, but his rhythm playing is what allows a single acoustic guitar to fill a concert hall and deliver compelling songs. And what would Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On” or “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp” be without Jimmy Page driving the rhythm?
Guitar players often spend a lot of energy working on lead playing and perfecting single-note technical exercises. Yet developing your sense of time and rhythmic vocabulary won’t just make you a better rhythm player, it will make you a better lead player, and a better musician overall.
1. Get a Metronome
Initially, I loathed my metronome. It felt tyrannical. But when I accepted it as a mandatory part of musical growth and reevaluated how I was using it, my attitude changed entirely. I isolated my focus to my picking hand by muting the strings with my fretting hand. I set the metronome to 60 bpm. I played the following rudiments for at least one minute each—longer in the cases of subdivisions that were more challenging. If a full minute seems excessive for something that should be easy, keep in mind that you’ll start hearing and feeling time in a deeper way only when you have the mental space to work on playing better, rather than faster or more complex. Concentrate on having a solid attack, feeling settled with the beat, and developing a sense of command and ease.
Staying with the metronome requires listening to both it and yourself. If you notice you are wandering out of synch, try to regain the beat without stopping completely, but rather by devoting more attention to the click of the metronome.
2. Go to Rhythmic Boot Camp
Get in the zone with quarter notes. For all of these boot-camp exercises, you will be approaching the guitar as a purely percussive instrument, and therefore muting the strings with the fretting hand. Play quarter notes, one strum per click, using downstrokes exclusively (Ex. 1). This first minute on quarter notes is when I’ll close my eyes, consider my attack, and try to internalize the click of the metronome. Then check your upstrokes with eighth notes—play two notes per click of the metronome (Ex. 2), using a down-up picking pattern (down picks on downbeats). Downstrokes are naturally stronger—they have both physiology and gravity working for them. Use your ears, as it may mean consciously exaggerating the upstrokes for them to sound truly in balance. Then leave out the first eighth note, and play just the upbeats (Ex. 3).
Now mix up your pick direction with triplets, three evenly spaced notes per beat (Ex. 4). Playing triplets, or any odd subdivision of the beat, means the pick changes direction with every new group. For example, the first group would be down-up-down, then up-down-up, and so forth. It can feel inside-out to play a downbeat with an upstroke, but once you realize why it feels weird, working out the problem becomes a matter of listening carefully and feeling the change of where the beat falls within your picking pattern. I found it helpful to exaggerate the first note of every triplet group to help me keep a sense of the downbeat.
You’ll start hearing and feeling time in a deeper way only when you have the mental space to work on playing better, rather than faster or more complex.
Next, leave out the first note of each triplet (Ex. 5). Keep your picking hand moving in the triplet pattern, but don’t hit the strings on what would be the first note of each group. Now leave out the second note of each triplet (Ex. 6). This may feel strange, as the picking pattern is down, down, then up, up, and so on. But once your ear starts hearing it as a shuffle, that classic blues/R&B rhythm, your body will embrace it more readily.
Finally, leave out the third note of each triplet (Ex. 7).
Onward to 16th notes. Play four notes per beat (Ex. 8). Then leave out the first 16th note of each group (Ex. 9), the second 16th note (Ex. 10), the third (Ex. 11), and finally the fourth (Ex. 12).
This boot camp requires 12 minutes of practice allocated to intense focus on rhythmic rudiments. I encourage you also to explore quintuplets, sextuplets, and septuplets (five, six, and seven notes per beat, respectively). You could get extremely geeky and continue the process of leaving out certain notes within those subdivisions, but see what feels pertinent and interesting to you and your goals.
3. Mix Up the Subdivisions
Once you’re comfortable with Examples 1 through 12, start inventing different groupings—place a few 16th notes within an eighth-note pattern, or intersperse triplets. In general, the picking hand will move with the shortest subdivision of the beat. By playing the eighth notes with two downstrokes, as in Ex. 13, your picking hand is already moving in 16th notes, which will solidify your rhythm and make the 16th notes within the phrase feel natural.
4. Add Chord Accents
Ex. 14 builds upon Ex. 13 by taking the same rhythm and adding chord accents to the muted notes. I’ve chosen three familiar open chords—A minor, D minor, and E. Once you get confident moving between muted strums and chord accents, try adding different chords within a pattern of your own to create a riff or progression.
5. Enlist a Drummer
In my experience, drummers really appreciate guitar players who want to focus more on rhythm playing, and are often thrilled to practice their rudiments alongside some harmonic interest. So chances are you could enlist a practice buddy who rules the rhythm section and might be able to give some helpful suggestions.
With every lesson, one of the strongest pieces of advice I can offer is to write with a new concept. Making it your own and incorporating it into your immediate vocabulary will be one of the best paths to deeper understanding and true assimilation. Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris) referred to filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and music inhabits the same dimension—sounds and silences within the framework of time. Nothing is more fundamental to music than rhythm. Time is your canvas. Know it and use it well.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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