When it comes to playing rhythm guitar, it’s easy to fall into a rut. Guitarists tend to find comfort zones, then lean on the same strumming or picking patterns—song after song, gig after gig. If you’re feeling similarly stuck, this lesson may pry you loose and keep you feeling rhythmically fresh for a long time to come, using just one simple concept: rhythmic displacement.
Here’s the idea: A measure of 4/4 comprises eight eighth notes. As such, most players will naturally emphasize groupings of two or four eighth notes. That’s fine, but it doesn’t give the music much swagger or sway. To liven things up, you can divide each measure as 3-3-2 (three eighths, three eighths, two eighths) instead.
In this lesson you’ll learn these displacements, all based on a I–V–vi–iii (C–G–Am–Em) progression in the key of C major. The concepts will work across a range of styles, so be sure to extend them to your favorite chord progressions and songs.
Spruce Up Your Strumming
Example 1a employs the asymmetrical 3-3-2 pattern. (The > mark above certain notes indicates a dynamic accent. Give these notes a little more emphasis.) Using basic open chords or barre chords, play Ex. 1a a few times, unaccented at first, then play it with the accents. Can you feel the difference? Be sure to use downstrokes for beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. Use upstrokes for the beats between.
Now, to make things even more interesting, you can displace the 3-3-2 pattern by one eighth, so it begins on the and of beat 1—as shown in Example 1b. Run through Ex. 1b a few times, then play Ex. 1a again. As you’ll notice, these two examples feel remarkably different despite being made up of the same basic material. In Examples 1c–1h, the emphases are further displaced, by one eighth at a time. (After eight permutations you’re back where you started.)
You can, of course, apply this rhythmic strategy to fingerpicking as well. In Example 2a, the 3-3-2 pattern begins on beat 1. It begins on the and of one in Example 2b. As in our first group of examples, there are eight possible variations in total. Work out the remaining six on your own. Fingerpick all of the examples with your thumb on the down-stemmed notes and your index, middle, and ring fingers on the up-stemmed ones.
Some 3-3-2 variations inherently feature accents on the and of beat 4. In these cases, there’s an opportunity to tie the final eighth note across the bar line, as shown in Example 2c (essentially Ex. 2b with ties). Example 2d is the tied version of Ex. 1b. Ties may also be applied to strumming patterns that have accents on the and of beat 4—namely, Examples 1b, 1e, and 1h. Try these with ties.
Examples 2a and 2b utilize the same common fingerpicking pattern, which is briefly represented in Example 3a. Five other 3-3-2 picking patterns can be made from the same notes, as Examples 3b–3f illustrate. Though there are no accents written here, you should apply all eight accent variations to each of these picking patterns.
By now, you should be starting to see that you can generate a kaleidoscopic variety of rhythms by varying your picking pattern and/or your accent pattern. With so many possibilities at your fingertips, you may be wondering how to figure out which pattern is best for a given song—or a particular section of a song. Giving this some serious thought is essential. Such sensibilities are what separate the good players from the great. The answer will usually be revealed by singing the melody while experimenting with different variations. The best pattern will be the one that helps urge the melody forward without rhythmic interference or distraction.
Expanding the Concept
All of the 3-3-2 patterns you’ve played so far in this lesson have been repeated as one-measure phrases. You can take this displacement concept one step further by pairing different patterns into two-measure phrases. Example 4a is what you get when you pair the strummed Examples 1a and 1b. Example 4b pairs Examples 1c and 1d. (The chord symbols from the earlier examples are eliminated in these two. Try any chord—or chords—you like.) Similarly, you can mix and match fingerpicked patterns, as Example 4c demonstrates. Here, Examples 2a and 2b are paired with an across-the-bar tie. Once again, be sure to experiment with various accent patterns, which can shed a different light on each rhythmic grouping.
Once you’re comfortable with the various two-bar 3-3-2 combinations, you’ll be ready to explore some new possibilities that these longer phrases—with 16 eighth notes—offer. One fairly common two-bar figure is 3-3-3-3-4, which is the backbone of Example 5a. It may not be easy for you to feel the 3-3-3-3-4 at first, but it’s all there in the down-stemmed notes that your thumb plays.
Example 5b puts the four-eighth grouping from Ex. 5a at the front of the phrase, for a 4-3-3-3-3 pattern. Notice how different Ex. 5b feels from Ex. 5a. Example 5c shows one more variation. It’s 3-3-4-3-3, starting on beat 4 of the previous measure. Complex? Yes, but it’s worth the effort to get this pattern into your hands. As with anything challenging, take it slowly at first. Clap the rhythms to be sure you understand them—and feel them—before you apply them on your instrument. Try playing just the bass part (down-stemmed notes), then just the treble part (up-stemmed notes). Combine them only when you can play each component with confidence. Use a metronome to help you keep steady time and to help you track your progress as well. If you can play Ex. 5c cleanly at 63 bpm today, try 66 or 69 bpm tomorrow.
Norah Jones fans may have noticed that Ex. 5a is similar to the arpeggiated guitar part that Jesse Harris played on Jones’ recording of “Nightingale.” Another song that demonstrates an expert use of bar-crossing rhythmic groupings is Lianne La Havas’ “Green & Gold,” from her Blood Solo EP. One more is “Future People” by the band Alabama Shakes. These are all great songs to learn to play if these sorts of patterns intrigue you. Although La Havas and Brittany Howard (Alabama Shakes singer/guitarist) favor electric instruments, their styles work just as well on the acoustic guitar.
If you’re a songwriter, try using 3-3-2 and 3-3-3-3-4 patterns as rhythmic forces in your original music. If you’re an accompanist, or part of a band, see what you can do with these patterns and accents as you arrange your own parts. Drummers and percussionists employ ideas like these every day to create unique grooves. You can, too—and your musicality will be richer for it.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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