I want to share a personal experience before I give some practical advice on how to make your rhythm playing tighter. I have been working on refining my lead Guitar skills for the past 4 years, sometimes for many hours every day. I have built up some serious skills over this time period but I didn't really focus on rhythm playing. It was always a "by factor" and I never really placed a lot of importance on developing the skill of playing tight and locking in with the drums (and other band members).
With a lot of musical knowledge and serious lead skills I joined a band named Strident. It is a South African Power Metal Band based in Cape Town. I am currently very happy to be part of them but I had to put in some serious work after joining them as my rhythm skills simply wasn't up to scratch. Firstly, I had a lot of difficulty playing solo's over sections in 5/4 because my I didn't have a good "internal count" going on while I was soloing.
My rhythm playing was all over the show and didn't lock in at all. It's not that I didn't have rhythm skills per se, that I had. In fact, my rhythm chops are pretty good actually. The skill to play on time and to lock in was under developed though. This spawned in me a deep urge to get this area under control.
I also started recording my debut solo album and yet again my producer (James Scott) told me how far off I was and that this area needed work. It makes a producer's job a lot more difficult and could end up embarrassing a Guitarist if his rhythm skills aren't what it should be.
I decided that this was an area I would have to look at and improve significantly in order for me to be very valuable as a player and also to be a good team player and take into consideration the needs of all other musicians I would be recording and playing live gigs with. I had a moral obligation to work hard and get tight, that was the end of that.
Now that we have established the importance of playing tight I just want to add the following. The skill of playing in time and on the beat isn't only a skill the "elite" should develop. Not at all, in fact. This skill is very necessary when you are playing in any form of band, even if it is just for fun. I have seen YouTube videos of bands not playing in time and if you are satisfied with that, that is fine but since you are reading this I have the feeling you are part of the minority who want to improve and work on your skills to become a better player and also increase your worth as a player by doing the things most other people won't do or simply don't have the motivation for.
Let's look at some exercises you can do to improve your "tightness":
1. We will keep things simple in terms of what we will be playing. Do NOT go for crazy/technically challenging riffs etc. That is not the issue here. The issue is internal timing and playing on the downbeat. So for a start I want you to create yourself a back track consisting of only drums at a comfortable speed (A metronome will work just fine). Start off at 90 beats per minute (Increase the tempo as you get comfortable with the staring tempo). Only play whole notes on an E5 power chord in the open string position. After that, do half notes, then go to quarter notes, eighth notes, eighth note triplets and ultimately sixteenth notes. Use ONLY down strokes. Listen VERY critically at how your accents line up with the down beat of the drums. In fact, I urge you to record yourself and listen back to it. Make sure you listen very carefully to how you're playing sounds, is it solid or does it move away from the down beat on occasion and make your playing sound sloppy and also disrupting the natural pulse of the drum beat underneath the Guitar? The key here is to be very critical on your playing. Not to degrade yourself but to make sure that you train your ear to play on time and make this a habit.
2. Do the exact same thing as what we did above but now I want you to do ONLY up strokes. There is a vast difference between down strokes and up strokes. Up strokes might feel very uncomfortable but once you develop a strong upstroke your chops and timing will really benefit, not to mention how much better your articulation will become when playing heavier rhythm sections.
3. Now to take the above mentioned ideas further, I want you to monitor the wav file of the Guitar over the drum track (In your DAW such as Reaper) and check if the articulation of the notes matches up exactly with the down beat of the drums. So this is where we want to be LOOKING for flaws and making sure with our eye that you're playing is lining up with the drums. This is just a tool and not something to be relied upon, although it is a very good tool to see if we are on the right track.
You can do all of the above examples with any kind of chord, you can incorporate picking through standard open chords and see how you lock in when doing this. Another very important moment is when you change between chords, is a whole new challenge. Even the simplest open chords become difficult to nail perfectly. Make sure to turn on the grid lines of your recording software for very accurate visuals of your playing. In the first example you can see how sloppy the 8th notes are lining up with the grid lines of my DAW. The 2nd example is one of tight playing and should become our natural way of playing.
If you are interested in drum tracks for you to practice over, go to my website and sign up to my newsletter, you will receive an email with a link to download the drum tracks. Using your own drum beats or a metronome is perfect as well.
I have gained so much more musical depth and richness since I have improved in this area and even my lead playing has benefited tremendously. I want to leave you with a final thought and from this I want you to think and create your own variations of the above exercises. The key word in improving at rhythm playing is perception. It is training your ear to be very perceptive to whether or not you are playing on the beat and perfectly in time. By simply practicing to increase your awareness you will have the tools necessary to improve vastly in this particular area. You can be your own coach when it comes to playing tight and in time.
If you like this article and its content, make sure to also read this article by my mentor, Tom Hess, entitled "How To Play Awesome Rhythm Guitar Riffs".
About The Author: George "ShredKing" Engelbrecht is a Neo-Classical Guitar Virtuoso in Vredenburg, South Africa. Visit GeorgeShredKing.com and sign up to his newsletter for more information about practicing effectively and to keep up to date with his latest releases.