Guitarists as a whole have sub-par rhythm when compared to most other groups of musicians. This is likely due in large part to the fact that there are not a lot of ensembles that include guitar. If a trumpet, clarinet or violin player gets even slightly out of rhythm in an ensemble setting, everyone will notice. Many guitarists, even classical guitarists however, spend much if not all of their time practicing and playing solo, or as the single guitar in a band. Under these circumstances it can be easy to get lazy and sloppy, and that is unfortunate, because rhythm is an essential element of music and can often separate an exciting rendition of a piece of music from a boring one.
As an aside, my jazz band teacher in college even had a favorite joke about guitarists and their dubious rhythmic skills Question: What do you get when two guitarists try to play the exact same line at the same time? Answer: Counterpoint. Sad, but too often true. He also had a habit of jokingly telling guitarists to keep turning down their amplifiers until the volume was on zero, and then saying, Perfect.
In all seriousness, though, most of us know how to read time signatures and rhythmic notation, but how many of us actually take the time to study the rhythm as intently as we study the notes? Worse yet, how many of us have learned songs from tablature with no rhythmic notation at all? Rhythm, like melody and harmony, needs to be practiced. The good news is that just a little bit of focus on rhythm can drastically improve your playing.
Let's look at some simple ways that we can incorporate rhythmic focus into our practice:
Seek out musicians that have good rhythm and listen to them It is important to get used to listening for rhythm (my personal favorite is Nuno Bettencourt, especially in his early Extreme days). Count out the beats while you listen to the playing and start to get a feel for what's going on rhythmically. Do your favorite musicians spend lots of time playing on the beats? What about between the beats? What do some different rhythmic patterns do to the forward motion of the music?
Verbalize the rhythm of the music that you're learning/playing This will help you to memorize the rhythm and ensure that you don't get lazy once the guitar is in your hands, since your brain will already know what the rhythm should be and can now monitor the sounds that your hands are producing with the guitar. If you can't speak the rhythm, it's very unlikely that you'll be able to play the rhythm.
Use a metronome A bit of a duh moment here, but understand that tapping your foot, especially before you've learned the rhythm, is not an effective way of keeping time. Your foot will be too easily influenced by other things that your brain is trying to process simultaneously.
Slow down Another duh moment learn the rhythm before you play at full speed. You'll be surprised at how easily you can increase the speed of a passage if you know the rhythm cold.
Separate your hands, then put them back together If you're having a problem getting the rhythm right (assuming you can verbalize the rhythm already), this will help you pinpoint where the problem is. Can you fret the passage perfectly without your picking hand? Can you pick the passage perfectly without your fretting hand? Once you've found the problem, go to work on the problem area. Put the hands back together once you've worked out the problem and see where you stand. Repeat if necessary.
While many of these bullet points are not revelations, I think it is important to understand that there are no real secrets to great musicianship. The truly great musicians I've heard speak or give master classes have all focused for the most part on fundamentals. For example, Manuel Barrueco, possibly the greatest classical guitarist ever, focuses almost exclusively on the singing of lines (and then trying to reproduce the singing with the guitar) during his master classes. So for those of us who are convinced that if I can just learn how to [insert jaw dropping trick I just saw online here] I'll be a great guitarist, I would argue that focusing on the fundamentals of music, such as melody, harmony and today's topic, rhythm, will help infinitely more than two-handed Phrygian Dominant string skipping whatever that is.
A couple of final thoughts on rhythm:
Speed is meaningless without rhythm No matter how fast you can play, if you can't begin and end your runs rhythmically, your playing will lose forward motion, and music that sounds like it's not going anywhere is typically not all that interesting.
Rhythm is one of the building blocks of speed If you want to increase the speed of your playing, studying rhythm is a good place to start. Playing rhythmically requires accuracy and control, which are also two of the main requirements of building speed.
Until next time, groove on.
For a video version of this lesson and other free lessons, please see www.whyisuckatguitar.com.