Jason Wilford is the founder and owner of Pro Guitar Studio, which offers Guitar Lessons in Oakville (Ontario, Canada).
I first came up with the concept for this article after noticing that some of my students who have been playing for quite a while still rely on me to tell them which strumming pattern to use over a particular song. They are actually good guitar players, but just can't let go of the idea of having a specific strumming pattern to play. As I noticed this happen over and over again, I wanted to analyze why some people seem to escape this type of reliance when learning the guitar. After thinking about this for quite some time, the answer seemed to come to me: when I was first learning how to play the guitar, I never focused on what exact strumming pattern to play when working on a song or jamming with other musicians. Most of the time I worked on learning songs with no specific rhythm in mind; I just simply tried to play along with what I heard. I still can't figure out if this was due to the fact that I never asked my first guitar teacher for strumming patterns, or if this teacher actually understood what I am talking about here, but all that matters is the end result: that I focused on playing rhythms to songs by listening, and not by focusing on playing a set strumming pattern.
When you sit down and listen to a song closely for all of it's intricate details, you start to realize how many different things can be happening at one time. Most importantly, there are usually many different rhythms going on within the song (of course this depends on which genre we're talking about - for this article I'm going to use the all-encompassing rock genre as an example; no specific song in mind, I'm just going to generalize). The drummer first lays the foundation for everyone to play off of, and this is essentially what holds the song together. On top of that, the bass guitar can complement the drums and add new rhythms and accents. 'Comping' instruments can now be layered on top, such as keyboard, piano, and guitar. All of these instruments and their individual rhythms come together as a cohesive unit to create the 'feel' of the song. Listen closely to a guitar player's rhythm on a recording and you will notice that it's rarely ever the exact same all the way through a song. The reason why the guitarists' rhythm pattern isn't rigid is that the he or she is playing rhythm with the track, and not just blindly playing a specific strumming pattern.
Through my experience playing and recording in bands, I've noticed how important it is to adjust my rhythm as I'm playing a song. Even if I have an established approach to a song while rehearsing, when it comes time to record, everything gets thrown out the window. Something might be just slightly different in the drum track, or the bass player might play a different accent on a certain chord, and in turn this will make me adjust my rhythm for that specific part of the recording. That's the interesting thing: to make the song sound good, and be perfectly in time, I have to play with the track and figure out what works for that particular section. If I rely on only playing a set rhythm pattern, it won't sound right. The rhythms will be off and nothing will 'gel'. To make it sound truly alive, I have to focus on the moment and play what works with the other instruments.
Keeping that important lesson in mind, let's look at why many guitarists don't have creative freedom when it comes to their rhythm guitar playing: they rely on playing a set strumming pattern instead of listening closely and paying attention to what is happening rhythmically. It can be hard to open up and listen to what's going on around you while you're also trying to focus on what you are doing yourself, but this is a very important skill that all guitarists who play with other musicians must have. If a band isn't playing completely together, they don't sound tight. If one member is focused on his or her own playing, and not on what the band is doing as a whole, it won't come across as something great. In any musical situation, the one thing that will transform a performance from mediocre to something awe-inspiring is when a band opens up entirely to what is happening around them. Whether they take influence from each other, the crowd, the recording studio, or the atmosphere at a concert, this is what makes a performance magical. This is also one of the reasons why I love listening to live recordings, watching live DVD's, and attending concerts: you get to see something unfold differently than it ever has before, and by just being there you can be a part of it.
I know that just telling everyone to go out and "play whatever rhythm you feel like" to a particular song might not be the best advice, and for some guitar players it might hold them back from actually learning how to improve their rhythm guitar playing. I do know how important it is for a beginner guitarist to have a reliable strumming pattern to focus on so that they can improve their skill and feel good about their progress. At a certain point though, a guitarist needs to focus on playing with a song as a whole, and not just repeating a strumming pattern. When I play with a song or jam with someone, I only ever think about the exact strumming pattern I'm playing if I have to describe it. Aside from that, I am always trying to play with the existing rhythms in a piece of music to find something that works for me; I rarely ever play a rhythm exactly the same twice in a row. There's no set way to practice this other than to start focusing less on playing exact strumming patterns, and more on playing what feels right for you in the moment. This will open up a whole new world of possibilities as you start to hear and feel more of what is happening around you. Try to incorporate this into your practicing as much as you can, and I guarantee you will start to see what I'm talking about - rhythmic freedom! Remove those chains and start to experience music for what it truly is: a dynamic, flexible, moving piece of art that lives in the moment.
About the Author:
Jason Wilford is a professional guitarist who teaches at Oakville Guitar Lessons.