** As featured in issue 26 **
Hey guys, welcome back to my guitar lesson column for issue 26. For this issue we’re going to be taking somewhat of a left turn from our recent harmonic and interval based guitar studies and move into an area that is in many ways far more important than any of the more cerebral elements of music that have occupied our time thus far. Time feel and rhythm are arguably the most important elements for any musician, especially in the improvised world of Jazz, Blues and Fusion guitarists.
There is a lot to be said for the idea that a player with great time feel can play pretty much anything and it will sound good, as our ears are drawn much more to the rhythmic than harmonic information within a musical performance. To check this out for yourself, try playing a very well known tune to a friend with the correct rhythm but completely wrong notes, and you’ll be surprised at how easily they can recognise what you’re playing.
One area that many guitar players struggle with is in developing a good swing feel and it can often be taught in quite a ‘lumpy’ and ‘stiff’ manner where the swing is over pronounced and exaggerated. The swing feel is based on 8th sub-divisions where the second 8th note of each beat is delayed, giving either a dotted 8th note followed by a 16th note feel (for a far more exaggerated swing feel) or a more triplet based feel, where the first and third triplet in each beat is played. Performing either of these rhythms exactly as written gives you a very artificial swing feel that doesn’t really swing at all and is an immediate indicator that your time feel needs work, after all music is never this precise or mechanical.
If you listen to a lot of great Jazz players, from Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery through to modern giants such as Kurt Rosenwinkel and Adam Rogers, they actually play their 8th notes with a much straighter time feel than the traditional idea of swing would have you believe. Whilst they don’t quite play straight 8th notes, their feel is far straighter than the dotted 8th and 16th note or straight triplet feel we traditionally associate with swing. The key to getting the swing feel right is broken down into three elements.
The first element is to play much straighter 8th notes that are more evenly divided between the beat. The second element is to listen to where Jazz and Fusion players place the accent within the beat. Traditionally, when playing non-swing time feels we tend to accent the downbeat, but when playing swing we need to accent the upbeat or upstroke in guitar terms.
Try playing a simple G major scale starting with a downstroke, with an 8th note sub-division and simply accent the upstrokes as opposed to the downstrokes. Listen to great Jazz improvisers playing 8th note lines and you’ll hear this feel all over the place.
The third element is based around how you perceive the time feel in relation to the rhythm section and requires the use of a metronome. In order to ‘hear’ the time feel correctly we need to setup our metronome so that it only clicks on beats 2 and 4, replicating the accents that the rhythm section play in Jazz. Hearing a metronome on only beats 2 and 4 can be tricky for many people at first, as their ears try to perceive the clicks as either each beat in the bar or as beats 1 and 3. If this happens to you try to start your count on beat 2 as I do in the video demonstration to help out and keep practicing until you find you can naturally perceive the metronome on beats 2 and 4.
If you combine these three elements together you’ll find that your swing feel is far more authentic and ‘hip’ sounding than going for one of the more traditionally taught time feels.
Once you have the basic idea down, start to apply it to scales, arpeggios and lines that you are working on. As your subdivision increases and you play faster and faster the swing feel becomes straighter and straighter so you no longer need to worry about these things, but work on that 8th note feel at as many tempos as you can so that you can control those upstroke accents!
Good luck and see you next time guys!