** As featured in issue 26 **
Music as a whole has many different factors to it - notes, tone, feel, rhythm, dynamics, style, key, etc. All these are hugely important to how music sounds and how we play it. If you were to make a list of what you consider to be the most important things in music or more importantly how you play it, what would be at the top of your list?
When I ask students this question, normally the most popular answer is “Playing the right notes”, which is kind of an important thing..! For me the most important thing to understand and have down in your own playing is great timing and rhythm. No matter what style of music, time and rhythm are at the very heart of it. It’s what makes people move, clap their hands to, sets the mood, and if you play in a band it’s what every musician shares in common.
I often hear this statement; “I know what the notes are, but I don’t know how it goes” That “How it goes” part is the rhythm aspect, with that missing then the melodic part could sound like anything. Take the beginning of Jingle Bells as an example. The first six notes are all E’s played as two separate groups of three with a pause in between them. When you hear that played you kind of know where the tune is going, even if the player hits a wrong note you still know they are trying to play Jingle Bells. If they were to play those first six E’s all together with no pause, or any other rhythmic variation it would no longer sound like that famous Christmas tune.
This is just one example, think about any simple famous tune such as a nursery rhyme and consider its rhythmic structure. Try singing the same tune to a different rhythm, it would take someone a lot longer to recognise that famous tune if you sung it to them using different phrasing.
In my experience many guitarists lack good timing. It is the biggest stumbling block I see for players wanting to push their playing forward. All areas of guitar playing revolve around rhythm and time, finger picking, strumming, lead playing are all reliant on you having a good grasp of time and rhythm.
Unfortunately, it’s not really taught in great detail, and people don’t really practice it. Which considering the importance I have just put on it, is slightly crazy. It’s sad to say that a mentality still exists that drummers will take care of that and I will just play over the top!
Guitarists spend hours practising lead and burning technique, which is all well and good, but let’s look at it from a professional point of view. If you get a call to go and play a pop gig, 90% + of the time will be spent as a “rhythm guitarist”, playing chords, riffs etc. On a big band gig you are an extension of the rhythm section and could easily spend the whole night playing chords to a swung 8th note groove, your time must also be spot on if and when you do get that elusive solo.
If your timing and rhythm suck, then your gig will suck, other band members will notice and you probably won’t get called back. The moment I started to invest more time in my rhythm and timing, the more the phone started to ring. Now I know that not everyone plays in the above situations or has any interest in doing so, but if you’re into practising guitar and being the best you can be, then you need to devote as much time to your rhythm playing as you do to lead, you would consider it madness to learn to write but not read, and as music is a language we need to be proficient in all areas in order to communicate effectively. When someone asks if you play lead or rhythm guitar you should proudly proclaim with confidence, “both”!
Okay I have ranted and outlined my argument for working on your rhythm and timing, but how do you actually go about practising it? On the video I demonstrate various ways of working on time, so I won’t repeat them here, I will however add another great exercise that a good drummer friend of mine once shared with me. This one is great at showing how weak your sense of time is, and when I first tried it I was deeply shocked, as having worked on technique for many years to a tick I thought I had decent timing. How wrong I was!
Using a recoding programme set up a four bar loop at a steady tempo of around 100bpm. Come up with a simple riff or rhythmic phrase that can easily be repeated over and over, so all you have to think about is your time. After the first 4 bars leave a 1 bar gap of silence, completely blank. Then have the 4 bar loop come back in, then leave 2 bars space, 4 bar loop again, 3 bar space, 4 bar loop and finally a 4 bar space of silence.
The idea is to keep playing the riff/hook through those bars of silence, with no metronome running, not watching the screen, just relying on your own inner clock to keep you in time. Your aim is to come bang in on time when the recorded loop starts again. When I first did it, the 1 bar gap was fine, I was a little early coming back in after 2 bars, by the time the 4 bar gap came along I was way, way out!
Give it a go, it will give you a good idea of where you play within in the beat, are you slightly ahead or behind, more of which I will cover next time. If you can do this exercise with ease after a while then change the tempo, by shock, horror making it slower! At a slower tempo there is a lot more space and it’s harder to keep in time. If you can get it down to 60bpm or below consistently then you have great time.
It’s important to remember that everyone is in charge of time as a group, not just the drummer. If things aren’t sitting right then it’s usually because people either aren’t listening to each other and reacting to the push and pull of time, or just not all sitting on it together. You need to have a good inner sense of time and rhythm, how many times have you played a tune then listened to the original and realised that you have been playing it way to fast?
Many famous recordings have the unsung heroes in the background laying down some awesome rhythm chops, players like Nile Rodgers on the Chic recordings, Paul Jackson on Michael Jackson classics like Pretty Young Thing, Steve Lukather on tracks like Running With The Night, Rob Harris from Jamiroquai, all make the recordings what they are by playing with great feel, tone, note choice but above all, fantastic Timing and Rhythm. Next time you play a gig or watch a gig, are people nodding their heads and moving around? If not why not, could it be that it’s just not “tight” enough. Have a think about your own rhythm playing and sense of time it may be the first time you have ever considered it. Try some of the concepts I talk about in the video, and apply it to your own style and way of playing. A little time spent exploring this subject will reap some huge rewards.
Next time I will be carrying on with Rhythm and Time by looking at how you can move around within the beat to create several different feels.
Have fun, and good luck!