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Lesson Series

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Michael Casswell - Pro Concepts Season 4 - Part 8: Rhythm Within Composition

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 41 **

This Pro Concepts I want to try to explore rhythmic elements within your guitar parts and to a certain extent within your song writing in general. I know a lot of you out there may not be in the position of having to come up with your own strong rhythmic guitar parts and you may be quite happy copying or reproducing other people's ideas. That is fine, but one day you may be in a situation where you do have to write or co-write a song, or some music that has to come from you. A big writing tool to think about is how you approach the rhythmic aspect of your ideas.

We are going to be looking at two rhythms and how we can apply them to make a simple bunch of similar chords turn into a strong direction for a song. At the end of the day, chords are just chords unless you can give them life with the way you order them, arrange them, add melody to them and especially add rhythm to them.

Our first idea involves being able to feel and apply 'swing'. One of the most powerful rhythmic elements to develop as a player of any instrument is an awareness of swing. It can make the simplest of ideas much stronger and if you can master it, you will sound better in general as a player. Your feel, groove and phrasing will all benefit if you understand how you can apply it when needed. Obviously, it's not required all the time, and many a groove can have a 'straight' feel to it, and most of us can hopefully handle a straight feel groove with varying degrees of flair and musicality. What can catch many a player out is when you do have to inject the swing approach. It can become extra tricky when you have to arrange guitar parts that work together well and not get in the way of each other, or get in the way of anything else in the song.

Being creative and being able to think in more than one guitar part is a whole other musical discipline which we have looked at in previous Pro Concepts, but adding rhythmic elements to the task, especially swing, puts it in a whole new world of difficulty.

Our idea to demonstrate this is in Bm. Take special note of how much our chord sequence becomes stronger when it is swung and when the chords are voiced so that they are concise and tight sounding. Very rarely with the electric guitar do you need to play all the strings. Getting rid of what you don't need within a chord adds heaps of groove and musicality as does what you do with your picking/strumming hand. If you watch and listen to my examples, you should see how I'm not using set square sounding strumming patterns. It's a lot more percussive than that and all the time I'm thinking of where the sub-divisions of our swing rhythm is. Basically, if you can feel, reproduce and play what I play in this first idea, then you probably already have a good understanding of swing and chordal arrangement.

Adding a cool guitar part to an already established guitar track is another challenge altogether. Not something that can be easily taught but hopefully you can see how I approached it in our swing example. Most students that have sat in front of me and have been asked to create something that works and compliments what I'm already playing as the basis for a track, struggle, and generally end up soloing rather than searching for a strong functional part that adds to the arrangement. Those of you that have been kind enough to search out my album 'Complaints about the Noise' will hopefully hear how on certain tracks the guitars are layered and arranged, each with their own space and function.

Our second rhythmic idea is a 12/8 feel. We also have very similar chords just to demonstrate how the rhythm and arrangement can make it sound a world apart, even though the harmonic content is very similar. Probably the trickiest aspect of this feel and this particular example is the syncopated overlay of our higher voiced inversions. They are working on the off beats and have no more than three notes within each inversion. Again an understanding of the pulse and sub-divisions are needed to firstly come up with the part and then to execute it.

If you can play both these examples without too much stress then you are probably up and running rhythmically, but many of you out there will struggle with swing and some kind of 12/8 groove, so be aware that if you have intentions of playing professionally, then your rhythm playing must be a priority, because that generally is what you do most of the time in real world situations. Being able to write songs, or create strong guitar parts for other people's music is something that is not easily learnt and has to come largely from somewhere inside you. Obviously, the more you are in the situation where you have to be creative, the better you get at it. Throughout the late '80s and '90s I lived in various studios playing on everything from film music to advert jingles, and nine times out of ten it was hoped that I could compose and nail that killer guitar part that got me paid and asked back. Luckily I was never short on ideas so this may be an aspect of your playing you may want to work on, and an in depth understanding of rhythm and groove is a great place to start.

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