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Tom Quayle: Time Feel Part 5 – Working With Sub-Divisions

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 46 **

Hi there, guys and welcome back to my column for this issue. Just as with the last issue we’re going to be looking at a rhythmic element of playing, but rather than stick with a comping device like the Latin technique from the last issue, we’re going to be looking at the way I tend to practice sub-divisions.

Time feel is often a difficult thing to quantify in a teaching scenario. Terms such as behind the beat, in the pocket, groove, playing to the grid and swinging are all relative terms and can be tricky to teach well to a student. However, something that most students understand very quickly is the idea of sub-divisions in time – breaking down the bar into ever decreasing sub-divisions such as ¼ notes, 1/8th notes or 16th notes. These are much easier to hear and get a grip on and most students will practice getting each sub-division into their ears and then onto their instruments. A good student will next attempt to switch between these sub-divisions, perhaps playing through exercises or scales as a technical exercise, the idea for most people being to discover if they can physically execute each sub-division at a specific tempo as a technical exercise.

I did this for a long time in my playing too and felt like I had a handle on my sub-divisions, being able to play all of my even and odd subdivisions and move between them on command with ease. This is where most people stop, it seems like a simple beginner or intermediate idea, so they only practice their sub-divisions as an exercise and just assume that, whilst improvising, the fact that they’ve practised them will mean that they come out fully formed in their playing. This of course is not the case and many players that I’ve taught can play their sub-divisions with absolutely no issues at all if asked to do so with a scale or pre-determined exercise, but if asked to do the same but now improvise freely, playing a constant stream of 8th or 16th notes for example, their time feel and accuracy goes out the window. You may recognise this scenario in your own playing – you can play all of your sub-divisions perfectly whilst executing scales to a metronome, you may even have super-fast chops and be able to execute insanely fast 32nd notes, but once you start to improvise, your accuracy takes a nose dive.

When I teach my students, I make sure that their studies don’t stop when they can execute their sub-divisions well in pre-determined scenarios. We need to be sure that we can improvise freely and accurately with these divisions of the bar and with any nuances and techniques that might be occurring within our solo. The first area that seems to cause issues is that most players practice their sub-divisions using a single technique – usually by picking everything. When we improvise we tend to use a whole range of technical approaches including, bends, slides, tapping, legato among many others. I urge you to practice improvising around the fretboard in a single key or harmonic scenario and practice incorporating each of these techniques as a point of focus one at a time.

Start by improvising constant streams of notes with no gaps using your usual picking approach but include some slides and trying to maintain the accuracy of the sub-division you are working on. Be very critical of your accuracy and work hard to correct any issues with a metronome. You should also work on the dynamic level and length of your notes within each sub-division, playing loud and soft notes, accenting certain notes for rhythmic effect and playing staccato (short) notes and for the full length of the sub-division. As you get faster you can create this same effect by palm muting your notes for a staccato effect and lifting off for longer sounding notes.

If you incorporate each of these techniques one at a time you will quickly find out where any technical issues arise that are influencing the accuracy of your time feel. With practice, you will be able to improvise any sub-division with any of the techniques at your disposal without compromising your rhythmic accuracy and time feel. This will give you a new found confidence whilst improvising that will really improve your time feel and how others perceive time within your playing. It’s one thing to be able to execute sub-divisions as an exercise with predetermined material but it’s a whole other ball game trying to improvise with your full technical arsenal at your disposal and keep that same level of rhythmic accuracy. Like most other things related to improvisation, limiting yourself and working on one specific element at a time in isolation is a great way to improve things. Just improvising without thinking about it, always practising pre-determined ideas and hoping for the best is not.

Good luck with this and I will see you all in the next issue!


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