Finding Your Rhythm

“You check out Guitar George he knows all the chords, Mind you he’s strictly rhythm he doesn’t want to make it cry or sing” Sultans of Swing, Dire Straits

I love Mark Knopfler’s description of a rhythm guitarist. It’s everything I set out to be when I picked up my first guitar, my beloved dark red Guild. I wanted to learn chords so that I could accompany myself while singing whatever song was my favorite of the moment. I’d taken piano for many years and could accompany some songs, but I secretly had hoped to pick up the guitar at some point in my life. It’s just another string instrument, right?

Well as you all know, “picking up” the guitar is easier said than done. I diligently learned folk chords, practiced them again and again, often in the form of songs I love. I graduated to barre chords and took pride that I have strong hands that could master these chords. My hands aren’t the biggest, so I felt that barres were an accomplishment. I was blessed with a great guitar teacher who taught me chords and theory. He supplemented the drier part of the lessons with the question, “now, what song would you like to learn?” I would pull out a CD from my guitar bag, and we’d go through it together, with him furiously scribbling in my blank music staff book. It’s amazing to watch him break down a song into simpler parts.

I was excited to learn songs that my family enjoyed. My husband, the aforementioned bass player, enjoys all kinds of rock and Motown; for him, I learned Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love (which I’d been belting out for years, but now I could play AND belt it out). My son was more interested in jazz; for him, I learned a simple blues progression. At the time, my daughter loved Jewel; for her, I learned a couple of tunes from Jewel’s first album. A fascinating journey into alternate tuning was commenced, as one of my daughter’s favorite songs was Near You Always. After struggling with the intricate chords, my awesome guitar teacher had an epiphany. It became a simple song if you tuned the guitar in D! So I learned to tune the guitar in D and then back again, without snapping my high E string. I was pretty proud of that accomplishment. The song has some picking involved, but I never really thought of it as learning a major riff.

Since I was decidedly more interested in learning the chords of songs that I wanted to sing, it was a couple of years into my lessons before I ventured into learning any riffs. I learned some tab, so that I could play some lyrical riffs, but essentially I saw myself as a basic chord player, a strummer, an accompanist to my singing. When I played in a jam, I was only interested in rhythm and chords, never fancier than that. I was becoming a veritable “Guitar George” as Knopfler described. Even my timing got better, as I played more, both by myself and with others.

Then one day, we decided to play Get Ready, by the Temptations as part of a set for a gig at my son’s middle school. We had some great student talent: clarinet, tenor and alto sax, trumpet, trombone, two super lead singers. I sang lead on a different tune, and we had one of the student’s fathers playing acoustic. My hubby was on bass, and there I was with the Strat, because it’s so portable. All of the brass players had learned their charts for Get Ready and some had come up with some great solo improvisational pieces. Even my youngest (at age 9) had learned a riff on her clarinet for that particular song. I had the Strat, so my husband showed me how to play the main riff. It wasn’t particularly difficult, in fact, it was much easier than the barre chords I’d been banging out. Just like some of our other faculty, I’ll show you how easy it can be:

Get Ready Main Riff 1
Get Ready Main Riff 2
Get Ready Break Riff 1
Get Ready Break Riff 2

When time came to rehearse with everyone, I decided to go ahead and try the lead riff. Well, it sounded great and fit in so well with everyone else’s bits that I went ahead and riffed away for the actual performance. I had such a good time learning and playing that riff, that I was impatiently waiting for the solo opportunity on stage. The realization of “Hey! I can be a lead guitarist!” was a startling one.

Of course, I’ve played with, and heard so many amazing lead guitar players that I do despair of ever sounding as polished as they are. But every mountain climbed began with a thought and the desire to achieve that particular summit. I know that there is a lot of natural and raw talent out there, but with some hard work, I can make my guitar “cry and sing”.

And in the meantime, I’m content just to have found my rhythm.

n.b. This column continues in a series dedicated to the female musician. We have our own section in the guitar forums. As always, I would love suggestions on topics you would like to see covered. Please email me and tell me your story. I enjoy hearing each and every one.