Keeping Up With The Times

One thing that fascinates me no end (and yes, there seems to be no end to the things that do) is the chance to play with people for the first time. Whether someone has just started playing or has been playing for any number of years, I’m always interested in figuring out what interests him or her. Does this person know songs or just the leads to songs? Do we have to play something “off the record,” meaning as close to the recorded version as possible (since she or he has learned the song off the TAB), or can we come up with a new arrangement. What personal style does this guitarist have? Does he or she tend to play the lower strings a lot? Does she or he stick to basic first position chords? What kind of repertoire does this musician have? Is it heavily geared to a certain artist and/or musical genre or can she or he easily adapt… straight rock one song followed by folk followed by reggae? How does he or she react to playing a new or unfamiliar song?

And, absolutely the most important thing I watch for, is this person’s musical sense of awareness. Not only concerning the song being played but also concerning the other musicians playing the song. I find this necessary to know because it helps me tailor my playing to the rest of the group. Do I need to play a straight, strict rhythm part in order to provide a center and should I simply add a fill here and there in order to layer a bit of color and texture to the overall mix? My assessment can change from song to song depending upon the other people’s abilities and their comfort level with whatever song we happen to be doing.

As a rule, the more people you’ve got playing, the less space there is to play around with. And the more people you have playing the same instruments (guitars more than likely) the easier it is for things to get muddy really quickly. The ability to hear and come up with appropriate rhythm parts cannot be passed over lightly.

And that’s just in playing for the fun of it. If your aspirations involve professional work, whether solo or with a band, then your ability to keep appropriate, interesting and varied rhythms are a must. I should point out here that it’s not only beginners who have trouble figuring out a good strumming pattern. But, bless their hearts, they are the only ones who seem to be willing to admit it.

We can tackle this difficult problem from many different angles, but let’s go after the easy solution first. You not only have to be able to keep time, but you also have to appreciate why you keep time. Time is what ultimately holds a song together. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been out to see musicians or bands and have noticed that there seems to be a huge perception gap between a “great,” “good” or “okay” act. Sometimes the “good” and “okay” bands actually have better musical talent than the “great” bands but they just don’t come across all that well. More likely than not, it is simply a matter of the group being in sync with each other. Simple things like starting and ending at the same places or giving dynamic changes in tone, volume or rhythm together as a unit have a powerfully positive effect on the audience. The average listener probably won’t be able to tell you that the lead player muffed a note or that the rhythm guitarist played the wrong chord for a brief moment (unless it was really wrong and really loud). But he or she will be able to tell you if the drums, bass and guitar are all playing at different tempos.

Regardless of your level of ability, you should own a metronome, which is a device that beats time at a pace of your choosing. Like everything else these days, there is no end to the various types you can get. I wouldn’t be surprised to find you could download one from the net. Let me offer one bit of advice, though. Use one that has an audible signal, a click, tick-tock or whatever. A simple flashing light really doesn’t cut it. Just like your eyes do not tell you how something tastes (although they may give you a good idea), they do not measure audible time. Your ears do.

The inherent problem with metronomes is that while they are great for practice, they are impractical for performance or group play. As good as you might be at keeping time, you can throw it all out the window if you’re playing with someone who has a really hard time with it. This is when patience and practice should become your mantra.

I know many people who own a metronome and never use it. And I must confess, until I started taking up classical guitar, I had never even owned one. When one practices on one’s own, timing is rarely something we think about. We worry about getting the notes of a riff right, getting the correct fingering of a chord. Not until we get that “important” stuff down will we concern ourselves with tempo. We forget that the timing is vital to the music as well.

Personally, I think that the fact most of us learn music via TAB these days has got a lot to do with this problem. Again, not that TAB is a bad thing. You all know I advocate using all the materials you can get your hands on. And you can’t decide you won’t read music. That is simply depriving yourself of a necessary resource. It occurs to me that when I said last time that the language of music is read both horizontally and vertically that I neglected to add that music has to be read in a third dimension. And that dimension, of course, is time.

Different Strummers

Some people do have difficulty learning to strum a guitar. Perhaps they think that since they’re spending so much time trying to get their left hand to play the chord correctly the very least the right hand could do to help is simply move effortlessly across the strings.

It’s the easiest thing in the world, right? Ah, we could only wish.

Like just about anything, strumming (and coming up with strumming patterns) can be learned fairly easily. But, and again like just about anything, how good you get will depend on how much effort you put into it. Some people are naturally talented in this area while others will have to work at it.

Surprisingly, the quickest way to learn how to strum doesn’t even involve touching your guitar. Really. Sit back and listen to some music. Any music will do, but if it just so happens to be a song you’re trying to learn, then more power to you. Now, listen. Hear the beat. Listen to the drums and the bass. Tap your feet with the rhythm. Take whichever hand you strum with, rest it on your thigh and tap out a pattern. Start simply … really simply if you have to. Even if it’s just tapping out every beat or every other beat. Once you have a pattern you like, repeat it until you are happy with your consistency. Are you able to keep up with the other instruments? Does your pattern copy theirs? If not (and it really doesn’t have to), does it add to the overall rhythm? Does it overwhelm the rhythm?

Often you will find that what you come up with compliments the song just fine. It’s kind of nice how that works out. This part of the exercise you can practice just about anytime anywhere, although I would avoid trying it at important business meetings.

The next step would be to see if you are able to handle your rhythm pattern in a guitar-stroke motion. Basically it’s the same as we’ve done, but the only difference is to “strum” out the pattern using a motion like you would on your guitar. Something you might want to watch at this point is how much arm motion you are putting into your strum. A lot of beginners tend to put their whole arms into it which not only can tire you out but can also lead to what I call “pattern deterioration.” Any of you who have started out with a great pattern only to hear it slip away bit by bit will know exactly what I’m talking about. A good way to check how much arm motion you use is to do this exercise on a chair with arms. If you sit in the chair and rest your arms on the arms of the chair, palms facing inward, you should be able to strum your pattern without lifting your arm from the arm of the chair.

One thing you might notice at this point is that your pattern might not work as well with the music anymore. This is because you have to do more motion than when you were just tapping it out on your leg. If this is the case, then make alterations to your pattern until you once again are happy with how it works with the rest of the music. Usually this involves simplifying your strumming but not always.

Finally it’s time to try it out with your guitar. Don’t worry about the chords when you start out. Deaden the strings by wrapping your left hand over them. Just strum and listen to whether or not you feel that what you are doing fits in with the tone and feel of the song. If it does, then you’re set. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to make a few more adjustments. Try out slight alterations of your rhythm. This is the best time to see what will work and what won’t.

This is also a good way to work on your strokes. Upstrokes are often troublesome for new guitarists. But again, since it seems such a simple thing that anyone should be able to do, we simply think it will improve in time instead of taking the time to improve it. Try making patterns with only upstrokes. It’ll be difficult at first, mostly because you’ll be consciously thinking about it. But if you try this a couple of times (and just for a few minutes – no need to spend the better part of a practice on this), you soon find yourself just doing it and not thinking about it at all.

Now, I can hear some of you asking, “My God, it’s bad enough he has us singing “Do, re, mi.” Does he really expect us to go through all this just to strum a guitar?”

Of course I don’t. But if you’re really serious about improving, you do have to do something. These exercises actually will help you, but I don’t expect that most of you will actually have to go through them step by step. For example, if I’m sitting in with some people and we’re playing a song that I’ve never heard before, I am very likely to simply listen for a while. It may be a short while, but it will be enough to get a feel for the general rhythm of the song. If I’m really uncertain of what to do, I may try the “muffled string” bit for the better part of a verse.

The main point that I’d like to get across to you is that it is important to think about things, even if you’re simply jamming. Actually, most of you probably go through these steps without thinking about it. You see, if you have an idea about where you want to go with a song, then it’s relatively easy to figure out how to get there. If you’d rather just go along for the ride, then don’t worry about it.

Rearranging The Furniture

It certainly goes without saying that the more styles of music you listen to the more types of rhythms you’ll be able to come up with. It really can’t hurt you to be able to tell the difference between a waltz and a meringue. Or between heavy metal and punk, for that matter. Some of the more interesting music being done these days comes from artists or groups that manage to incorporate rhythms from all sorts of styles. The beautiful thing is that once you expose yourself to different kinds of rhythms, you actually absorb them. I can’t count the times I’ve come up with something and then realized, “Oh yeah, that’s where I heard that…” You might be amazed at what’s hiding around in your brain.

An excellent way to work on your rhythm skills is to take a song you know very well and play it in a totally different style. One of the bands I was in used to do this fairly often during practices. Sometimes we’d come up with great ideas. And sometimes, even though the idea was ludicrous, it could lead to something totally unexpected. One afternoon when we were pretty tired (and a bit giddy), we decided to see what the Who’s The Real Me would sound like if it were done by Frank Sinatra. We slowed it down a lot and played it very pop/jazzy and even though I was laughing like crazy, I really liked the sound of what we were doing. I later used that basic idea to write a song of my own, Waiting For Nancy which turned out to be one of our fan favorites (not to mention one of our own).

Putting a different spin on an old favorite can also help you to appreciate the song itself. Sometimes we can get very mechanical in our performances without even realizing it. This is especially true of songs that we tend to play fairly faithfully to the original. Whenever you feel like you might simply be going through the motions, shake things up a bit. It’s fun to see if you can navigate your way through an old song without the usual direction.

Coming up with strumming patterns is a “growing pain” that everyone (well, just about everyone) goes through. You can even go through “strummer’s block,” when simply for no reason at all, you just can’t seem to get the hang of a particular song. There are times when I cannot get anything to go right and it’s necessary to take a break and “reboot.” Rhythm is one of those things that some people seem to be born with, but it is also something that you can work on to improve your own abilities.

I’d like to thank all of you who took time out to write concerning the figuring out songs for yourself columns (Happy New Ear, Unearthing The Structure, Solving The Puzzle). I’m glad I could be of some help. I especially want to thank Paul for the extra work that he went through in getting these columns (all of them, for that matter) online. Remember, if you have any questions, comments, or requests for upcoming topics, please feel free to email me directly or drop a note in at the Guitar Forums.