Solving Timing and Rhythm Problems

Part 1 – The left hand is what is wrong with the right hand.*

*Note: In this article, the author assumes one is playing right handed, meaning that the right hand is doing the strumming and the left hand is fretting chords on the neck. So for all you lefties out there, and again for the purposes of this article, the “right” hand is the one you have dangling at the end of your left arm. Being left handed, you’re smart enough to figure that out!

Why we all learn to play guitar the wrong way

Students of the guitar in their first year of learning often complain that they can’t “seem to get a good strumming rhythm going.” They will inevitably attribute this to there being something wrong with their right hand action. They ask for advice about strumming patterns, pick grips, finger style patterns and so on, but all the time, what is really wrong with their right hand … is their left hand!

The fact is that almost everyone learns to play guitar with their hands working the wrong way round. Not, I hasten to add, because they’re stupid (otherwise they wouldn’t have chosen to learn guitar, would they? ), but because there is actually no real choice. Let me explain and I think you’ll see what I mean.

The “correct” way to play guitar is to establish a continuous steady rhythmic strumming or picking pattern with the right hand and then superimpose fretting chord shapes, licks and riffs on that pattern with the left hand. This is variously described as “right hand leading” or “making the left hand the slave of the right.”

When you first start learning guitar however, this “correct” way of playing is nigh impossible to achieve without guidance from a good guitar teacher. The problem lies in the fact that the left hand simply can’t at first, move anything like quickly enough from chord shape to chord shape. So the “continuous steady rhythmic movement of the right hand” is frequently interrupted by having to stop and wait for the left hand to catch up with it. Of course this is always more evident with the trickier chord shapes: C, F, B7, Dm etc…

As a teacher you can first help your students resolve the concern this causes them, by proving to them that actually their right hand works just fine; that they don’t “simply lack rhythm” or suffer from any other kind of musical blind spot.

This can be done by getting them to mute the guitar with their left hand (or by tying a sock round the neck!) and playing the guitar purely as a percussion instrument. I usually play a song in the normal way and ask them just to strum along on “percussion guitar” any way that seems, to them, to fit the rhythm I am playing. This approach instantly leads to a strong sense of confidence that the right hand actually works beautifully. This of course helps shift the attention back onto the left hand, which is where 99% of the work needs to be done in the first stages of learning guitar.

First beat, first priority

Over many years of teaching guitar, I have developed a method of ensuring that students learn to play in time from lesson one onwards. This approach really pays dividends, as it is always easier to make new habits than to break old ones.

To teach (or teach yourself) good timekeeping I suggest this approach:

1. Pick a simple chord sequence – for now let’s use this easily recognisable generic sequence, done in 4/4 time, by the way:

G | Em | C | D7 :||

2. Take time to see that your student memorises each shape, and then have them play each chord just once. One strum on G then one strum on Em and so on, round and round the sequence just practicing changing chord shapes.

3. Once they can do this okay in their own time, set a timed task. How many times through the sequence can they get in sixty seconds?

4. Whatever result they achieve, repeat the test. Have them attempt to break their record.

5. If any one change (for example Em to C) appears more problematical than the others, then focus in on it and iron it out by lots of repetitions. Then get back to the record-breaking test on the complete sequence.

6. Once they can get through the sequence at least four times in sixty seconds go to the next step, otherwise it’s best just to keep repeating Step 5.

7. Explain that you want them to strum the right chord on beat one of each bar, but for the other three beats they should focus on getting the next chord shape ready. Then count them in and strum along with them. You strum all four beats to help them keep count, but encourage them to join in only on the first beat of each bar. You encourage them with something like:

“Ready with the G chord? …One…Two…Three … Four … Strum! Ready with the E minor ?…Three … Four … Strum! Ready with the C? …Three … Four … Strum! Ready with the D7?…Three … Four … Strum! And back to the G … Three … Four. .. Strum!…”

As they get the hang of it you can catch your breath and cut out the blow-by-blow instruction.

This is actually a great exercise for all sorts of reasons:

  • It underlines the importance of arriving on time for the first beat in each bar.
  • It teaches the student to think ahead and move shapes early
  • It keeps them focused on the changes, which is where the work most needs to be done.
  • Above all it imprints them really early on with an experience of keeping in time.

This all helps build a really firm foundation for future development.

In Part Two we’ll look at the dangers of using a metronome as well as how to find your “internal rhythmic centre.” And I why I hate songbooks that print the chord symbols above the lyrics!