Solving Timing and Rhythm Problems (Part 2)

Part 2 – Towards developing a feel for rhythm

Getting the measure of the metronome

Guitar teachers and authors of books on this subject often extol the virtues of playing along to a metronome, click track or drum machine. Now I am going to add a note of caution to this advice – there’s a knack to playing along with a mechanical timekeeper and teachers are often guilty of overlooking this fact (or may simply be unaware of it).

If you try and follow a metronome by listening or watching it and then responding with your picking or strumming movement, you will not play with a natural rhythm. This is because our natural rhythmic sense is not part of our higher analytical functioning (left brain) – it is more intuitive (right brain). (Some people express it as being centred more in the middle of the body rather than being in the head).

A good way to help students appreciate the difference between the analytical approach and the intuitive approach is to get them first to attempt to keep in time by following the metronome as described above, then after a minute or two, to try this method instead:

First just listen to the metronome for a few seconds. Then allow your body to respond to it by tapping a foot, moving the head or swaying from side to side – whichever feels most natural. I call this “internalising” the beat.

Now start playing guitar along in time to this internalised sense of rhythm. No longer consciously listening to the metronome.

From time to time check in with the metronome just to see if it is keeping time with you!

Most students I try this with, immediately get the difference and, as a result, play with a more natural rhythm.

Stifling the stage fright

Quite often, when coaching people prior to a big performance, I hear them express their concern about not knowing how to strum a particular song – being afraid to start out with the wrong strumming pattern, or start out too fast or too slow. I think most performers have experienced these problems at one time or another and insecurity in this area can contribute significantly towards your level of stage fright.

There is one remedy that works for all these problems:

A few seconds before you are ready to start a song, pause and hear the sound of the song in your head. Then, with your guitar muted start strumming softly along to what you hear in your head. As with the metronome exercise above, allow your body to respond to what you are strumming so that you internalise the rhythmic feel of the song. Then launch fearlessly into performing it to that internalised rhythm.

Sorry songbooks

Finally, a word about one of my pet peeves as a guitar teacher: songbooks that print chord symbols over lyrics without any indication of bar lines.

Musical orchestration has a natural rhythmic hierarchy – the drummer lays down the beat; the bass player locks into that. This then provides a strong outline to the rhythm. I think of it as a bit like one of those kiddies’ colouring books where the shape of each object is clearly outlined in thick black ink. The rhythm guitarist and keyboards then paint in some nice block colours between these strong lines leaving the vocalist or soloist to add detail. Ok, I guess it’s not a perfect analogy, but you get the idea.

If you’re talking about just acoustic guitar and vocals then the acoustic pretty much does the job of the whole band, but the same principle applies.

My point is that vocals are sung over the rhythm guitar – not vice versa.

So teaching beginners to fit their chord changes and strumming pattern to the rhythm of the vocal line is just completely back to front. Time and again I have had to help students who started out learning guitar this way, completely relearn to play by becoming aware of music divided into bars (or ‘measures’ in American).

The trick is to use the guitar to lay down a nice flowing consistent rhythmic pattern, then sing over the top of that pattern.

In part three we’ll look at problems understanding time signatures and the most commonly used rhythmic ‘feels’ (straight eighth, syncopated, 12/8 and 16-beat feel).