Rhythm is a crucial element of all styles of music. Whether you’re talking about rock, blues, bluegrass, jazz, funk, country, folk, or any other style of music, rhythm is what holds everything together. And sometimes - like with reggae and ska, for example - a certain type of rhythm is what defines the style.
Rhythm just might be the most important element of music, actually. But unfortunately, rhythm is also one of the most neglected aspects of guitar playing by new guitarists, especially by new guitarists who play solo.
When there’s a drummer (or even just another another guitarist) playing along with you, you’ve got someone there to help you keep the beat. But when you’re by yourself, you can “cheat” the rhythm a little. For example, if there’s a difficult chord change, or maybe a hammer-on or pull-off between chords, you may need to slow down to play it correctly, then speed back up when you get past the tough part.
Listen: slowing down is fine when you’re first learning how to play songs on your guitar. I encourage it, actually. If something is hard to play, take your time with it. And don’t rush yourself, because as the old saying goes, haste makes waste. If you get in a rush, you’re more likely to mess up, and if you mess up, you’re more likely to just put your guitar down and quit.
But listen to this, too: if you have to keep slowing down and speeding back up when you play a song, you’re not going to sound your best when you play… and if you speed up and slow down in a jam session, you’ll fall out of sync with the other musicians PDQ.
To sound your best, you have to keep an even rhythm going throughout the whole song. And though it might just sound like one more thing to think about on top of everything else, once you develop your sense of rhythm, everything else - from changing chords to playing killer solos - falls right into place.
Here are a few things you can do to develop a solid sense of rhythm, so you can always sound your best when you play songs.
1. Listen to music you like
This one sounds like a no-brainer: if you’re learning a song, you have to know how it goes, right? You have to know where the chords change, what the licks sound like, and so on… but you also have to know when those things happen.
You have to get a “feel” for the beat. And it’s all about “feeling,” there’s no thinking required here. Don’t think about quarter notes or eighth notes or time signatures or any of that stuff, it’s not important right now. Just turn off your thinking brain for a few minutes and let the music hit your ears.
Eventually, there’s going to be a point where you want to tap your foot, or slap your leg, or bob your head, or something like that. Right then, right when you find those certain spots in the song where it feels “right” to tap your foot, you’ve found the beat of the song… and you’ve taken the first step toward learning how to play it.
Now, if you’re like a lot of people, when you realize you’re bobbing your head, or tapping your foot, or whatever, your natural reaction might be to feel embarrassed… and when you feel embarrassed, you stop. And if you’re out in public, or driving your car down a crowded city street, sure, you might want to go easy on the tapping. 🙂
But don’t lose the beat. And make a habit out of this whenever you listen to music, wherever you are: always listen for the beat.
Once you can feel the beat of a song when you listen, you’re ready to get started with your guitar. Pick a song you want to play, get it ready to go on your stereo or computer or whatever, find a comfortable place to sit, and get your guitar out.
2. “Scratch” along with the music
Alright, you’re sitting down, your song is ready to play, and your guitar is in your hands. Take your fretting hand - most likely your left hand, the hand you don’t strum with - and lightly put your thumb on the back of the neck. Shift your wrist downward, and lay all 4 of your fingers across the 6 strings.
Don’t press down on the strings right now. Just lay your fingers across them to deaden their sound. While your fingers are across the strings, strum them and see what it sounds like. If it makes a “scratchy” noise, you’re doing this right. But if one or more strings rings out, adjust your fingers on the strings until none of them ring out.
When you get ready, start the song you want to play and listen for the beat. But when you feel the beat this time, instead of tapping your foot or bobbing your head, strum down and scratch across the strings. Every time you would tap your foot if you’re just listening, “scratch” the strings with your pick.
Keep it simple: just “scratch” with downstrokes right now. Right at first, it isn’t going to feel as natural to perform a strumming motion as it is to tap your foot, or bob your head, or whatever you naturally do when you hear a song you like.
But that’s the point of this exercise: you want to get your strumming arm to a point where strumming feels natural to you. It may take a little time, but keep at it and don’t get discouraged. It’s true that some people will “get” this faster than others, but the idea that “some people just don’t have rhythm” is completely false.
The truth is, some people just haven’t developed their sense of rhythm yet. And just by scratching the strings with the beat of a song, you can start developing your sense of rhythm.
3. Start finding the chord changes
Once you get the rhythm of the song, you can start working on the other parts. But remember: you don’t have to play everything in the song right now.
Find the chords to the song - online if you have to - and get your song ready to start again. This time, instead of just deadening the strings, make the first chord with your fretting hand. Test it out with a strum or two, to make sure all the strings are ringing out correctly.
Next, look ahead at the other chords in the song. Practice making those chords, too. When you’re ready, start the song.
When the music starts, strum the first chord one time. Listen closely, and when the first chord change comes, strum the next chord one time. When the next chord change comes, strum the next chord one time, and so on.
You want to strum right at the same time each new chord is played. If you’re a little off at first, that’s OK. Just keep at it, and with a little practice, you’ll lock into the groove of the song and sound awesome, even just playing single strums.
Once you can do that, you’ve got a solid foundation for playing the rest of the song. And from there, you can start adding more strums, licks, or whatever else might be in the song.
Let me know in the comments section below!