Improving Your Rhythm and Time-Feel
This lesson is designed to improve your rhythm and time-feel on guitar. My aim in producing the lesson was to offer you some helpful rhythmic exercises that I have found invaluable in my own practice and they are the exact same exercises I use daily in my Skype Guitar Lessons.
Playing music with a solid understanding of time and the common rhythmic subdivisions is essential for any musician and becomes especially true if you play more complex styles. Ignoring rhythm or just hoping that you will somehow play in time is a risky route to take, as I have found out through my own early musical experiences.
No matter how fluent you feel you sound with multiple exotic scales, complex chord forms and the like, you will simply never sound professional as a musician unless you play with good time and phrase in a rhythmically confident way.
Groove, Pocket and Time-Feel
Many musicians talk about other players who have a ‘great time-feel’, or have a good ‘groove’ or ‘pocket’ to their playing and by this they really mean that the player has a great conception of (and ability to apply) rhythm. Their music ‘feels’ good because of this, as opposed to players who have a good overall instrumental technique but somehow lack rhythmic authority and precision.
If you haven’t done it before, go back now and listen to your favourite players and study how they play rhythmically. This can be one of the most useful forms of study for any musician.
First Steps to Improving your Rhythm
Being able to play the most common rhythmic subdivisions accurately is the first step you need to take, especially if you haven’t really worked on your time and rhythmic awareness before.
To begin our lesson in practical terms, you might initially ask yourself just how comfortable you are with subdivisions in the most common time signature of 4/4. This is something that many musicians assume they are already very familiar with, but then subsequently find that they are in fact ‘rushing’ or ‘dragging’ against the pulse of the music. It’s particularly common for guitarists to ‘rush’ when they play (in effect playing too fast against the tempo)
The example shown below outlines 12 basic rhythms which can be used to subdivide a bar of 4/4. To test yourself on your current understanding and facility with these rhythms, take a metronome and set it to a comfortable (but fairly slow tempo) and try playing just a single note whilst playing through each of the rhythms notated on the sheet. (you might also try repeating each rhythmic subdivision several times before moving onto the next to ensure accuracy)
Table of Rhythms
If the volume of your guitar is equal to that of the sound of your metronome, then you may well experience the ‘click’ disappearing when you play, if you are accurately matching the beats. If you find that your playing doesn’t seem to match up with the metronome (or if the whole process just seems very uncomfortable to you) then you may need to put in some extra practice time to play these rhythms correctly.
Once you can comfortably play through all the 12 rhythms without errors, then try some additional exercises to reinforce your rhythmic awareness. Use the following as a guide:
- Play each rhythm with a single chord voicing (and then with varied chord voicings)
- Play each rhythm using a single scale (in different locations on the fretboard)
- Play each rhythm using a single arpeggio (in different locations on the fretboard)
- Try improvising over a familiar progression using some of the rhythms (exclusively) in your solo.
The exercises above will likely make a significant difference to your playing. They will serve to highlight not only how confident you are with a variety of common rhythms, but also whether you use them effectively in your playing. Many students notice a radical improvement in their playing when they become more aware of rhythm and how they use the various subdivision possibilities.
Here’s a PDF copy of the above exercise sheet for you to print out and also an MP3 audio file so that you can hear how the various subdivision sound against a quarter note click.
Using a Metronome
Although some musicians dislike using a metronome (feeling they can be a bit too clinical) they can however be used quite creatively in your practice. For example, instead of just having the ‘click’ sounding on every quarter note beat, you can experiment having it sound on different beats in the bar. Many jazz players use the metronome in this way by having it sound only on beats 2 and 4 (in 4/4 time) to help develop their ‘swing feel’. This will also help you in other styles of music as the 2 and 4 ‘click’ in effect imitates a backbeat.
Metronomes don’t replace working with a great drummer, or indeed provide you with a great groove to play against, but they do alert you to common rhythmic issues like rushing or dragging against the beat. I do recommend using one at least part of the time in your practice regime, especially if you feel that your time needs improvement.
Although I have met some musicians who seem to have a naturally strong sense of time, most of us have to work hard on developing our rhythmic awareness and time-feel.
Practicing rhythms can be great fun too, and may well just bring you a welcome boost to your playing.