Let’s face it, people in general do not naturally possess a good sense of rhythm and tempo. In fact, most beginning music students tend to speed up or slow down around 10 bpm without even realizing it. Developing a solid rhythmic foundation is absolutely necessary to becoming an accomplished musician. Fortunately, as with gaining a better sense of relative pitch through practice, the same can be done to improve your rhythm guitar playing.
When you see a group of musicians performing together that are rhythmically dead on, or “tight” sounding, each member in the band has a good sense of internal timing as well as the ability to match his/her internal clock with the other musicians in the band. To start to develop a mastery of timing and rhythm it is imperative to practice with a metronome or drum machine, as these tools are the closest we can get to absolute time (besides a cesium atomic clock). With that in mind, let’s take a look at some crucial tips on how to improve your rhythm guitar playing.
1) Keep the strumming motion in the wrist – You should be strumming from the wrist and not the elbow. Stay loose and relaxed and rotate the wrist while keeping the elbow and upper arm stationary.
2) Don’t over swing – I’ve had students come to me that have sworn they could not improve their rhythm playing and when I watched them strum a rhythm their hand was swinging way beyond the strings in both directions. Just having them correct that one technique and keep the picking hand from barely going beyond the strings helped them tremendously immediately.
3) Understand basic rhythmic notation– If you don’t understand basic rhythmic notation there are plenty of resources online for educating yourself. Once you do, a great exercise to start with is to take a metronome and set it to 60 bpm (beats per minute).
– Mute the strings with your left hand by laying all four fingers across the neck and BARELY touching the strings, when you strum you should get a completely muted tone. While tapping your foot on the beat, start strumming down strokes on the click of the metronome, which is your quarter note pulse, making sure you are precisely on the beat.
– Next, alternate down/up strokes on the eighth notes, which will be twice as fast as quarter notes. Again, make sure your down stroke is right on the metronome click and the up stroke is right in between. If you don’t know already, eighth notes are counted “1 and 2 and three and four and” (the “ands” are called the off beats and occur evenly between the beats).
– Strum eighth notes again, but this time using all down strokes. Keep tapping your foot.
– The next step will most likely be a challenge… strum down strokes ONLY on the off beats. This will involve tapping your foot on the metronome click and then strumming down right in between while your foot is moving up.
– After you master that, you can move on to down strokes on eighth note triplets, and alternating down/up on sixteenth notes. On both of these keep your foot tapping and accent on the beat by strumming a little harder, this will help keep you on time.
4) Don’t over-intellectualize rhythms – Tapping your foot on the beat will help you feel the rhythm better, which is ultimately how it will become second nature. It is very similar to dancing in that you want to be able to feel where the off beat or even the sixteenth notes are occurring. It also helps to really listen to the rhythm to absorb it.
5) Practice playing songs with recordings – Once you get to the point where you can play a song fairly proficiently play it with the recorded version. If it is too fast or tuned down a half step (like many Guns and Roses, Van Halen, Jimi Hendrix, and Stevie Ray Vaughan songs) use a slow down program so you can decrease the tempo, pitch the recording up a half step if needed, and set loop points to repeat problem passages. My favorite app for this is The Amazing Slow Downer (which works with the paid version of Spotify) because out of all the ones I’ve tested, it retains a good sonic quality without distorting.
6) Be able to identify various note values in song recordings – Pick any song and start by finding the basic pulse of the song. The pulse of the song would be what you would tap your foot to or snap your fingers to. This will tell you the tempo and (assuming the song is in 4/4 time) where the quarter notes are. Then, while muting the strings with the left hand, strum down on the quarter note pulse. Next, alternate down/up strums on the eighth notes and then try all down strokes on the eighths. If the song tempo is not too fast try strumming alternating down/up sixteenth notes and remember to accent on the quarter note pulses.
Most important of all, have fun!
If you are in Orange County and would like to improve your rhythm guitar playing then check out Hamrock Music Instruction.