3.24.2013

Why Rhythm is the Most Important Part of a Guitar Player’s Skill Set


The science of playing the guitar isn’t exact, and the importance that certain players and teachers put on various aspects of the learning process is widely diverse, without much of a consensus.

While technique, theory, tone and improvisation are all oft touted as some of the most important skills to have when it comes to the instrument, the most important one might be getting left out of the discussion; rhythm.

If a guitar player doesn’t have a firm grasp on rhythm as a concept, or if he doesn’t have the ability to translate that to his guitar, all the great tone and technique in the world won’t do him any good. The fact is that a player needs to have a solid rhythmic ability to make anything he plays count in the world of music.

Rhythm and Music

The backbone and foundation of every song is the beat of that song. It’s one of the most basic building blocks of a piece of music. Before you lay down any notes at all, you have a certain speed and you have a count set forth by the drum beat.

The task given to every other instrument participating in that piece of music is to play within that structure.

Thus, when it comes to your guitar and rhythm, you need to keep in mind that this is the first job of a guitar player:

The first task of the guitar – To play within the confines and parameters set by the speed and count of the beat of the song.

The Most Basic Aspect

When you’re playing guitar, this is the absolute bare minimum of your responsibilities. If you aren’t able to accomplish it, then anything else you’re doing is going to be little more than a distraction.

Thus the most basic aspects of your guitar responsibilities will be to keep up with the following things:

  • Speed: You must understand the speed with which you play and be able to recognize when it is or is not matched with the rhythm of the song.

  • Timing: You then need to understand the count of a song, as set forth by the drummer and learn how to play within that count, matching the timing of the song.

  • Cadence: Though not technically a musical term, the cadence of a song is simply the way the song rises and falls in intensity by way of the rhythm and drum beat. It’s hard to understand if you’re not familiar with the first two, but think of it as the ebb and flow of the music. Your guitar playing needs to follow and enhance it.

When it’s broken up into these three segments, you can really start to see the importance of your rhythmic abilities. Even if you just take one of these pieces, say timing, out of the equation, your riffs and lead patterns are going to be completely thrown off.

It’s not to say that your technique and tone aren’t important, but it’s more a case of just having to learn rhythm before you get to those topics in your development.

As a guitar player it can be tough to do this, because the fact is, we don’t think in these terms. Guitar playing isn’t like drumming; it’s a totally different mindset. Playing the guitar is more often thought of as a passive, un-exact process, particularly in blues and jazz where a lot of our western music originated.

Yet our modern western music has grown and developed into something quite different from those roots. Music today is driven by more heavy rhythms, and thanks to computers, 100 percent accurate in terms of its tempo and timing.

That means that guitar players who can think in rhythmic terms and keep a beat consistently are needed and more highly valued.

Prioritizing Rhythm

The way we accomplish this isn’t necessarily by throwing off all our inclination to improvise and “blues” our way through certain songs. The non-precise aspects of playing guitar will always be a part of the instrument.

Instead, it’s an issue of prioritizing. If we as guitar players prioritize getting rhythmically tight and consistent, everything else we do on the guitar will improve as a result.

Keeping a Beat

By prioritizing, we need to focus on being able to keep a beat. That’s it.

In fact, that doesn’t even have to happen with a guitar in our hands. We can practice this anytime we’re listening to music, or even anytime we have the opportunity to sit down and count.

In the simplest terms, that’s all we’re doing. We’re counting in uniform time.

1, 2, 3, 4… 1, 2, 3, 4…

We can do that easily enough and to make it really official, we can add a finger snap or a hand clap to each count.

When Listening to Music

The clapping and counting thing might seem easy and it is, as most of us can do it without a problem.

What might be a little bit more of an intensive exercise is recognizing and understanding that beat when you’re listening to music. Now I’m not saying that you need to be able to count like a drummer or know the theory behind the beat. Instead, all you need to do is the following:

When you listen to music, be able to:

  • Recognize when the kick drum hits.

  • Recognize when the snare hits.

  • Be able to count along with the beat of the drums.

  • Be able to use one hand to keep beat with the kick drum and the other to keep beat with the snare drum.

Again, this sounds incredibly simple, but if you get into the habit of it, you’ll find yourself thinking in terms of rhythm without even realizing it. You’ll end up having a sort of mini drummer inside your head that helps you keep time whenever you pick up and play or listen to music.

It takes time, but the more you’re able to recognize beat and tempo without a guitar, the easier it will be to translate that into your guitar playing.

When Playing Guitar

Applying this to your guitar playing is more about forming a habit than anything else, but there are some simple exercises you can do that will help you get it engrained in your mind.

Muted Strings

The simplest way to start this process on the guitar is to pick out a song you like, and play it while muting all the strings and strumming along to the beat of the kick and snare drum.

It’s quite boring, but if you have trouble doing it, then you’ve still got some work to do on your rhythm.

Chords

If simply muting the strings is too easy for you, play the chords and make sure to strum along with the rhythm of the song. Proper rhythmic strumming involves muting the strings intermittently throughout the chords, which is what you’ll want to move onto next if you get the hang of this.

Wrapping Up

Have a keen sense of timing and rhythm takes a few years to really build and develop. If you don’t already play in a band where you can work on honing this skill, it’s critical that you spent a good chunk of your practice time playing along with your favorite music to develop your ability to keep time.

Playing by yourself without any accompanying music is important, but it doesn’t help your timing. To work on that, you need to play along with a drummer of some sorts, even if he’s just a recorded MP3.

In fact, any of the following things would work:

  • Metronome

  • Drum Machine (Like GarageBand)

  • Pre-Recorded Tracks

  • Full MP3s

  • Live Band

Make sure that you’re utilizing at least a couple of these options if you think you need to work on your rhythm. When playing along with an actual beat, you’ll be forced to keep time at a predefined speed, which will really help you develop that muscle, and get you to the point where you’ll avoid the panic factor when you have to play along with a drummer.

If this is an area you’ve neglected, take some time to work on it and develop that part of your playing.

It’ll take some time, but it’ll be worth it. Thanks for reading.

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About Robert Kittleberger

Robert is the founder and editor of Guitar Chalk and Guitar Bargain. You can get in
touch with him here, or via Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus.