“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.” - Thomas Merton
You could replace the word happiness with music and the quote would still make sense. After all, music and happiness go really well together! People in the UK regularly attend concerts and festivals. But what would music be without rhythm? The guitarist without rhythm is like a cyclist without a bike. So why is rhythm so important when you're learning how to play the guitar?
So What is Rhythm?
If you look up "rhythm", you'll find the following definition:
“a strong, regular repeated pattern of movement or sound.”
When it comes to music, the definition is even clearer:
“the systematic arrangement of musical sounds, principally according to duration and periodical stress.”
Regardless of whether you're playing an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar, or an electro-acoustic guitar, you need to understand rhythm in order to be a good musician. Music isn't just a series of notes being played by an instrument. For these notes to make sense, they need to be played with a certain rhythm and a certain tempo. You'll need to have a good understanding of the beats. Rhythm is an aspect of timing. In music, timing is key. Rhythm is even more important when strumming a chord. Throughout your guitar lessons and your career as a guitar player, you'll come across various rhythms, strumming patterns, and ways of playing rhythm guitar.
The Fundamental Concepts of Rhythm
There are a few things that you need to know about rhythm:
- Note value: breve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, etc.
- Time signature: the two numbers that you see at the left of the music which represents the number of beats in the measure and which note value represents a beat.
- Stressed and unstressed beats: in standard time, for example, the first beat is stressed and the other three are not.
- Tempo: the speed of the music or song.
These are the main concepts that make up what rhythm is. Understanding these concepts will help you to better understand certain rhythms and produce them, especially if you don't have a good sense of rhythm. For those that have an innate sense of rhythm, studying the theory behind rhythm can help you to better compose and play music.
Why Can't You Play the Guitar Well without a Sense of Rhythm?
Whether you're playing rock, pop, funk, jazz, or any other type of music, the rhythm is just as important as the notes being played. Without rhythm, the notes the notes from a jazz song wouldn't even sound remotely jazzy. The rhythm is what makes the people want to dance, sing, or listen to a certain piece of music again and again. It's the rhythm that breathes life into a piece of music. Even classical music, which doesn't tend to have a regular drumbeat, relies on rhythm. One of the biggest problems facing beginners is their lack of rhythm. When you first start playing the guitar, you often want to play songs and skip over the fundamental theory behind them. We often think of rhythm in the same way we do music theory, difficult to learn and not necessary. Big mistake. There are three main parts to playing the guitar:
- Manipulating the guitar with your left and right hands
If you don't get all these three correct, you run the risk of picking up some bad habits and not progressing as quickly as you'd like to.
If you focus on the notes and chords without working on your rhythm, you'll still sound awful.
Put simply, music is 50% notes and 50% rhythm. Only learning half of this won't be enough to make you a good guitarist. You'll never be able to master tapping if you have no understanding of rhythm. Similarly, it'll almost impossible to play with other musicians or get better as a band without any sense of rhythm.
How understanding rhythm can make you a better guitarist
To be fair, rhythm makes up half of the music. If you can master rhythm, it'll make you a much more natural guitarist. Rhythm is a way to better express yourself musically. Bit by bit, understanding rhythm will allow any guitarist to:
- Play more consistently
- Improve their technique
- Be more comfortable
- Play more naturally
- Think less when they play
- Train their ear
- Develop a sound technique
- Be free when it comes to composing and improvising
Having a solid understanding of rhythm will save you time when learning how to play the guitar and certain guitar techniques. Once you've got a good understanding of rhythm, it'll be easier to understand scales, harmonics, arpeggios, etc. Don't get me wrong, you'll also have to study all those other things as well, but a good grounding in rhythm won't hurt. With a good theoretical grounding, it'll be much easier to learn and assimilate new concepts.
How to Develop a Good Sense of Rhythm on Guitar
Everybody's different in terms of rhythm. Some people have an innate sense of rhythm and seem to take to music like a duck to water. However, don't worry if this isn't you. You can learn to develop a sense of rhythm. Rhythm is just as much nature as it is nurture. You can grow up surrounded by rhythm. Generally, the children of musicians will have a better sense of rhythm because they'll have grown up hearing musical instruments and will have seen their parents playing them. However, as we said, rhythm isn't necessarily innate. If you want to develop a sense of rhythm, you need to regularly work on it in the same way you would any other skill. As you'll have probably understood, developing rhythm starts with listening. The first step is to listen to the rhythm. “But I listen to music all the time and I've still got no sense of rhythm." You have to really listen. Listening carefully will help you improve your rhythm. Each time you listen to music, try and work out the tempo. Next, you'll have to listen for the time signature. While it isn't innate, rhythm is an instinct and you can feel it through your entire body. There are different ways to work on it:
- With a metronome: this is an essential tool if you want to work on your rhythm. You just need to play along with the metronome.
- Tapping your foot: when you play the guitar, type your foot along to the beat. Soon this movement will become second nature to you and you'll be more in sync with the music.
- Nodding your head: if you don't fancy tapping your foot, you can always nod your head. Count the beats in your head: this is useful at the start but isn't recommended in the long term. However, you'll see that this technique is almost instinctive and it's hard not to do.
- Moving your right hand (or your left hand if you're left-handed): by constantly moving your hand or arm, it'll help make your playing more fluid. Even if your hand doesn't strike the string, it's good to have a constant rhythmic movement.
- Playing along to music: music recorded in the studio is almost always recorded with the help of a metronome and therefore rhythmically sound.
- Playing in a band: there's no better way to test your rhythm than by playing along with other musicians. This method is great because every single musician in the band has to be in time from the start to the end of each song. It's a good idea to follow the drummer and the bassist because they're in charge of keeping time.
- Don't get discouraged: everyone can work on their sense of rhythm and improve their guitar playing!
If you're finding it hard to strum or just play guitar in general, consider learning how to play guitar with the help of a private tutor. Playing guitar is always more fun with someone else and a guitar teacher is arguably the best person to help you with all aspects of playing the guitar. Whether you need help fretting, understanding chord progressions, writing good licks, fingerpicking, playing tricky barre chords, or just choosing a new guitar, a tailored guitar course from your own personal tutor is the best way to learn how to play guitar. Check out different rhythms on the guitar. If you can't afford as many private guitar tutorials as you'd like, don't forget there are free guitar lessons for beginners available online and tutorials on how to read tablature (commonly known as tabs) and sheet music as well!
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