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How to Make Your Rhythm Guitar More Solid: Part 1

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Have you ever wondered how good you are at playing rhythm guitar, and then go to record a demo with your band and realize you can’t actually play in time? It happened to me, and it was really awkward. In this tutorial I'll give you some advice about how to avoid ending up in the same boat.


1. Practise to a Metronome

We can’t talk about time and rhythm without considering our best friend (and worst enemy), the metronome. If you’re a guitar player, there's a good chances that you already know why you should use a metronome. There's also a good chance you’ve never actually done it. It took me a long time to start using a metronome, but nowadays I use it every time I practice, and often when I compose.

The metronome is the judge that will help your timing so you can become a solid rhythm guitarist. But before you start messing with it, you need to know know how to use it.

Let me explain: If you want to play a specific rhythmic figure in time, you need to know where that figure is placed between the clicks of the metronome. Otherwise you’ll never be able to tell if you’re late, ahead, or perfectly on the beat.


2. Practise Playing Consistently

Before jumping to the application part, I'd like to mention another underestimated aspect of playing solid rhythm guitar: consistency. Have you ever tried to play constant 8th notes for five minutes? You probably should.

It can be beneficial for your muscles, and also your timing. Keep strumming a chord for five minutes without stopping. It's not easy, even if the rhythm you’re playing is easy.

First you'll start losing volume, then you'll start playing late. The overall sound will become less uniform, then you'll actually notice you’re playing late, try to speed to recover from the mistake.

Don’t forget that being a solid rhythm player is not just a matter of using a metronome, or playing complicated rhythms. It’s also about how long you can play the rhythm consistently.


3. Practise to Patterns

If you want to start using a metronome, you need to know where to place your rhythm. That way you can decide whether you want to be ahead of the beat, laid back, or perfectly on the beat, depending on the genre you’re playing.

Let’s start what with the most basic rhythm figures. In these examples I will assume that the metronome is clicking to quarter notes, and we are going to stay in 4/4.

8th Notes

An eighth note is half of the value of a quarter note, which means that you’re going to play two notes every click. Every note will have the same duration.

Before you start practicing with your instrument, make sure to have the rhythm in your brain, and make sure you can say it out loud. The subdivision I use for eighth notes is “1–and-2–and-3-and-4-and...” Honestly, you can use any words you can break into two syllables, but make sure you can articulate the rhythm with your mouth before playing.

"Stir it up" is a great example of eighth notes. There's a chart below the video so you can start getting the feel of it.

Stir it Up

16th Notes

Now we’re getting a bit more complex, since we have four different placements for a note every beat. The subdivision I use is “1–e–and–a–2–e–and–a3-e-and-a-4-e-and-a...”. This time can can choose a word that can be broken into four syllables, and it will work out fine.

This song is a perfect example of 16th notes. In the middle of the song, the band drops down and only the drummer and the guitar player keep playing. Notice how the guitarist keeps his rhythm solid, while the rest of the band starts dancing and makes the performance outstanding.

Soul Man

8th Note Triplets

Here we completely change the feel of the rhythmic subdivision. Instead of playing an even number of notes, we play an odd number. So we will have to divide the beat into three equal spaces.

If you're playing guitar, you will notice that your alternate picking will reverse every beat. The subdivision I use in my brain for triplets is "1-uh-let-2-uh-let..."

This great song from Black Sabbath will give you an idea of how triplets sound.

Children of the Grave

16th Note Triplets

Also known as sextuplets, these are the least common figure I've listed. It doubles up the value of an eighth note triplet, so you'll have six notes between every click.

This rhythm is associated with the sound of a march, as you will hear in the audio example. I use this subdivision for it: "1-uh-let-and-uh-let-2-uh-let..."

Imperial March

Imperial March

It has to be said that, even if these are the main rhythmic figures, they're not the only ones. For example, you may have a rhythm with a dotted quarter note, or a dotted eighth note. Or again, quarter note triplets.

You need to think of rhythm as a grid. The smaller the value of your notes, the tighter the grid will be. Then if you set your imaginary grid to eighth notes, and you have to play a dotted quarter note (which is equal three eighth notes), it won't be hard to place that note.


4. Practise Different Accents

I'd like to get to a direct application of what we've discussed so far. In order to improve your rhythm and your rhythmic knowledge, you need to become really familiar with your grid. And to do that, you need to be able to place accents on whatever note you want. So if you play and subdivide your grid into eighth notes, you can accent at eight different spots. If you play sixteenth notes, you will have sixteen spots, and so on.

Here is how you should practice:

  • Set the metronome to a comfortable speed. It doesn't have to be super-slow or super-fast, just something that feels right for you. Tap your foot.
  • Decide on a rhythmic value: eighth notes, sixteenth notes, triplets. I suggest you to stick with those standards at the beginning. The idea is not to play a difficult rhythm, but to place notes where you usually don't play them.
  • Start picking open strings, muting them, constantly. For example, straight 16th notes.
  • Accent one note every beat. Don't stop tapping your foot, even when the note is not played on that beat.

Don't forget that even when the note falls on a odd spot, you need to tap your foot with the metronome. In order to improve your rhythm skills, you have to develop independence between your feet and your hands. This ability is not just for drummers; you brain has to be able to split up and coordinate two separate motions. 

In term of practice, you can work at placing different accents inside of one beat, instead of trying to relate it to the whole measure (four beats). This will reduce the possibilities but, in the end, will have the same effect.

8th Note Exercises

Here are a few exercises you can do to warm up with eighth notes.

Exercise 1

Ex1

Exercise 2

Ex4

Exercise 3

Ex3

Exercise 4

Ex2

16th Note Exercises

Here are all the permutations for sixteenth notes. Notice I place one note at every possible space.

Exercise 1

16.1

Exercise 2

16.2

Exercise 3

16.3

Exercise 4

16.4

8th Note Triplet Exercises

Here's the same thing for eighth note triplets.

I'd like to suggest a trick for triplets: Since you're playing an odd number of notes, if you use alternate picking you'll notice that your picking direction will reverse every beat. So you start the first beat with a downstroke, on beat two you will hit the first note with an upstroke; it's just the nature of this technique.

While doing this kind of training, it might get a bit inconsistent and confusing to have always a different picking direction. So instead of alternate picking, you can play triplets following this sequence: down-up-down-down-up-down... (playing two downstrokes in a row). That way you always use a downstroke on the beat.

Exercise 1

3.1

Exercise 2

3.2

Exercise 3

3.3

Conclusion

Working on these concepts will step up your rhythm skills—I guarantee it. Don't forget to practice every day. It only takes 10 minutes to go over some of these patterns. You can use it as a warm up, and in a couple of weeks you will realize your rhythm has become more solid.

I tried to give you an overall basic approach to rhythm. Using a metronome every day will improve your timing and give more awareness of rhythm. Then you won't panic when you get to the studio, and the engineer hits the record button. Enjoy.

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