There are three aspects of music. These are harmony, melody and rhythm. Harmony covers things such as chords and when more than two notes are being played at the same time. Melody covers riffs, lead ideas, and anything that you can hum. Rhythm is pretty self-explanatory.
Do you know which of the three is most important?
Well, all are pretty important but as rhythm covers everything in music you will ever do, I usually say rhythm is the most important.
Why is it then that 99% of guitar resources and teachers never teach much on rhythm? Things are getting a little better these days but there is a crazy emphasis on harmony and the things this covers such as chord playing, voicing of chords, and triads. There is also a massive emphasis on melody especially learning scales, but not enough on how to apply cool, sexy, tight and punchy grooves to the above.
I have a bookshelf full of guitar books I have acquired over 20 years and although all of them have some really useful and interesting ideas and lessons, only about 1% of the content of these books actually covers rhythm.
That, you will agree, is crazy, so today’s top ten tips lesson is on how to improve your rhythm. Let’s begin.
1 – Play to a click super slowly
I think it was Jeff Beck who said that playing to a click is a great idea but that to get a super tight internal sense of time put a click on at 40bpm, (yep that slow!) and play any one note over and over with the click.
Ensure that each pluck lands in perfect time with each click. This is actually a really simple exercise but hard to master.
You will probably notice that you start off too fast, then go too slow, then you might get it for a bit before losing the beat. It takes concentration and practice but two minutes a day doing this can really sort out a lot of your basic timing issues and because it doesn’t require a lot of notes or doing anything physically difficult, anyone can practise it.
Once you get good at one repeated note, try a couple of notes from a scale and then a whole scale. Just remember, you are looking for each note to be bang on in time with the click.
2 – Tap your foot when you play
This one is a standard tip and one that you definitely need to keep at. The overall aim with this tip is to be able to tap your foot to the beat for everything you can play.
Obviously, if you are a beginner (or have never done this before) and are still getting to grips with playing, don’t fret (excuse the pun, have I used that one before?) too much about this but try it.
On a basic level, foot tapping will keep you playing to a steady pulse which of course is super important but once you get to an intermediate level and you start mixing up rhythms with your strumming or fingerpicking (or your lead playing), then having a steady foot tap, will act as a guiding light to keep you in time.
Believe me, if you start playing about with rhythms and don’t foot tap to keep a steady beat you will go all over the shop in terms of timing.
3 – Learn a variety of strum patterns
Strum patterns are basically rhythms applied to the guitar. Yes, when strumming there are lots of subtle things thrown on top of the rhythm too, such as accents, percussive hits, bass note strumming, embellishments and more, but fundamentally every strum pattern you know is nothing more than a rhythm applied to the guitar.
A great way of developing both your rhythm (and your strumming) is to learn a variety of set strum patterns that you know inside out and can call upon at will. Beginners should learn 3 strum patterns, intermediates 5 and more advanced players 8 or more. Doing so will help you internalise a variety of useful rhythms which you can use in a variety of occasions.
4 – Practise your sub-divisions
Sub-divisions are the building blocks of all music and are something I talk a lot about whenever the word “rhythm” is mentioned. Sub-divisions are simply the way we divide a beat up into smaller chunks.
For instance, a note that lasts one beat is called a quarter note, but if we play two notes per beat, these are eighth notes. There are a variety of ways to divide beats up and the most important to learn at first are playing 1, 2, 3 and 4 notes per beat. Later you can learn how to play 6 notes per beat.
You can check out this old video of mine which covers the basics of sub-divisions and keep this in mind – it is these sub-divisions and how we mix and match them that give us all of our rhythms. The better you are at learning and playing these sub-divisions, and then later mixing and matching them, the better your rhythm will be.
5 – Tap the pulse of a song you hear on the radio
A really simple game and one that is fun is to tap the beat to music you hear on the radio.
Every time you listen to a song on the radio (or your smart speaker, or the T.V. or wherever), try to tap the main pulse with either your foot or your hand tapping your leg.
If you are unsure, the pulse of the music is like the click, the repetitive “click, click, click, click” that sets the tempo.
This can be hard to do if your rhythm skills are underdeveloped but you can listen to the drummer and try to follow his lead. It’s something that a few people struggle with but being able to “lock in” to the fundamental beat for any song is key.
6 – Be a fake drummer when listening to songs on the radio
The next step and taking the above step further is to tap out the rhythms that you hear the musicians play when you are listening to a song.
You will want to listen to the exact rhythm and try to mimic it by tapping your hands on your legs or even a table. The rhythm of the song will be busier than the main pulse just like how a strum pattern is busier than a simple click.
Usually, a band will “lock in” and play similar rhythms to each other although the rhythm may be busier on some instruments than others.
The thing to do here to is tap out the groove as closely as you hear it, try to listen to the guitar, keyboard, bass, drums and whatever other instruments you hear to find and then mimic the main groove.
7 – Count out loud
Whenever you play a simple rhythm, you should try counting out loud, especially when you are getting started.
A lot of guitarists lose the rhythm and where they are in the music because they do not count out loud.
For example, if you take a really simple strum pattern of D U D U D U D U, you should count out loud “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and” with the downs being strummed on the numbers and the ups being strummed on the ‘and’.
This is a simple example of course, but it is a good one to start with. Stephen, from Stephen’s Drum Shed, who is a very good drum teacher, tells all of his students they must count out loud when playing for at least a few months and they must be able to do it when needed later on.
If there is one place to learn from about rhythm, it is from good drummers and there is something about counting out loud that will help you tie up what you are playing with your internal sense of rhythm.
8 – Tap out the rhythm for the strum patterns you know
Once you have learnt some strum patterns, a surprisingly tricky game you can play is to simply tap out the rhythm for these strum patterns on your legs or a table.
Having the ability to tap out the rhythm like this is a sure sign that you have the rhythm really solidified in your head.
Guitarists often need to hear the rhythm being played to a chord or melody or they get a bit lost.
Playing it purely as a rhythm is a good thing and once you can tap out one rhythm like this, try tapping out two or three different rhythms and switching between them without much or any of a gap. This is tricky but is extra beneficial.
9 – Work songs out by ear
Whenever you work a song out by ear, you are having to pick up on a lot of information.
Not only do you need to hear the chords, the melodies and be able to pick them out and separate them from the music, you also need to be able to hear the rhythm.
Whatever aspect of the music you are listening to can be buried under the music as a whole making it harder. Most rhythms in popular music are based around 5 or 6 basic templates but often there are some subtle differences from song to song.
Being able to hear, process and then mimic these rhythms without anyone showing you is awesome for both your aural skills and your rhythm skills.
10 – Jam to a drumbeat
Once you feel comfortable with the basics of rhythm and you can play a few sub-divisions, I definitely recommend you do this.
Put on a drumbeat – it can be a recorded beat or a beat from YouTube (a quick search brings up loads of options). Start by “locking in” to the groove by repeatedly playing one chord or note over and over and getting it in time with the beat.
Then, little by little, change the rhythm of one pluck or strum while still keeping the groove tight and in time. You are then looking to play about with the rhythm, creating some exciting and fun grooves while keeping it all tight. Once tight, bring in more chords or notes and have fun.
It certainly takes practice and patience but this is a skill that once developed will be a sure sign that you have great rhythm. A lot of my most inspired and groovy music I have created has come from simply putting on a beat and jamming and moulding rhythms with chords and/or scales and seeing where the beat leads me. Try it, it is fun!
There you are – ten powerful tips to improve your rhythm skills on the guitar. As you may have noticed, many of the above don’t actually require you to have the guitar with you to be able to do them.
This is great, and it highlights that you can and should practise your rhythms wherever you are.
If you do want to improve your rhythm skills, my course Strumming With Soul will help. It is a course based on strumming but it places a massive emphasis on improving your rhythm skills (after all, strumming is all about rhythm, or “strumming is drumming” as my student, Gordon, says).
Let me know which of the above 10 tips resonates with you most and what other tips you have found useful over the years. I love hearing your thoughts.