When you’re learning guitar, you’ll rapidly realize that there are some basics you need to master – reading notes and tabs, picking notes out on the guitar, playing with a pick or fingerstyle, and learning the main major and minor chords.
This, obviously, is just the beginning. Any guitar player needs to know their fretboard inside out. They should know a bit of music theory, including reading tablature and knowing scales and arpeggio shapes. Effective guitar players should have their chord shapes down, their chord progressions, and their physical chord changes.
Once you graduate to reading music or tabs as well, you’ll realize that there’s something else important that you need to master. Because whilst all the above - knowledge of the major scale, the pentatonic, and power chords - focuses on the melodic and harmonic aspects of music, there is another musical element that is absolutely crucial. That's rhythm.
Because although your guitar techniques might be down, you don't know really how to play the guitar unless you have a good rhythmic sense.
So, what do you need to do to learn the rhythm of a piece of music? What makes one good at rhythm guitar? Are there online tutorials or guitar lessons that you can take to improve?
How do you go about mastering it?
General Rules on Rhythm
Whatever style of music you’re playing, it’ll be made up of two basic parts – pitch and rhythm.
If you already know everything about guitar and guitarists, it’s a fact of which you’ll be well aware.
But music isn't really musical without rhythm. You can't really have any melodies - no guitar solos nor lead guitar - without rhythm. That's why we say you don't know how to play guitar if you don't know rhythm. As the jazz guitarist, Scott Henderson, says, in music, rhythm is everything.
But what is rhythm?
We generally think of it as being the thing that happens when we strum. But really it's everywhere in music and in guitar - in fingerpicking, in improvisation, in any open chords, barre chords, or chord progression.
It is what makes music musical - as it is all the things that relate to the movement of the music. Without rhythm, we would just have one single long note - which isn't hugely interesting.
Rhythm is something that touches your heart, itches your feet, and makes you want to dance and move. It's like an internal beat that you’re externalizing through your guitar playing.
You’ll often find rhythms that you recognize when you’re playing genres like rock, pop, or funk. Rhythm can also help keep you motivated in your guitar playing. A good beat will make your guitar classes easier - but, if it doesn't come naturally, it's nothing that some guitar practice won't help.
Developing Your Rhythm.
So, the notes themselves are pretty easy. You’ll quickly begin to recognize them when you sing or play.
But music becomes a little more complex when we add rhythm - and this applies as much to classical guitar as it does to jazz guitar and blues guitar.
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Here are two recommendations to find your rhythm.
If you want to take guitar lessons or find online guitar lessons for kids, and learn to keep the rhythm for different pieces of music, there aren't too many options.
- Firstly, you could learn to read music, whether through guitar tabs or through traditional scores. You could go to a music shop or find an online store to buy an official songbook that contains the score for the piece of music that you want to learn. Then you can learn the exact song, with all the notes and timings laid out. For the beginner guitar player who values accuracy, this is a great option - because you will have the precise rhythm for your favorite songs or pieces.
- Secondly, you can train your ear to learn a song and its rhythm just from listening to it. Whilst a lot of rock guitar riffs and chord work might be quite easy to pick up, getting the precision of rhythm when songs are more complex is a bit more challenging. Think about a Hendrix guitar solo. These are not always the easiest things to replicate. You'll need to really develop your ear training for this.
A third option might be to sign up for a guitar lesson or guitar course. But guitar lessons will be better over time with regular practice, and won’t just produce immediate results.
If you choose to go with the songbook option, it’s pretty easy. You’ll just need to find the tabs that correspond to your piece of music so that you can replicate the notes and rhythm easily on your guitar. But you'll need to learn how to read the rhythms first!
If you decide to go with a musical ear instead, it may take some time and experience to achieve your desired result.
Thankfully, here are a few tips to help you reach your goal.
The Three Pillars of Rhythm
First of all, in order to learn a piece of music and play all of the chords, you should know that there isn’t just one specific rhythm for each song.
There are dozens of different ways to play a piece of music and replicate its rhythm, and the one that you choose has more to do with the style you’re going for than anything else.
But to bring your music to life, you must master the rhythm. (And learning to read and play guitar chords is essential too!)
Learning the rhythm requires getting three key factors right - your foot, your right hand, and your head.
Pillar 1 – Your Foot
In fact, learning the rhythm for a piece of music often means putting your foot to work.
Your foot can serve as your foundation for defining your tempo and will help keep the beat.
Working with your foot is easy – just tap it to the beat. Make sure that you move your foot regularly and don’t stop or slow down. Even if at the beginning it takes a bit of attention to keep tapping your foot, it’ll soon become second nature.
You can use whichever foot is more comfortable in a given moment, some musicians even switch feet in the middle of a song.
However, there are a couple of basic guidelines for keeping time with your foot:
- Only one foot should be moving at a given time.
- Your foot hits the floor on each beat.
For example, take a piece of normal music, and start counting 1, 2, 3, 4.
Use your metronome and set it to 60 to pulse on the beat. Each time the metronome clicks, tap your foot on the ground. Between each click, your foot goes up and comes back down. It’s very important to tap your foot in time with the metronome.
As long as you keep this movement going, you will find that the rest of your rhythmic work will fit into place with this beat.
Pillar 2 – Your Right Hand
Your right hand is the hand that strums the strings on your guitar.
This hand will begin to move in spite of itself and follow the movements of your foot. This way it will never lose the rhythm of your playing. When your foot rises, your hand will also rise, and when your foot goes down, so should your hand.
In this way, your hand will follow the movements of your foot. How should you train your hand? Use the same method as before, start your metronome, and begin to tap your foot.
Once your foot is on the beat, add in the movements of your right hand.
Keep a precise down-up movement with your right hand, if you are using a pick. You want to move down when your foot taps, and up when your foot is raised.
Pillar 3 – Your Head
Of course, it’s impossible to learn rhythm without using your head!
But what should your head do to learn the rhythm? It’s pretty easy - just count to 4.
Take the example of setting your metronome to 60 again and work on a piece of music set in 4/4 (which includes more than 90% of rock, blues, pop, and folk music). Your foot and hand are keeping beat at the same speed.
Your brain will begin to learn to count when your foot is tapping the floor – 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2, 3, 4; 1…etc..
Thanks to this easy method, you’ll always know when the top of the bar is.
Advice for Finding the Rhythm in a Piece of Music
Besides all of the other techniques and things to keep in mind when you’re playing guitar, here’s some additional advice to help you find your rhythm and learn your favorite piece of music at guitar class.
Interpreting the Music
Like we mentioned before, rhythm isn’t just a fixed and permanent value. It’s something that you need to keep in mind as you learn a piece of music and make it your own.
You may have already realized from listening to instrumental segments of music that rhythm is also something that can change, even over the course of a single song.
The rhythm of the chords used during the first verse is often different from the rhythm used in the third, say.
In fact, musicians and singers will often tweak and play with a piece of music, performing certain portions differently from the way that they were originally written.
Make the rhythm yours when you perform your music!
This difference in the rhythm is especially audible during live concerts and performances.
So always keep this in mind – there isn’t just one rhythm to follow, but several depending on how you’re feeling in any given moment.
Don’t Necessarily Try to Match the Original Rhythm
When you first start playing guitar, you’ll often want to learn your favorite song and try to play it at the same speed as the original.
However, it will take time, patience, and perseverance before you can play a song at the same speed as the greats.
Start by choosing easy songs with a basic rhythm, and then work up to more complicated pieces as you improve. Keep in mind that you aren’t automatically going to be able to play at the same level as someone who’s released an album!
But the important thing here is that, unless you want to, you don't need to necessarily replicate precisely the rhythm of the song you are playing. Make it your own!
Take the Context into Consideration
When you’re trying to replicate a favorite piece of music, take a couple of minutes to think about how that music was made.
A typical group is often made up of two guitarists, one bassist, a keyboard, a drummer, a singer, and maybe one or two other instruments.
With all of these other players, the guitarists must often keep to simple rhythms so that the other instruments can be heard and appreciated as well.
Sometimes you can find yourself playing a rhythm that’s a bit boring. Try and find a more interesting rhythm which has more complexity and can be played on its own on the guitar.
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Make Your Own Version
When you’re learning existing songs, whether it’s by listening to a CD or watching a video on YouTube, you’ll never be able to reproduce exactly the same rhythm and notes. This is because each musician has their own style, preferences, and influences - and you will too!
Learn how to make a piece of music your own, and experiment with changing and modifying the rhythm to reflect your current feelings.
The more you play with a piece of music, the more interesting it will be to listen to.
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Don’t hesitate to try things out for yourself. The more you play, the better your reflexes and your ear for the music will become.
Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced guitarist, work and practice are the keys to playing well.
However, don’t just play nonsense - some rhythms will sound really terrible with some pieces of music.
You’ll have to figure out how many beats there are per measure, and then take that into consideration to find the right rhythm for your song.
As you can see, getting the rhythm right is a key part of replicating a piece of music on the guitar. Some genres, such as rock or blues, really rely on the rhythm of their songs to give them a certain feel, and if you don’t get the rhythm right the song may no longer be recognizable.
Maybe you haven’t actually bought a guitar yet? Or maybe you’re just starting to work on arpeggios?
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