The hidden secret of being an amazing guitarist

The hidden secret of being an amazing guitarist

When we hear a guitar player we like, we’re usually wondering what scales they’re playing, what kind of cool licks they’re playing, but that’s not the right perspective to look at it. What we often don’t pay too much attention to is the RHYTHM of what they’re playing. That goes for the rhythm guitar parts, as well as the solos (if not even more). In this article we’re going to look at one simple way to improve the rhythmic aspect of your playing.

First of all, it definitely helps if you are able to read the rhythm from notation, but it’s not crucial. Crucial is to be able to distinguish different rhythms and switch between them as fluently as possible(quarter notes, eight notes, triads, sixths, sixteen notes). To do so, there is a very simple exercise. For starters you’ll only be playing one downpicked note on one string only. Put your metronome at slow speed and play one note every 4 beats. This is a whole note that you’re playing. To play half notes, play a note on every second beat. That’s still easy, right? It is not much harder to play quarter notes, you just have to play a note on every beat.

The first obstacle that might appear, is when you try to play eight notes. This is the first time you have to play a note off-beat. Be careful that the two notes played on every beat are equaly separated timewise, so your rhythm sounds steady. You can play this only with downstrokes (used in palm muted power chord rhythm playing for example), or with alternate picking (down-up), while playing all the on-beat notes down and all the off-beat notes up. To play sixteen notes is technically the same, just the speed is doubled. In this case you play four notes on every beat. Sometimes at higher speeds it’s complicated to count while playing. For both eights and sixteens, it can help you get a feeling of the lenghth of the bar if you accent every first note in the bar. While playing eights you can count like this: 1 & 2 & 3 & 4 & 1… While playing sixteens you can count like 1e&a 2e&a 3e&a 4e&a, but this might get complicated at higher speeds. It helped me to count only downstrokes, but after some practice you should get a feel of playing sixteens naturally.

It gets a little bit more complicated when you try to play triads and sixths. Techically you have play three or six notes on every beat, but the “hard” part is to do it in a way, so the notes are evenly placed between two beats. If you play triads, you’ll face a challenge of accenting on-beat notes alternately downards and upwards, but it shouldn’t be too hard with little practice.
This is just the beginning. After playing and switching this rhythms naturally on one tone, you should try to apply this to scales, melodies, strumming patterns, etc. Of course, by acknowledging the rhythmic aspect of music, you’ll develop as a listener as well, so your ability to know why something sounds good will expand and you’ll start to listen to music differently.
Last but not least… But how did the great blues pioneers know all that? Majority of them definitely didn’t have musical theory lessons and couldn’t read music. From what I know, they’ve tried to imitate the sounds and the rhythms of things that surrounded them. One of the most obvious would be trains. A moving train of that era sounded a lot like what we know as shuffle rhythm. So they applied it to their playing, and with a little bottle neck slide you have it. That’s just one example. Nowadays we have genres as rhythmically advanced as prog, or even math metal, and their protagonists have taken the rhythms and time signatures to the limits of complexity.

This article is writen by Nejc Vidmar, a professional guitar teacher from Slovenia. He’s been playing guitar for more than 15 years, while his first experiences as a guitar teacher date back in 2005. For more than 10 years he was also a guitarist and composer for a well known slovenian heavy metal band, Black Diamond.