The next step is a bit trickier. Try to play a set of accents that “bounce” off of the main beat. This is like having two layers of rhythm. Your feet keep the basic beat, and your hands, guitar, or voice keep the second beat. Different music from Africa, the Caribbean, and South America may have two, three, four, or even as many as 12 different beats going on at once! In Fig. 4 you can see how to focus on the offbeats and “bounce” off the click.
Next, let’s practice shifting different accents to create interesting and challenging syncopations. Playing groups of three against 16th-notes is very helpful to your overall sense of rhythm, and as a bonus, it sounds cool. This is very common in South American music. Groups of fives and sevens sound tough and are challenging. Indian music and jazz-fusion often incorporates groups of sevens, while groups of fives are common in flamenco music. A certain Mr. Zappa had an inordinate infatuation with that grouping as well. In Fig. 5 you can see (and hear) an example of all these different types of groupings.
Fig. 6 contains two different rhythmic groupings based on eighth-note triplets. Be forewarned: These groupings are challenging, but they sound very exciting and fluid. In the first grouping (Groups of Twos), we use accents to subdivide the triplets into pairs of eighth-notes. In other words, instead of accenting the first note of each triplet—like you might ordinarily—you accent every other note to create a rhythm that shifts back and forth against the underlying pulse.
The second rhythmic pattern (Groups of Fours) uses accents to subdivide the triplets into groupings of four eighth-notes. This creates a classic “three against four” feel. Drum out the downbeat for each triplet with your left hand and tap the accents that mark the four-note groupings with your right hand. Finally for major bonus points: Try playing a fingerstyle chord progression, using your thumb to strike a bass note on the triplet downbeats and fingers to pluck chord tones on each accent.
Once you’ve gone through these studies enough to master them, the next step is to be creative and experimental. And that’s the payoff: Rhythm will become your playground! By exploring these concepts, you’ll know what you want to play much more exactly and your hands will get clear, precise signals from your brain. Before you know it, you’ll be playing some crazy-cool stuff.