Get on the Good Foot
Okay, back to work.Here’s a series of related exercises of escalating difficulty. Unless you’re a masochist, don’t try all of these at once. You might work on just one per week, depending on your current level of coordination. As you proceed, I guarantee you’ll groove better, play with greater confidence, and start incorporating more interesting rhythms into your playing.
Tap It, Mon
Ex. 7 shows the “double skank” rhythm common in reggae. (Skank also refers to a Jamaican dance step.) It’s almost impossible to groove on this without feeling the downbeat strongly, whether or not you tap your foot.
Ex. 8 flips the pattern, placing the skank on the downbeat and the foot tap on the offbeat.
Finally, Ex. 9 uses both patterns, alternating measure by measure.
Strum It, Chum
Ex 10 is a common folk-rock strumming pattern, with a foot tap on every beat.
In Ex. 11 features the same strumming pattern, but now the foot tap falls on the offbeat.
Tapping your foot on the backbeat (where the snare drum would strike in many rock, pop, and R&B grooves) is a great skill to acquire. It can give your playing more groovy swing. It’s similar to the way many jazz teachers recommend setting your metronome to half the music’s tempo, feeling the clicks as 2 and 4 rather than as 1 and 3.
Ex. 12 alternates between the Ex. 10 and Ex. 11 patterns.
The Trouble with Triplets
Ex. 13 introduces a 12/8 meter. That is, each beat gets subdivided into three parts. (“One and-a, two and-a, three and-a, four and-a.”) Here the foot tap falls on the beat, with two offbeat strums.
Ex. 14 has the same composite rhythm, but here the foot tap falls on the second note of each three-note-grouping.
In Ex. 15, you strum two notes before tapping your foot on the third note of each group.
These exercises share an identical composite rhythm: a steady string of 16th-notes. Strums and foot taps never coincide. In Ex. 16,foot taps mark the quarter-notes while the guitar strums on the other three 16th-notes of each beat. (This, by the way, is the most common guitar pattern in traditional calypso music.)
In Ex. 17, the foot tap falls on the offbeat (the third 16th-note of each group).
Ex. 18, where the foot falls on the second note of each 16th-note group, can be challenging if you’ve never tried this before. Employ patience and slow metronome settings.
Ex. 19 is equally tricky. Here the foot tap falls on the final 16th-note of each group.
It’s All in the Hand
Once you grasp this general idea, you can create ongoing rhythmic challenges for yourself. Hey, it might be a good idea to go over all the fixed parts you play in your bands, learning to maintain a foot tap (and maybe an offbeat foot tap) at all times.
Another idea: Try playing multiple rhythms with your picking hand. You might play straight quarter-notes with your thumb while plucking syncopated rhythms with your fingers, a common fingerstyle blues technique. (Travis picking is another example.) But can you play straight quarter-notes with your fingers while syncopating with your thumb? Or alternate between the two options? Check out Ex. 20, which uses the clave rhythm from Ex. 4, but with thumb and fingers instead of foot and pick.
Be the Beat!
In a way, all this has been a guitar equivalent of rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. But that skill doesn’t have many real-world applications. These exercises do: They train you to feel the pulse within your body without thinking about it, no matter how syncopated your guitar parts happen to be. If you can’t simultaneously feel your part and the pulse, you’ll drift like an untethered kite. But if you learn to hear and feel composite rhythms, you’ll always be grounded and groovy. In fact, you’ll be the beat.
Okay—now go back and try all the exercises while tapping with your other foot!
Thanks for all the nice feedback on my first two columns (which you can find here and here). As always, I’m eager to hear what works for you and what doesn’t, and I’m always open to topic suggestions. Don’t be a stranger!