How to Rest
It’s one of the easiest things to do, yet so few guitarists do it.
• Demonstrate the value of rests in a variety of settings. • Create complex rhythmic patterns using rests in unexpected ways. • Discuss how it’s not about playing less but about playing more thoughtfully and creatively. Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
What does it mean to rest? Resting allows you to regroup, to look back, to plan ahead. Resting creates space for yourself and others. Resting feels good. Let’s get right into it.
Ex. 1 is a C major scale (C–D–E–F–G–A–B) performed with eighth-notes … boring.
Ex. 2 is a C major scale performed with rests. This is a trick I learned from bass virtuoso Victor Wooten.
Ex. 2 might be a little tricky for some players because of the syncopation (emphasizing notes on the upbeats instead of the toe-tapping downbeats). That’s the point: It is tricky. Resting requirespractice. So let’s back up and work on some slightly more predictable—dare I say formulaic—rests.
Note: Play the audio for the next two examples first, then read the text. The text is overly academic in the service of being thorough, but it could also complicate the issue for some players.
Ex. 3 is the same C major scale with a formulated pattern. One eighth-note, one eighth-note rest, two eighth-notes, one quarter-note rest, three eighth-notes, rests that amount to three eighth-notes, ending with two eighth-notes.
Ex. 4 is same idea as Ex. 3 with the formula reversed: three eighth-notes, rests that amount to three eighth-notes, two eighth-notes, one quarter-note rest, one eighth-note, one eighth-note rest, and, to complete the formula, one 16th-note, one 16th-note rest, and one final 16th-note.
As you can see, even when being formulaic, resting can create complex rhythmic patterns, which are both musical and playful.
My favorite examples of this type of resting can be found in the music of bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. These iconic musicians wrote rhythmically challenging music that changed the landscape of popular music forever with the help of the humble rest. While the melodies (or “heads” in the jazz parlance) of “Bloomdido,” “Shaw ’Nuff,” “Moose the Mooche,” and “Bebop” serve as archetypes for the genre, they also stand as monuments to rests. Ex. 5 is a Parker/Gillespie-style melody played over a 12-bar blues progression, filled with syncopations thanks to rests.
> Of course, resting isn’t limited to single-note phrasing. At its most exhilarating, rhythm guitar has always relied on rests. While there are countless examples to choose from, we’ll look at three distinct groups that are masters of resting: AC/DC, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and Steely Dan.
It would be difficult to find a more popular band that makes resting a hallmark of their songwriting than AC/DC. With myriad examples like “T.N.T.,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and “Highway to Hell,” (with rests so long you could drive a truck through them) AC/DC are the epitome of riff-resting. Thus, Ex. 6 demonstrates several varied AC/DC-esque chord sequences performed over a static drum pattern. Once you’re comfortable with these—as well as AC/DC originals—create your own. All you need is a steady drum groove, three chords, and plenty of rests!
Like blues, jazz, and metal, reggae is an idiomatic music that follows certain guidelines, the two most noteworthy of which are the drums emphasize beat 3, while guitars rest on 1 and 3, then strum (or “skank”) on 2 and 4. The bass player is afforded a lot more flexibility. While these rules generally apply to all reggae songs, it’s the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers that we’ll focus on for Ex. 7.
In addition to the standard strumming of the rhythm guitar, Ex. 7 also contains a sparse yet highly effective bass part that demonstrates the efficacy of resting. This progression is an amalgam of the Bob Marley tunes “Three Little Birds” and “Stir It Up.”
A key element of Steely Dan’s resting style is the use of multiple parts played simultaneously. Ex. 8 is similar to the song “Josie” and features a chord strumming pattern with a rest on 1 and the “and” of 3, as well as a syncopated single-note phrase that fills in the chord’s rests. In addition to the rests, be aware that the chords we hear are different when each part is played separately. The chords alone are Am9 and Am7, whereas the single-note phrase implies Am7 and Am6. When played simultaneously we hear Am9 and Am6.
Ensemble Resting with James Brown
One of the many wonderful compositional uses of rests involves ensemble interplay, as heard in the late-’60s and early-’70s music of James Brown. This period of Mr. Brown’s music features two guitars and bass playing syncopated, rest-heavy parts, as well as a horn section performing in new ways (though in the audio example, horn parts have been recorded with guitars).
Ex. 9 is an homage to Brown’s landmark 1968 composition “I Got the Feelin’,” with the notation scored for two measures of outrageously complex interplay. Following four times through the initial two-measure phrase, the notation breaks down the guitar and bass parts. With each one isolated, you’ll hear (and see) that the individual parts are rather simple, but, when performed concurrently, the music is exponentially more demanding.
Off to Rest
In the speed-, bending-, sliding-, whammying-, strumming-, flash-obsessed world of guitar, silence and space are habitually overlooked. I hope this lesson has imparted some insight into the easy to implement though underused, humble rest.