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Joe Gore's The Subversive Guitarist: Fancy Footwork

Tap your way to tighter, more confident grooves.

This column aims to improve your groove. And we’ll get there by focusing on foot taps.

You may have just had one of two reactions:

1. Anxiety, because you realize you’ve always had trouble tapping your foot while playing, even if you’re a proficient guitarist.

2. Boredom, because you find it easy to tap your foot while playing.

In either case, bear with me. If you’re a toe-tap klutz, these exercises will help you … uh … find your feet. And if you can tap with confidence, just skip ahead. I suspect you’ll still find some of these exercises challenging.

Why Does It Matter?
These exercises help you feel and hear the beat while playing syncopated rhythms. (“Syncopation” simply means musical accents that fall somewhere other than on the main beats.) If you don’t feel the main beat in your body while playing against it, your syncopated playing is likely to suck.

Obviously, not every good guitarist taps a foot while performing. Some great players stand stock-still. As far as I know, Andrés Segovia never stomped his patent leather dress shoe on the floorboards in concert. In fact, a strong foot tap can be a problem. More than once I’ve been busted by producers and engineers for tapping so vigorously that the acoustic guitar mic picks up the thump.

But when I say “foot tap,” I really mean the ability to feel the music’s pulse while playing syncopated rhythms. If you’ve never mastered this skill, it may sound impossible, like asking you to recite the alphabet backward while solving a crossword puzzle. But playing your part and feeling the pulse are not separate tasks. The trick isn’t feeling two independent rhythms at once. It’s about hearing and feeling two independent parts as a single composite rhythm.

So while these exercises employ actual foot taps, we could just as well slap opposing rhythms on a tabletop with our palms, or pluck straight-quarter-notes with a thumb while plucking syncopated rhythms with fingers. (And we will!) It’s about the feel, not the body part. Having said that, practicing with your foot has benefits, like smoother pedalboard moves, better loop timing, and the ability to enter tap-tempo values other than straight quarter-notes.

Once you cultivate this skill, your timing becomes more solid. You play with greater confidence. You create more interesting rhythms, because being locked in with the pulse makes it easier to deviate from it. You’re better at listening to your fellow musicians and hearing your parts in the group context. Your feel will flourish.

Composite Rhythm
E pluribus unum, the U.S. motto, is Latin for “out of many, one.” The term “composite rhythm” refers to something similar. It’s the overall rhythm you get when you combine multiple rhythms. Let’s start simple with Ex. 1.

Click here for Ex. 1

The line above the guitar tab represents your foot tapping a steady beat. (When a note has an “x” for its head, that means the note has no particular pitch, like a foot tap or a handclap.) The guitar part is pure syncopation: You strum on the eighth-note between every quarter-note.

Say it before you play it. (I used the syllable cha). Instead of vocalizing this:

(pause) cha (pause) cha (pause) cha (pause) cha

… vocalize both parts at once.

ooh cha ooh cha ooh cha ooh cha

The “ooh” represents a foot tap, and the “cha” represents a strum. Now try practicing Ex. 1 against a metronome, tapping your foot on the “ooh” and strumming on the “cha.” This produces a composite rhythm of steady eighth-notes.

Keep the rhythm tight and observe the rests—the notes shouldn’t hang for longer than their indicated duration. Try damping your strings at the same instant your foot touches down. If this seems difficult, don’t despair. Many players have trouble with this at first, but most can master it with patience. Just keep trying till it feels natural. It might be a good idea to practice this for just a few minutes each day for a week or so.

Flip It Over
Next, try reversing the pattern, with the guitar chord on the downbeat and the foot tap on the offbeat (Ex. 2).

Click here for Ex. 2

The parts are reversed, but the composite rhythm is identical to Ex. 1.

Now let’s ramp it up. Try alternating back and forth between the Ex. 1 and Ex. 2 patterns. Play quarter-note beats with a foot tap for one measure, and then switch to on-the-beat chords and offbeat foot-taps in alternate measures, as heard in Ex. 3. Listen for the steady stream of eighth-notes and notice how the composite rhythm remains constant, even as the parts migrate between foot and hand.

Click here for Ex. 3

The Latin Tinge
This rhythm, known in Latin music as clave (pronounced CLAH-vay) is common in many musical genres. In rock, it’s often called the “Bo Diddley” beat. Ex. 4 sets this clave rhythm against a quarter-note foot tap. Unlike in the first two examples, the syncopated part sometimes coincides with the beat.

Click here for Ex. 4

Again, start out by speaking the part. I used the syllable cha in the audio below.

Next, try “singing” the composite rhythm. In the audio below I use the sounds “uh” for points where the two rhythms strike simultaneously, “cha” for when the played rhythm lands off the beat, and “ooh” for beats where the guitar doesn’t play. You can vocalize it like this:

UH cha ooh cha ooh cha UH

Pass It Around
Let’s get trickier, still without a guitar. Against a metronome beat, try playing the steady quarter-notes with your left hand while tapping the clave rhythm with your right.

Got that? Now try it the other way around, using your right hand for the quarter-notes.

Next, try playing one bar with left-hand quarter-notes, alternating with one bar of right-hand quarter-notes. The ability to “pass rhythms around” like this is a sign that you’ve truly internalized both the pulse and the guitar rhythm. When the composite rhythm lives in your body, it’s hard not to groove well.

Try Ex. 4 above, playing the clave rhythm while tapping quarter-notes with your foot. Next try flipping the parts, strumming straight quarter-notes with your hand while tapping the clave rhythm with your foot, as in Ex. 5.

Click here for Ex. 5

Finally, try passing the clave rhythm between your foot and hands, as in Ex. 6.

Click here for Ex. 6

You may find it especially challenging to play the relatively complex clave rhythm with your foot. It is hard, but most drummers do that and far more every time they play. Bear that in mind the next time you make another “drummers are stupid” joke!

A guy walks into a drum shop. To his surprise, all the employees are pounding on drums, cymbals, and tambourines while chanting rhythmically: “Twenty-seven days! Twenty-seven days! Twenty-seven days!

“What’s going on?” shouts the guy.

“We were working on this jigsaw puzzle,” yells the drummer nearest him. “We finished it in just 27 days—and the box says ‘three to five years!’”

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.

Click here for Ex. 7

Ex. 8 flips the pattern, placing the skank on the downbeat and the foot tap on the offbeat.

Click here for Ex. 8

Finally, Ex. 9 uses both patterns, alternating measure by measure.

Click here for Ex. 9

Strum It, Chum
Ex 10
is a common folk-rock strumming pattern, with a foot tap on every beat.

Click here for Ex. 10

In Ex. 11 features the same strumming pattern, but now the foot tap falls on the offbeat.

Click here for Ex. 11

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.

Click here for Ex. 12

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.

Click here for Ex. 13

Ex.14 has the same composite rhythm, but here the foot tap falls on the second note of each three-note-grouping.

Click here for Ex. 14

In Ex. 15, you strum two notes before tapping your foot on the third note of each group.

Click here for Ex. 15

Syncopated 16th-Notes
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.)

Click here for Ex. 16

In Ex. 17, the foot tap falls on the offbeat (the third 16th-note of each group).

Click here for Ex. 17

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.

Click here for Ex. 18

Ex. 19 is equally tricky. Here the foot tap falls on the final 16th-note of each group.

Click here for Ex. 19

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.

Click here for Ex. 20

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!

Dear Reader
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!