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Rhythm Rules: Chops, Speed, and Rhythm

Exorcise all your technique demons with a few simple exercises.

Chops: Beginner
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Develop a better sense of rhythm and subdivisions.
• Learn how to improve your technique by systematically working through different accent patterns.
• Understand how to increase your speed by playing more slowly and accurately.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

So, you want to play fast. Well, why? Do you want to impress your friends? Influence people? I can tell you from personal experience that playing fast is not the answer. Music, however, just may be the answer. And if it is, then playing fast is certainly part of the question. In this lesson we’ll explore some of the basic principles of technique that are essential if you want to acquire speed and virtuosity on the guitar.

The first thing you need to know is what you want to play ... not some half-ass version, but exactly what you want to play. You need to know exactly because you can’t tell your fingers “sort of” which notes to play, or send approximate electrical impulses from your brain through your nervous system and then out to your hands. You must send exact signals to your hands in order for them to work exactly. In order to send exact signals, you have to know what you want your hands to do and when you want them to do it.

The when is rhythm!

Throughout history and culture, music has always been here to tell a story, make you tap your toes, and of course, dance to. Music is a language that reaches people through rhythm first—the notes are secondary. Think about it: Music exists with just drums beating, with hands clapping, or feet stomping. If all this makes even a little bit of sense, then it should be clear that technique starts with rhythm.

There are a lot of ways to tackle rhythm and all of them are fun. Tap your toes, clap your hands, play the drums, play percussion, get a shaker and jam along to the radio, or listen to a favorite song and simply count the beats. Get a drum machine and create your own beats. Turn rhythm into your creative playground! Beatbox. Take dancing lessons. Turn off all the lights, strip down to your bare essentials and move. Feel the earth pulsating beneath your feet.

Count 1-2-3-4. Tap 1-2-3-4. Keep counting and divide your counts into two parts: Say “one and, two and, three and, four and” or “ap-ple, ap-ple, ap-ple, ap-ple.”

Now try dividing your counts into three parts with “can-ta-loupe, can-ta-loupe, can-ta-loupe, can-ta-loupe.”

Next, divide your counts into four parts: “wa-ter-mel-on, wa-ter-mel-on, wa-ter-mel-on, wa-ter-mel-on.”

Now take a break, get a tasty beverage, and grab a guitar.

For our first example (Fig. 1), we’ll combine our watermelon and cantaloupe mantras. Enjoy the rhythm of it and keep repeating it until you start to trance out a bit. Groove!

In some places on earth they do things like this for days. You can do it for five minutes.

Now try it on all the strings. Experiment with different rhythms: “watermelon-cantaloupe-watermelon-cantaloupe” or perhaps “cantaloupe-cantaloupe-watermelon-watermelon.”

Keeping a beat and then dividing it into smaller beats, or subdivisions, is one of the most basic concepts of rhythm. Keep the beat with your foot or hands and play or say the subdivisions. You can make up your own syllables ... “do,” “dee,” or “pum” are common and have an earthy feeling. “Boo” and “bee” are also fun and they have a bounce. It really doesn’t matter what you say, as long as you can eventually utter the syllables quickly and smoothly.

In Fig. 2 we move from quarter-notes up to 16th-notes and back again. Remember, take your time, feel the pulse, and make it groove.

Next, we want to focus on accents and how to systematically work through them. Systematically means this: You begin by accenting the first note in each group of whatever subdivisions you’re working with, then the second, then the third, the fourth, and so on.

As you get more comfortable, try adding two accents per group. Then mix up the accents and try to create fun grooves. I work through each beat within a 16th-note pulse in Fig. 3.

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.