Guitar Exercises for Better Rhythm
Even though I’ve been playing for 2 decades, rhythm is probably my worst attribute. Here’s how I improved it over time.
Playing on time is a real skill to develop for all guitarists. Good rhythm means we play notes along to the cadence of a song or track.
But this skill doesn’t come easily. It takes work.
You see, before guitarists can become more rhythmical, other very key skills must be developed first.
Here’s what I’d recommend you do if developing your rhythm on a guitar is your priority.
How Confident Are You?
I think confidence is an underrated mindset for guitar players. If you have skills, and can execute those skills, you can have real confidence.
But do avoid arrogance and the ego.
Here’s why I’d tap this point: confidence facilitates rhythm. If something is fast, but you have the finger dexterity to execute at that speed, then your confidence will carry your play through a song with a tight rhythm.
To have real confidence in your skill, I recommend generally practicing these things first:
- chord switching: Practice switching from an open C to a barred F. Do that as fast as you can, whilst strumming. Take any chord pairs you want to practice, and go back and forth between them until the switch becomes comfortable. Give this a few weeks or months of daily practice.
- chord shapes (major, minor, dom.7th): it is important to get familiar with as many chords as possible, both open and barred. Once your fingers get more familiar with these shapes and patterns, you will be able to play them on autopilot. That means you have a good melodic vocabulary.
- “pitch location”: if for example a song is playing in A minor, you’ll have to know where to go on the fretboard to hit that A chord (standard tuning: root on 5th fret of low E string, or open A string, for example). Use a chart and select a random barred chord. Look for that chord on the fret board. Remember it. This will come in handy in the future when learning songs.
- alternate picking: whether strumming or picking strings, get comfortable with picking up and down. Alternate picking can get very confusing when multiple strings are involved. I highly recommend searching “Paul Gilbert alternate picking mechanics” on YouTube. That’s a valuable little lesson to position your pick and hand.
- scale runs: once alternate picking is down pat, scale runs come next. This is not necessarily something you’ll need to learn to do to play songs (for most music), but it helps to be able to play many notes in sequence. Once you’re comfortable with this, playing rhythmically will be so much easier.
- metronome**: the most important point here is using a metronome. Try and record your play. Play a song that you learned, and play to a metronome tempo. Listen carefully to where you may be off, and adjust your play accordingly. Metronomes force you to develop a sense of rhythm and cadence using all the skills above.
Notice that most of these skills are not related to rhythm. But rhythm can not be mastered until these skills improve in tandem. Each day, select one or two of these skills, and work on them until you are confident in playing at higher speeds.
Best part? You decide how good you get. Take a few months and work on these key things.
Now, Onto Rhythm
To understand rhythm, we have to first understand time signatures. However, since Medium is optimized for shorter-form content, I will try and explain this in layman terms.
When reading rhythm in music, classically, we read it by beats per measure: 4/4 means 4 notes per 4 beats.
However, when reading music, we commonly organize rhythm by simple time (i.e. 4/4 = 4 notes every 4 beats) and duplet time (i.e. 4/4 = 4 notes every two beats).
When someone says “4 4 duplet”, it means 4 notes every 2 beats. If someone says “6 4 duplet”, that means 6 notes every 2 beats. There are also triplets, but I won’t go into that much detail here.
There is a great article here which will better explain time signatures for you in music theory terms. Skip to the “Time” section, and that should suffice in explaining it in detail (if you wish).
Anyway, let’s talk about how to use timing through using a great tool every musician should have: a metronome.
You can download metronomes on your smartphone for free. Check my article on that by clicking here.
When using a metronome, set the tempo to about 60 bpm. That’s one second each beat.
Try to play simple 4/4 timing, meaning 4 notes every 4 beats (one note/chord played on every beat).
Play 2 chords (like a G and D) and alternate between chords on each beat, like so:
G — D — G — D
Do that until you feel comfortable strumming on each beat. Next, we double it to 8/4 simple time.
O — -O — -O — -O
(“O” represents a beat)
G is played on the beat, and D is played between each beat. Here are a few tips:
- if the tempo is too fast, slow it down until it’s barely comfortable
- Focus on hitting the G on time; this is called “chunking”
- By chunking, you will focus on hitting each beat, and notes in between will come naturally once you get a feel for the beat
- Strum the G downward, and strum the D upward
The purpose of this exercise is to get you to switch chords, strum down on beat, and strum up off-beat.
As you’re doing this, you’re putting your focus mostly on the metronome beats. It will force your hands — that’s what it will feel like — to play in time.
As this exercise is done more often, you’re sense of rhythm will improve. For some, this skill comes very quickly. For others, rhythm will take months to harness.
Be patient, practice this a little every day, and then you will get a better feel for playing on beat.
What about Lead Players?
If you play lead guitar, it’s much harder to focus on the rhythm. Melody becomes a priority while playing, and rhythm must come naturally. Melody can not exist in music without rhythm.
My recommendation is to play scale notes on and offbeat similar to the exercise above. You can choose any scale you wish, but try to play along the scale in specific timing.
For example, on the C major scale, play in 4/4 simple time:
C — D — E — F — G — A — B — C
O —_ — O — _ — O — _ — O — _
You can also try a 12/4 simple time (3 notes per beat), which would look something like this:
C — D — E — F — G — A — B — C — B — C
O — _ — _ — O — _ — _ — O — _ — _ — O
Doing so will give you a feel of what it’s like to alternate pick each note. It will feel confusing in 12/4 simple time because you may start picking down on the first beat, and on the next beat, you’re picking up.
That’s the point of this exercise; get used to playing different variations of notes at different rhythms in a different pattern.
Rhythm guitarists can practice picking one string with these timings as well.
Let’s see if we can amp that exercise up a bit.
Now, Try to play 8/4 simple time (two notes per beat), and then after 4 beats, play 12/4 simple time (three notes per beat).
Doing this exercise will definitely be hard. But start slow and do it for 1–2 minutes every day. I can guarantee your sense of rhythm will develop over time.
If you have to play music that has a sudden change in rhythm, it will feel much easier to change your play. Why? You’ve been practicing it!
As always, start slow, and bring up the speed once you get the hang of it.
Let’s stop here. Try these exercises, and stick with them for a month. See how well you improve.
Learning to play the guitar is very hard at first. Once you get better, it gets easier and more fun, trust me.
Then you can jam with a band, and you will also learn faster if you have those aforementioned skills in the “How Confident Are You?” section; that will give you real confidence in playing.
Keep learning and practicing. The world needs good musicians, and you, dear reader, can be one.
See you in the next blog!
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