This post is reprinted from the Six String Recess Newsletter #1. If you aren’t already a subscriber, why not sign up?
How often do you hear guitarists say “I‘m a terrible rhythm player”? I hear it a lot. Despite the guitar’s origins in the “rhythm section”, most rock guitarists don’t have a real solid sense of time. Like anything, the way to make it better is to practice it and develop good habits.
When you’re playing alone, it’s easy to add or drop a beat here and there. Sometimes you’re trying to play a phrase that doesn’t fit quite right. When you’re playing alone, you don’t have a drummer to keep you in time. This isn’t so much about pushing or pulling the beat as it is about tossing in impromptu measures of 3/4 or 5/4 time unintentionally (unless you’re Rush). It’s a bad habit that you don’t realize you have until you try playing with other musicians.
So how do you get better at it? Any drummer will tell you that you need to feel the groove. Even when you’re soloing, you need to feel the groove. Your licks and phrases need to land in reasonable places or you’ll sound like a hack. As guitarists we don’t have a lot of body parts moving around like drummers do to keep us synchronized with the groove. But we can use our feet! Most rock, blues and jazz are in 4/4, so just tap your foot along with the quarter-note pulse. If you aren’t already doing this every time you play, you need to start getting into the habit now.
If you can stand playing along with a metronome or click, work on getting your normal playing and your foot-tapping to synchronize with the click. The key to really making an improvement is building the habit now and not deviating from it. Eventually it will become second-nature and you’ll notice a significant improvement in your playing.
Now, you can take this a step (no pun intended) further. Since rock has such a heavy emphasis on beats 2 and 4, you can enhance your tempo by emphasizing those beats. One technique I’ve found that works really well for this is using a rocking motion with my foot. My heel comes down on beats 1 and 3, and my toes tap on beats 2 and 4.
This back-and-forth feel will give your playing a looser, easier feel to it. It just feels more “rock and roll”. Think of playing the verse part of “Crazy Train”. If you’re tapping down on every beat it’s easy to rush the song. But when you keep time with the rocking motion, suddenly the song doesn’t feel like it’s going by so fast and the rhythm part just “fits” better.
Let’s try this with a real example. Let’s work on Led Zeppelin’s classic “Whole Lotta Love”. The opening E-power chord riff is pretty straight-ahead. You hit the chord on each quarter-note, which should be the same time your foot the floor:
Where you’ll really lock the groove in is with the little 6th and 5th string single-note riff that leads into the power chords. Without a solid rhythmic foundation it’s really easy to stretch or shrink the time and lose the groove. While you’re playing along with the foot-tapping, think about where the riff fits around the foot-tapping. Notice that none of the notes in the riff land right on the beat, so you’ll play those in between foot-taps:
The fourth beat falls in the middle of the first D note on the 5th string. Once you become aware of that, you’ll really start to lock the groove in. I find that playing along with metronome-foot helps me identify where riffs are landing on and around the beat.
This is going to feel weird at first. But eventually, with a little persistence, it will start feeling more natural. Then, one day, you won’t remember that there was a time when you played without it!