Rhythm can make a piece sound alive. It can take an ordinary phrase and turn it into something magical and moving. But rhythm only has that power if you are its absolute master. That starts with counting and understanding how the beats fit together.
Lessons Learned from Sight Reading
Anyone good at sight reading will tell you that the notes don’t really matter. It’s more important to keep the beat and keep moving. If you’ve ever been in an ensemble that had to stop every two bars to get people caught up, you know exactly why rhythm and counting are more important than hitting every not perfectly. Rhythm is kind of a big deal
On the other side of a the coin, Learning a piece is about developing and shaping habits over time. Nothing is perfect from the get go, but it’s your job to make sure every repetition is as close to perfect as possible. Develop a bad habit early only and you’ll spend hours fixing it later.
With an element as crucial and powerful as rhythm, it’s even hard to go back and reverse those bad habits. That’s why counting is so important. You cannot hope to push and pull a pieces beat, count and rhythm if you don’t fully understand it. So here are three ways to do that.
1. Put Down the Guitar
Too often we get so caught up in the finger mechanics of playing that we completely ignore the rhythmic aspect. Divorce the two. Your sense of beat and time should never be tied into the mechanics of playing the guitar, and one way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to practice reading rhythms separately.
Put down your guitar and try clapping the rhythms of each of the lines in your piece. Do it at tempo, slow, and fast. You should also clap rhythms while counting aloud (see point three).
2. Sing & Tap
Again, without the guitar, sing the musical lines of your piece in time.
If you do this without some sort of counting it doesn’t count (pun intended), so be sure to clap the beat or tap your foot while singing. The mechanics of music making should never be tied into your sense of time. This is another way to divorce the two.
3. Count Aloud
A teacher once told me that if you can’t count aloud while playing your piece, you don’t know it.
This is the only method of the three that involves your guitar. Count a loud while you’re playing a piece. But don’t just count when you play, keep a steady stream. In other words, pick the smallest subdivision in the piece and count that the entire way through. If that happens to be a sixteenth note, you’re count would be 1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a etc. the entire piece or passage. In most cases this involves you counting more than necessary.
You should also try the opposite: count less than necessary. If you have a passage in 16ths, try counting only 8th notes
This is, like the previous two methods, about divorcing your sense of time from the mechanics of playing guitar. Counting a loud is a convenient way to do that.
Should I Use Metronome For These Things?
Sure. But know when to put it down. If you want to really have some fun, get your tempo from a metronome, then shut it off and play/sign/clap a passage. When you’re through, immediately turn the metronome back on. Did your tempo wander? Or did you stay in time?
Its never a bad choice to use a metronome, but be careful that it doesn’t become the only way you can stay in time.