“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” - Plato
When you learn to play the guitar, you’ll learn more about music theory, reading tablature, using a plectrum or a pick, and playing different notes. One thing that’s often overlooked is the rhythm.
Music, after all, is all about rhythm, regardless of the style (funk, bossa nova, reggae, etc.). Don’t think that you can’t do it if you’ve got no rhythm. You can always work on your rhythm.
In this article, we've got some advice on how to work on your ear and work on your sense of rhythm.
What Do We Mean by Rhythm for the Guitar?
When you play the guitar, you need to play certain notes at a certain time.
So what is rhythm?
Rhythm is a musician’s awareness of time, how they divide it into beats and measures and knowing whether they need to speed up or slow down. It can be difficult since rhythm is a perception. However, rhythm can be learnt.
You can learn the note value: semibreve (whole note), minim (half note), crotchet (quarter note), quaver (eighth note), semiquaver (sixteenth note), etc.
The time signature will affect the rhythm. It’s found at the start of a staff and tells you about the rhythm: the number on the bottom tells you which note represents a beat (2 = minim, 4 = crotchet, 8 = quaver, etc.) and the number on the top tells you how many beats there are in a measure.
Similarly, there are stressed and unstressed beats. In a 4/4 measure, the first beat is stressed, whereas the other 3 are unstressed.
The tempo doesn’t change the time signature. For example, a metronome set to 60bpm will just be slower than a metronome set to 100bpm, for example. Once you’ve got the hang of this, you have one less aspect of music theory to learn.
However, rhythm isn’t entirely academical. Even if rhythm isn’t an innate quality, it does vary from person to person. Some people have no difficulty working out the time signature of a song while others may find it almost impossible.
However, those who find it easy are probably those who’ve grown up surrounded by rhythm. That’s why those raised by musicians will probably learn all of this much more quickly than those with no musical experience.
You can easily work on your guitar technique, too. To play a chord, riff, pentatonic scale, or a series of notes, you need to work on your posture, fingering, and how you use both your hands.
When you work on your rhythm, it can be harder to see the progress you’re making. However, that’s because it takes time. You need to be patient and persevere.
No need for worry; all of this focus on rhythm will not get in the way of your creativity on the guitar!
Working on Your Rhythm without a Guitar
Remind yourself that it’s probably unlikely that you have absolutely no rhythm whatsoever. A lot of guitarists and musicians have difficulties with rhythm when they first start attending guitar lessons for beginners, working with a private guitar tutor, or teaching themselves how to play guitar.
To work on your rhythm, you need to focus on two important elements: rhythmic perception, rather than the theory of rhythm, and the physical sensation of rhythm (which is a little harder to work on).
The good news is that you can develop your sense of rhythm almost anywhere and at any time. You don’t need to wait until your next music lesson or online guitar tutorial to start making progress.
You just need to listen to music and focus on what you can hear:
Is the tempo slow or quick?
Try tapping your foot or nodding your head along to the music.
What is the rhythm of the guitar part like?
Don’t hesitate to use your body to follow along with this rhythm.
What are the stressed beats?
Can you work out the time signature?
This exercise may be complicated at the beginning, but keep at it and you’ll soon start seeing some progress.
You don’t need to necessarily sit down and listen to music, either, as you can hear music on TV adverts, in the supermarket, or even in a lift!
Music is almost everywhere so make the most of it in order to train your ear!
Improving how you listen is but one benefit of learning the guitar...
How Can You Develop Your Sense of Rhythm for the Guitar?
It can be difficult to start learning how to play the guitar?
You may think you’ll never understand the basic chords, barre chords, arpeggios, improvising, etc.!
Additionally, you need to learn how to set up your amp, change strings, and tune your guitar. In reality, the technique isn’t really that complicated.
Learning the guitar can be made a lot easier by understanding rhythm. Rhythm can become something instinctive. To work on it for the guitar, you need to concentrate and not go too quickly. As a beginner, you may feel like skipping a few steps in order to get to playing your favourite song sooner.
However, you need to work on your rhythm, which can take a lot of time, patience, and concentration, all while also letting go! This might seem contradictory and it sort of is.
You need to be aware of music theory without being a slave to it. You need to play a rhythm as naturally as possible without overthinking it. Since rhythm is what makes a song musical, you can put your guitar sheet music to one side and get to grips with it just by listening.
Tap Your Foot to Keep in Time with the Music
There are plenty of good ways to help you understand rhythm. One way is by tapping your foot along to the music.
This repetitive movement will become second nature to you and you’ll soon tap your foot along to everything. The chords and notes will then fall into place. It doesn’t matter which foot you use. However, make sure you always use the same one.
Use Your Head
You can nod your head along to the rhythm. You can also count in your head. Most popular music is in 4/4 time (pop, rock, folk, etc.). This is probably going to be 99% of the music you play.
If you play blues or jazz, you may use different time signatures but the advice is still applicable. You can tap your foot and count in your head at the same time.
Moving Your Hand
You can also wave your right hand to count out the rhythm (or your left hand if you’re left-handed). Your hand and foot should be in time with one another. When one moves, the other will move as well.
This movement will come in pretty handy when you’re actually playing guitar. It’s a good way to develop fluid and precise guitar playing.
Working with a Metronome
The metronome is a perfect tool to help you. To make sure that all the above techniques are working, set your metronome away and make sure you stay in time!
Of course, make sure you’re critical of your own mistakes as that’s how you’re going to improve!
Play Along to a Song
The advantage of music recorded in studios is that the drumming is almost always in perfect time. The tempo is always respected and doesn’t vary throughout the song.
Playing along to a song is similar to playing with a metronome.
Play in a Band
Playing guitar in a band with a bassist and a drummer will also help you to keep time and listen to the rhythm.
In a band, all the musicians need to be able to play in time with one another in order to produce harmonious melodies.
Rhythms to Learn for Acoustic Guitar
Here are 10 useful rhythms to play on either classical or folk guitar:
- Cha cha
To play a rhythm, you need to be able to let go and stop thinking. You’ll struggle to do this at first but you’ll soon start understanding exactly what rhythm is. Rhythm is an instinctive thing and shouldn’t be thought about.
So do you want to play like Hendrix or Clapton? Do you reckon you’re ready to start playing along to any rhythm?
If you're struggling with your rhythm, don't forget you can always enlist the help of a private guitar tutor!
Your tutor will certainly help you stay motivated in those times when you wonder why playing the guitar is so great...