“I don’t have a musical bone in my body.” It’s a phrase I often hear from new adult students. Another common thing to hear is how certain members of the family are musical, but my new client feels they just didn’t inherit that gene. Sound familiar? Maybe you have an interest in learning how to play guitar, but you can barely chew gum and walk at the same time let alone carry a beat.
Can you learn to play guitar if you have no rhythm? Contrary to what you may think, rhythm is a learned skill. Some people connect with it better than others and develop their rhythmic sense faster, but it is still something to be developed and anyone can do it.
Rhythm can be a real hurdle for aspiring guitarists. A big reason is that a rudimentary understanding of rhythm as a musical concept is often neglected. Students have a tendency to just practice chords without much of a conscious effort put into rhythm. No matter your natural rhythmic proficiency, this aspect has to be a conscious and focused part of your practice if you wish to improve.
In this article, I will explain the basics of how rhythm actually works, how to read rhythm and understand some of the terminology, and give you some exercises. First, allow me to dispel some misconceptions.
So You Think You Don’t Have Any Rhythm?
You have natural rhythm just by being human! Your body has a heart and a pulse that beats at a certain speed. That speed changes based on activity and states of emotion. You have a circadian rhythm that dictates when it’s time to wake up and go to sleep. This also changes based on variables such as mealtimes and exposure to light.
There are many factors that you have control over when it comes to you body’s rhythms. It stands to reason that you can train your musical rhythm as well.
Maybe you blame your lack of rhythm on your genetics. Many people do, and there are plenty of reasons why. In my career, I’ve known many families that were musical. My dad played guitar, so my mother – a nurse, mind you – told me I got my musical abilities from my father. I have worked with people who came from “musical families” and marveled at their uncanny mastery of the musical arts. We attribute certain things to genetics when in reality, it may be explained by other factors.
Nature vs. Nurture
If you assume certain abilities are simply dependent upon a genetic predetermination, you will not be easily satisfied. There is not a single study out there that presents definitive proof that we are either born with or without the ability of rhythm. Plenty of studies suggest that people are born with certain proclivities and aptitudes, but the research overwhelmingly points to our environment and what we expose ourselves to as playing a bigger part.
One of the best arguments for this is laid out in Malcom Gladwell’s best-selling book “Outliers” and the “10,000 hour rule”. This was popularized by a study in 1993 that determined that those who were elite in their craft practiced for an average of 10,000 hours to get to where they are. As pointed out a moment ago, you will find studies and research that suggest DNA might be the main determining factor, but you will not find much in the way of hard affirmation of that idea.
Whether or not an inherent ability to hold a rhythm resides in you is beside the point. In my 25 years as a musician, I have watched countless instrumentalists and vocalists who struggled with rhythm become masters of their musical craft – including drummers! Keeping time was my single biggest struggle as a young professional in the studio, so my experience is also first-hand.
Developing a sense of rhythm is quite simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Some people just get it more than others, and that’s okay. If you have to work at it a bit harder, that doesn’t mean that you are doomed to a life of no rhythm.
Put In The Work
The first step to training yourself rhythmically begins with learning the terminology and some basic rhythmic notation. Understanding these fundamental basics will go a long way in helping you improve your rhythm. Below are the
Lets start at the very top with the “[note] = 70”. This means that the speed to set your metronome is 70 beats per minute, or 70 bpm, in order to achieve a rate of 70 quarter notes in a minute. So yes, that means that you need a metronome in order to work on developing your rhythm! I just used 70 as a simple starting point. Feel free to adjust your metronome to whatever speed is comfortable to you.
For our purposes here, there is no need to explain all of parts of written music. As a guitarist, the best place to start is just understanding the rhythm slashes at the very top. You want to begin this exercise by either clapping, tapping, slapping, or some other form of bodily time-keeping method.
For the whole note section, turn on your metronome and while counting out loud with the clicks, clap on beat one then count the rest of the clicks until you get to “4”. Start again at “1” with a clap and repeat, trying to time your clap perfectly with the click of the metronome.
Next, move on to half notes. They receive a count of two, so for these you will clap on beats “1” and “3”. Just like with the whole note, you want to continue to count up with each click, starting over after you have counted to “4”.
Quarter notes receive one beat, so this time you will be clapping with each click of the metronome. Your claps need to line up exactly with the click and really lock in so you and the metronome are perfectly in sync.
Pro Tip – “Bury The Click”: Set your metronome to be quieter than your clap so that when you clap, it drowns out or buries the sound of the click. If you can hear the click, it means you are off beat.
The next step will be to pick up your guitar and try this with single notes, chords, or muted strings using all downstrokes with your pick. If you are using single notes or chords, be sure to allow them to ring out for the full duration of each time value.
After you can successfully lock to the metronome at various speeds with all of the time values, the next step is to mix and match. Try these combinations or make up your own.
There are a few things to pay attention to with your strumming hand. How you hold the pick, the angle of the pick as it strikes the strings, and the use of you forearm and wrist. There’s not really a solid right or wrong with these. You have to find the most comfortable way to make the sounds you want.
The most common way of holding the pick is between the thumb and index finger. The index finger curls in towards the palm with the thumb on top holding the pick in place. This allows you to hold the pick securely without having to grip too hard. This is important because you want your arm to be relaxed.
Other Forms Of Rhythm Training
You don’t need an instrument of any kind to develop your sense of rhythm. Although I believe working with your acoustic guitar is the best way to exercise, there are other ways to improve your skills.
Eurhythmics use body movements as a means of music education. It’s a method that is commonly used by dancers, but can be used by anyone who wishes to develop their rhythmic abilities. Other than being a tool to teach musical understanding, it has also been used for therapeutic purposes.
This system was developed by a Swiss musician by the name of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in the early 1900s. It is employed by many schools that have a music education program and is often referred to as Dalcroze Eurhythmics. You may also be able to find a local studio or private instructor in your area.
If you have a desire to learn acoustic guitar but feel you just don’t have any rhythm, don’t give in. Rhythm is something that can be attained by anyone who wishes to get better at it. It is more skill than it is natural ability and you have the ability to develop it no matter how much of that natural inclination you may possess or lack.