For performing musicians, having a good sense of time is arguably the most crucial skill you can develop.
While it can be tempting to invest your practise time into learning the most advanced lead guitar techniques possible, in terms of real world musicality nothing beats a well honed and precise sense of time.
The power of a great sounding band or group lies in the band members’ ability to lock into one another’s groove and this isn’t possible without a very developed sense of rhythm and time.
In this article we’re going to look at 5 methods you can incorporate into your practise regime to develop your sense of time and overall rhythmic musicianship.
While you may feel comfortable playing along to a backing track or with other musicians, playing solely to a click track can be a challenge for many guitarists.
This is because you not only need to imagine all of the other instruments, but it also forces you to consider how your part interacts with the song as a whole.
This is a key skill, as your ability to sync up with your other band mates is a crucial part of making the whole band sound tight.
Playing to a bare click works best with pieces of music that have sporadic guitar lines. Instead of constantly playing or strumming chords, you want to find pieces of music where the guitar does occasional licks or embellishments. Classic funk, soul and country music is full of this kind of guitar playing and are good genres to test and develop your time.
By regularly playing to nothing but a click track or metronome, you build you musical imagination and ability to audiate, as well as developing a deep set sense of rhythm and time.
While you may be able to play a song at full speed, slowing it down significantly – by more than 50-100% – forces you to concentrate on the spaces between the beats.
This is another important skill, as while you may be able to count and play in time, really locking in with other musicians requires the ability to match how they play around the beat. A good rhythm section will be able to add personality and zest to a song by playing slightly before or behind the beat.
Playing at exaggeratedly slow tempos will help you feel the beat as opposed to just counting it. This will come in handy when you need to sync up with a drummer that is playing around the beat and will also improve your overall musicality.
This is essentially the opposite of playing at a slower tempo. While maintaining time at slower tempos is much more difficult, splitting a bar into shorter beats can make it easier to keep time accurately.
A subdivision is when you divide the beats of a bar into shorter intervals. For example, instead of counting 4 quarter notes, you can count eighth notes instead. A popular way of doing this is counting “one & two & three & four” as opposed to “one, two, three, four”.
Not only does subdivision help keep time more accurately, but it also helps you play notes on the off beat much more accurately. Syncopated rhythms that are commonly found in reggae, jazz and modern metal can be much easier to play when you count using subdivisions.
The most valuable learning tools you have are your own ears. However, it is very difficult to objectively hear how you are playing while you are playing. Not only are you concentrating on playing the guitar, but you are also hearing how it should sound as opposed to how it actually does.
For this reason, it is important that you regularly record your playing and practise sessions so that you can listen back objectively and hear for yourself what needs improvement.
Whenever you learn a new song or piece of music, record it to the best of your ability. Not only does this force you to learn it to a higher degree of perfection, but it also allows you to listen back and hear where your timing or rhythm is off.
The advent of affordable audio interfaces mean that anyone with a computer can have their very own home studio, and modern effects units such as the Zoom G5N even double up as audio interfaces so you can record directly to your computer via the USB without the need for any extra hardware.
This may not sound applicable to a guitarist, but learning the rudiments of drumming can be one of the most impactful skills you can have in developing your overall musicality.
To do this you don’t need to buy a drum kit, or even have access to one – simply learning the basics by tapping on your knees and with your feet is enough.
While you don’t need to become Neil Peart, learning to use your separate limbs to play different beats conditions of brain to better recognise rhythm and the space between pulses.
There are plenty of tutorials on YouTube taking you from playing simple 4/4 beats to more complicated kick patterns and time signatures. As well as being quite fun, this will add a whole new dimension to your rhythmic guitar playing and ability to keep time.
Scott Ronald is a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter from London, England. As well as having played in bands for over 15 years, he has been a touring dep musician and studio musician for the last 7 years.
As well as performing, he is also a songwriter and music producer working across rock, pop and hip hop.
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