Get Rhythm

Rhythm is the heartbeat of music. But unlike a heartbeat with its predictable pattern, musical rhythm is most exciting when its accents skip, jump, and shift within the context of a steady tempo. Understanding these shifts, and knowing when and how to incorporate them into your playing, is essential for any guitarist hoping to hold a listener’s attention. With this lesson, we’ll begin exploring the world of rhythm and discover ways to harness its energy and momentum.

Our journey begins with one word: syncopation. A rhythm becomes syncopated when its accents fall on the upbeats. Many guitar styles, including jazz, R&B, bossa nova, blues, and funk are defined by syncopation.

Take a look at Ex. 1, which contains three rhythmic patterns. The first measure is very straightforward: Beats one and two are quarter-notes, and beats three and four are subdivided into eighth-notes. Mute the strings with your fretting hand, and strum them slowly, playing the one, two, three-and, four-and rhythm. Follow the picking indications (down, down, down-up, down-up), and repeat the four-beat phrase several times.

Next, play the second measure, in which you skip beat four’s downbeat. Rather than stopping your strumming for the eighth-note rest, you may find it helpful to maintain the down-up, down-up hand motion, and simply dodge the strings on the skipped downbeat. Can you hear the rhythmic kick in the second half of this measure? Welcome to the world of syncopation.

The third measure in Ex. 1 shows one of the basic building blocks of syncopated rhythm. In terms of attacks and strumming pattern, it’s identical to the second measure. But here’s the difference: Instead of replacing beat four’s downbeat with an eighth-note rest, we’ve expanded the previous eighth-note into a quarter-note. This maneuver yields extra sustain for any chord we hit on the and of beat three. This one-measure rhythmic figure appears time and again in syncopated beats, including many of the coolest Latin grooves.

Ex. 2 pairs our syncopated rhythm with some simple harmony. Don’t wince at F#11/E in bar 2. Despite its gnarly name, the voicing is easy: Simply slide bar 1’s E grip up a whole-step (two frets) and let the open sixth, second, and first strings ring along with the fretted notes.

In Ex. 3, we flip our new rhythm around, putting the syncopation at the front of the measure. And for variety, we’ll also subdivide beats three and four in bar 2, splitting the quarter-notes into eighths. Play this two-bar groove over and over until both the rhythm and chord grips feel totally natural. g

Next time: Hey, Bo Diddley!