A “rhythmic motif” is a short and often repetitive rhythm figure onto which any chords or melody notes may be grafted. Rhythmic motifs provide the building blocks for all musical ideas regardless of what instrument or musical style you play.
The one-bar motifs in Fig. 1, which consist of whole-, half-, quarter-, and eighth-note groupings, are ideal for both repetitive strumming patterns and single-note lines. Grab a few chords, and, using either a straight- or swing-eighth feel, repeat each motif at least four times to establish a groove. (Tip: Try applying some of Joni Mitchell’s unique voicings from this month’s Under Investigation.) Now try doing the same thing with any single-note riff that fits the motif—from growly, low-register licks to upper-register lead lines—incorporating string bends, hammer-ons, pull-offs, and slides as you see fit. In both cases, you can form two-bar patterns by combining any two motifs. You can also replace any note with its equivalent rest.
Fig. 2 introduces dotted notes, ties, and syncopations, or emphasized upbeats. Again, each motif can be played using straight or swing eighth-notes. Put them through the same drill and work with each motif until it becomes a natural part of your vocabulary. (Tip: Try clapping, tapping, or playing each rhythm on muted strings before assigning chords or single notes to it.)
All of these motifs can be converted to double-time simply by halving the value of each note—whole-notes become half-notes, half-notes become quarter-notes, quarter-notes become eighth-notes, and eighth-notes become sixteenth-notes. This turns a two-bar motif into a one-bar motif, cuts a one-bar motif down to a half-bar, and so on. Conversely, any rhythm can be halftimed by doubling the duration of each note. In half-time, a one-bar motif expands to two bars, a two-bar motif becomes four bars, etc. Read the chart in Fig. 3 from left to right for double-time conversion and right to left for half-time.
All of the previous motifs occur in every musical style, and internalizing how they look and sound will help you to recognize them. For instance, scan this month’s You’re Playing It Wrong and you’ll see that E.C.’s “Sunshine of Your Love” riff combines two motifs from Fig. 2—the second motif in row 23, plus the third motif in row 17—with a few additional rests. Hop over to Under Investigation and you’ll discover how Joni’s “Free Man in Paris” rhythm figure results from playing the first motif in row 6 of Fig. 1 with muted strings on beats two and four, and how “Coyote” conjoins Fig. 2’s first motif from row 17 with the fourth motif in row 18 (enhanced with rests on beats one and two). But don’t stop there. Rhythmic motifs are everywhere, so get to know them!