Rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. It is the foundation upon which you build your musical house and sad to say, 90% of my students since I began teaching over 50 years ago have experienced issues with keeping a steady beat. Rhythm is the single most challenging aspect of playing, even with experienced players. Why is this? Simply because most people have never really thought about it. Most everyone can tap their foot in time with a song and they can clap with a beat but using the fingers and hands in ways that have to change frequently while keeping a steady beat is often quite frustrating. Here are some general tips regarding “locking in” the beat. Some may find them easy; some may find them excruciatingly difficult and frustrating, at first anyway. But they are absolutely vital.
The first big mistake I see almost always is a student diving into a song without first internalizing the beat. Counting off a measure or two before playing is the best solution. There are very good reasons why a conductor of an orchestra uses his or her hands or perhaps a baton to count out a measure before the players begin. Same thing with a band in which the drummer clicks his sticks together for a measure before the band starts playing. The purpose is for every player to feel the beat before they start playing.
When a player does NOT do that they are instantly requiring their “musical brain” to find the feel and tempo of the song. That will work some of the time, especially if the song has been practiced a lot and is not too difficult. More often than not though, it takes a few seconds or maybe more to be locked in. If you are playing with someone else it might take even longer for both players to be in sync.
The second most common fault I see is not be prepared for the first chord change and the ones that come after that. Anticipating the change is absolutely vital – and that change will usually be upon you very, very quickly. Being ready bookends with the idea of having your eyes “grab” not just one chord but a sequence. Almost all songs in the varied world of American popular music include chord sequences that are repeated many times of the course of the song. This is why I urge my students to separate out those sequences (once they’ve been identified) and practice JUST that sequence before trying to play a piece beginning to end. There are usually a few of these repetitive sequences so identify them and practice them individually, then begin the process of assembling the song.
This is much, much better than dealing with a song on a chord-to-chord basis. Doing that often leads to making the same mistakes over and over and your mistakes take up residence in your musical brain. When that happens – even if you know you’re not supposed to stop at a difficult change – you then have to clear that mistake from your brain, a process that is often much more difficult than breaking the song down into sets of chords that are repeated. The basic idea that repetition alone will solve problems hardly ever works. Of course, the first few times you play a brand-new song you MUST deal with it on a chord-to-chord basis; after all, you’ve never seen it written out before even if the song itself is very, very familiar. But as soon as is humanly possible, identify and work on those repeating sequences, then begin the task of putting the whole song together.
Always remember that a song played way slower than it should be – but with a rock-solid, steady beat – will ultimately allow you to bring that song “up to tempo” much sooner than playing easy parts fast and harder parts slowly. I know a painfully slow but steady beat is not as gratifying as speeding up the easy parts but that all-important steady beat for the entire song will yield better results, sooner.
So – how do we deal with the minutia that makes hard parts hard? You must identify WHY that change is difficult and more often than not, one finger on your fretting hand is slowing you down. And guess what? It’s hardly ever your pinkie (finger #4) although most people would guess that one is the culprit. In 90% of the cases it is your ring finger (#3). That finger is the most difficult to control due to the simple fact that you hardly ever use it all by itself in every-day life; usually some other finger or fingers help it out. But on the guitar we must teach it to work on its own, arch, and apply significant downward pressure.
One of the most basic concepts I teach is identifying what I refer to as the “problem finger.” In virtually all cases, if you find yourself still setting up a chord after considerable practice rather than placing the fingers down all at once, the LAST finger you place down is the culprit in a blown chord change. What you must do to break the habit of setting up a chord and entirely focus on that problem finger before you attempt the rapid change. Don’t worry about the other fingers, practice moving the problem finger down first, then fill in the rest. This is the first step in breaking the bad habit and the muscle memory that goes along with it. Complicating this procedure is the fact that the angle and distance that problem finger must move is variable, depending upon which chord you are playing before the change. The goal of course is to place the fingers down all at once, not numerically with the problem finger hanging you up. Just spend some time practicing moving from the previous chord to the problematic one with your entire focus on the bad guy finger. You will conquer that change much sooner, promise!!
Another tendency I see quite often is wiggly fingers (!). A player will get to the approximate shape of the chord, often landing almost perfectly but for some reason they don’t believe it, and continue to wiggle the fingers around. They are not pressing down hard enough to get the clear, clean tone they are seeking and somehow some part of their brain wants confirmation they are in fact in the right place before they apply the right amount of pressure.
So here’s deal: you must take a chance, commit to where you are and instantly press down hard!! I call it “jumping into the change” and what it requires is an acceptance that yes, you will make some mistakes and a finger or fingers may end up on the wrong string, overlap the fret (dull tone is the result of that) or a finger may touch an adjacent string. It can be maddening, but look at it this way. What you are doing by making an aggressive planting of the fingertip – no wiggling!! – is locating the problem or problems with that particular chord. You can’t solve a problem if you don’t know what it is; you only know that something is not right and you try to wiggle your way to the best place. That wiggling very quickly becomes a habit, one that is very hard to break.
So - go for it! If you make a mistake, know this: you were going to make that mistake anyway and probably on a frequent basis. Re-focus! As you prepare for that change do your best to remember what worked and didn’t work in previous attempts.
One final thing. Rejoice in small victories. If after a solid week or two of working on a song it’s not perfect, just….better, you are on the right track. Pat yourself on the back, you deserve it!
Peace & good music,