Every Good Boy
Deserves Fruit

Getting Started: Rhythm

Perhaps the most fundamental approach to improvisation emphasizes rhythm.

-Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz

I hear rhythms, mostly, and then I put notes to them.

-Dizzy Gillespie

It's said that music is made up of three fundamental pieces---the rhythm, the harmony, and the melody. If you had asked me a month ago which of these was the most important, I'd unhesitatingly say "the melody."

I was wrong. It's the rhythm. Music without melody is ambient, but as we learned in the last post, music without rhythm is pretty dang boring.

When I began seriously studying music, I couldn't hold a beat to save my life. A lifetime of playing classical music meant that continuity was never as important to me as playing the right notes. As such, whenever I screwed up, I'd stop and start again from the top. As you can imagine, this was not particularly helpful for my sense of rhythm.

Do you know what was? Playing with the metronome. A lot. Starting today, every time you practice, use the metronome for the entire session.

Anyway. It's amazing what having the right groove can do to a song. I was ignoring this for the two years I was teaching myself guitar. Even if you're playing the right chords, it just doesn't sound like the right song until the beat is in place.

Let's go back to our Wagon Wheel example from the other day. Because we were focusing only on getting the chords right, we were playing it with this rhythm:

It didn't sound amazing---but what makes the recording more interesting? Well, the actual rhythm that ol' Darius is hammering out is something more like this:

Now I'm not going to claim that I'm a rhythmic expert and somehow just picked this out of the air. What I actually did was turn my keyboard volume down to 0, jammed along to the recording, and hit notes whenever they felt right. Then I used some software to turn me randomly hitting keys into rhythm notation.

The point is that nobody cares whether or not the rhythm I've written down is correct. The point is that it's easy to instantly come up with something close-to-right. Just put on a recording and hit notes whenever they feel like they'd groove.

Play the groove until you've internalized it, and then see if you can reproduce it without the recording. You'll be amazed at how much better it sounds already.