Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Get some "umm hmm" into your playing

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The image kind of says it all! NOW have a listen to the masterful Oz Noy Trio and check that GROOVE!!

Of course it never hurts to have a machine like Keith Carlock on the drums layin in something that tight!

Where am I going with this you ask? Well over my years of teaching, there is an observation I have made. THE one principle aspect to many people's playing that divides the good from the bad OR the good from the VERY good - is GROOVE. Some call it pocket, tempo, timing they all essentially mean the same thing: One's sense of rhythm. Typically many players are weak in this area without being aware of it. How can this be?

  • Many people are (sad to say) just born with it - an over-abundance OR lack thereof. (I'll expand on this in a minute)
  • Much of the time many devote to practicing is typically devoted to harmony*. Internet forums are full of chatter about musical theory and what scale goes with what chord etc. 
  • Music magazines seldom cover the topic of rhythm. The topic apparently lacks the sizzle to move magazines off the shelf.
As far as being born with it, we all have a natural sense of rhythm. This is visible in even very young children. Truthfully some people are just more naturally rhythmic than others. Some of it is cultural too (i.e. latin or african music and culture is more closely tied to rhythm that some other cultures). This creates a situation where those who are good at it -  don't know why they are. These players never really needed to consciously work on it, so therefore have a tough time relating the "how" to those that are less funk-sional. It's not all that bad, don't jump yet! In my experience there is a quite small percentage of lost causes. There is conversely a small percentage of strong rhythmic people. The vast majority of us lie somewhere in the middle of all that.

Which brings us to the reason for this post. What can you do to improve this area?
These are in no set order but ALL have impacted my funk-meter to the positive:
  • LEARN TO DRUM!!! Hands down the simple most effective thing you can do - and FUN! You don't need the 20 piece Neil Peart kit (including gong and tubular bells). You can start the process with a hand drum. I do however believe the most effective is using a full kit though - as it gets all the limbs into the process. Rhythm is a full body experience.
  • Record yourself - this is a HUGE way to hear yourself as others do. Listen to your phrases... are they landing right where they should be? Make them.
  • Practice with a metronome a LOT. When it is clicking away you will know when you are landing in the right spot because the click disappears. Test yourself and see how many clicks in a row you can make vanish. Or imagine the clicks are on 1 & 3 of the beat... or 2 & 4 if you want some swing.
  • Use jam tracks - these are like karaoke tracks for the guitar. It is the songs without the guitar track. Just google jam tracks - there are many sites with these available - like this one
  • Listen to some funk!! James Brown, Bootsy Collins, Red Hot Chili Peppers whatever your taste. Listen to how the apply the phrases - then play along.
  • Move your body to the music. Whether it is dancing or just putting on a set of headphones and going for a walk. Walk in TIME. Stay on the beat. You can fix your "issue" you just need to reset the internal clock.
  • Awareness - this is honestly the most important thing of all. If you are aware you have an issue with anything (in life and guitar) that is the first step towards fixing it. Record yourself - listen back and be honest. Don't get discouraged but constructively critical. Learning to play well isn't something that happens overnight. There are no shortcuts so learn to enjoy the process.
So grab that guitar. Hook up a nasty 7#9 chord and make some funk happen. Just remember - it's all about the ONE two three four , ONE two three four , ONE two three four  

(Insert James Brown splits here)

* In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords.[1] The study of harmony involves chords and their construction and chord progressions and the principles of connection that govern them. (source: wikipedia)


  1. I think this is right on. In the world of professional guitar playing, you spend a lot of time and energy in the background playing rhythm guitar. The ones who get hired the most often are the ones who do that well.

  2. There you go folks - words of agreement from the insanely talented Mr Jon Finn. If you havent heard Jon go to itunes or his website and check him out. A master and a Berklee School of Music instructor to boot. He just released a new album "Bull in a China Shop" and it's killin!

    Thanks for the read an comment Jon!

  3. Came over here from harmony-central with my question about rhythm. I am encouraged to know that knowing I have the problem is big. I met with a friend today who plays drums,piano, bass, guitar, and violin. She had me sitting at her drums with my hands relaxed in hers, and me doing the kick. Man, I don't know how she does it; it takes a lot of coordination. My problem too is being stuck on one strumming pattern with most things, so then rhythm is boring and all sounds alike. I have a better picture of what I need to do. Thanks for your encouragement. Kat

  4. Hey Kat

    That's great that you have someone to help you! Seriously get yourself into drumming on some level. You need to connect with the rhythm and once you do, the rest will take care of itself. Strumming a guitar is similar to a hand drum, so working on one helps the other for sure!

    Good luck and thanks for the read and comment!

  5. Word!

    Anytime I'm in my car (and that's often) - I put some tunes on and keep the time with my left (I drive an automatic).

    Thanks for the post - some excellent ideas there!