There is a vital aspect of musical skill that is the bane of many players (even some professionals!). Failure to acquire proficiency in this area of musical ability absolutely prevents admission to the ranks of those who deserve to be called musicians and guitarists. It is the area of rhythm.
In my early years of learning to read music, I quickly acquired a “serviceable” understanding of rhythm, and its system of notation. However, it would be many years before I learned that I did not have a sufficiently deep understanding of what rhythm really is, a grasp of rhythm that would lead me to the higher levels of playing ability. Even when I got to the point of being able to make a respectable showing with what were considered “virtuoso” pieces, the flaws in my abilities were evident to me and my teachers. One of my teachers constantly lectured me on having precise rhythm, and would tell me that it was the key to advanced technique. The only problem was that he never told me how to fix the problem, he just kept letting me know I had it!
When I began to teach, I found that giving students a real, rock solid understanding of rhythm was extremely difficult. So many teachers really rely on the ability of students to “ape” a rhythm, listen and copy it by ear, rather than to learn to understand and interpret the written system of rhythm notation that has developed over the years. And many who get by learning rhythms “by ear” find themselves quite shaky when put to the test (playing with others, or even a metronome).
It took awhile, but gradually, over my 30 years of teaching experience, I began to figure out why there was such a widespread difficulty in teaching and learning rhythm, and the cure for this problem became the Rhythm Course in “The Path Level One: Chords & Rhythm”. The essence of the problem lay in the failure to communicate the true meaning of various musical concepts, right from the beginning of playing. The problem is not that students have a “bad” sense of rhythm, it is the training that is bad.
Most people, in fact, have quite a good capacity for rhythm, or a good capacity to develop a rhythmic sense and understanding. In all my years of teaching, I only met one person who truly seemed to have no sense of rhythm (and that is out of thousands of students). I could not even get him to tap his foot to a steady beat. When he tried to do it, it looked like he was trying to stomp on a troop of approaching bugs!
That was long ago, and even so, I would like to get another crack at teaching him how to keep a beat!
We must have extremely high musical values when we practice, especially in the area of rhythm. Our 16th notes must be exactly 1/4 the time of our quarter note, and our 8ths exactly 1/2. Listen to this run I am playing at 160 bpm. I take great pains to make sure that every note is placed exaclty where it should be within the beat
And I can assure you, when the average student is practicing, this is very often not the case. It is every teacher’s job to make sure, by whatever means possible, that the student develops the ability for precise rhythm. If it is missing, it should be made priority number one.
Practicing with imprecise rhythm ruins the playing mechanism (all the muscles and nerves doing the playing movements). To be practicing this way is to be wasting your time. You will have to go back and clean up the mess at some point, and the longer you wait, the harder it is. Now, it is also interesting that flawed technique will also lead to imprecise rhythm.
In other words, even if you have a good sense of rhythm, if there are technical problems with how your fingers are trying to do something on the guitar, those problems will prevent you from having control of the rhythm. This is because all technical problems are either caused by, or lead to, muscle tension. And that tension will prevent you from controlling the movements you make to create the notes. You will be so busy struggling just to make the notes, you will not have the luxury of worrying about when you make the notes!
A Case In Point
I know this is a pervasive problem for students and the teachers trying to teach them. The following letter to me illustrates this situation:
Jamie -- Okay, I’m the first to admit that I may be musically challenged but I bit on the possibilities that your books offer. I have been playing for two years and can play riffs and portions of songs fine (Green Day, Pink Floyd, some Beatles). That being said, I simply am horrible at picking up a rhythm and strumming.
My teacher, a very earnest college student who plays very well, says continually that it’s very hard to teach rhythm and so we do “follow me” routines. We don’t talk time or notation, we plop a CD in and try to follow along. Stressed to keep time, all technique falls by the wayside and sounds emanate from my guitar that are unnatural to say the least. I am obviously frustrated.
I take it from my first brief review of your books that you stress more of a conceptual process. I’ll admit that I am also impatient with the promises that yours and other books offer.
Give me the straight scoop here, what do I do with your books to overcome this malady?
Well, Dan, there are two things you do with my books: get them, and use them. Just getting them does not do you any good (although it does me good, but I really prefer you use them!) Your impatience could be a real problem. If there is one thing that does not lead to a good sense of rhythm it is impatience!
Your teacher is using the “follow me” routine because that is the only way he or she knows how to do it. It is the “Hail Mary” method, where the teacher hopes and prays the student will somehow “get it” by watching it being done. Well, many students will, and more of them won’t, and the question is, what does the teacher do with the ones that don’t. I’ll tell you: it is the “let’s turn the page” method, or the “let’s try another song method”!
Your words “stressed to keep time, all technique falls by the wayside” are very revealing, you are proving all the points I wish to make. Dan, if ever there was a description of a student who needs The Principles and First Chords & Songs, you are it! And I am sure the thousands of people who have recovered from your present situation by using these unique instructional materials are nodding their heads in agreement.