As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 4.
Rhythm is not the most glamorous thing to practice, but it is essential to playing any piece of music. It is one of the major foundations of music itself. Whether you are the lead, rhythm, or bass guitarist, a strong understanding of the fundaments of rhythm is necessary. Without a solid rhythmic structure, even the best piece of music will fall apart, and just like any other skill, it takes dedication and practice to master. Rhythms can become incredibly complicated, but they are all based on two basic concepts: keeping the beat and dividing the beat.
Keeping the Beat
To have basic rhythm, you must first learn to keep the beat. This is best done with the help of a metronome. You can find metronomes at any music store or download an app. This tool clicks out a steady beat to help you practice playing in time. The goal of the metronome is to help you learn to count a steady rhythm in your head, and it should not be used as a crutch!
The ability to keep a steady beat is absolutely essential when you play music in a group. If even one member of a band is playing at a slightly different tempo, the whole piece of music will sound disjointed. Once you can keep a steady beat, it is time to divide that beat into different rhythms.
Dividing the Beat
The most basic rhythm anyone should learn first is 4/4 time. In 4/4, a quarter note equals one beat, and there are four quarter notes in a measure. When you turn on your metronome and play when it clicks, you are playing a quarter note. Start counting 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 in your head along with that click. Turn off the metronome and keep the counting steady. This technique is how you can develop your rhythmic skills.
Half of a quarter note is an eighth note. Turn on the metronome again and keep 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 on the beat, but add an “and” in between – or “off” the beat. 1 – and – 2 – and – 3 – and – 4 – and. You are now counting a series of eighth notes.
Half of an eighth note is a sixteenth note. Similarly, if you turn on your metronome and keep your 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 on the beat, you can now add “e and a” in between. The “and” of “e and a” is where your eighth note would be, but we are now dividing each beat into four. 1 – e – and – a – 2 – e – and – a – 3 – e – and – a – 4 – e – and – a. That is a series of sixteenth notes.
Quarter notes, eighth notes, and sixteenth notes are combined in a variety of ways to create incredibly diverse sets of rhythms you can use in your music for both melody lines and rhythmic harmonies. It is amazing how far a very basic knowledge of the concepts of rhythm can take you creatively.
If rhythm is not your strong suit, I suggest taking a strumming pattern you enjoy playing on your guitar and thinking about how you would count it. For example, when I strum in a pattern of Down – Down – Up, it is often in the rhythmic pattern of one-quarter note and two eighth notes:
Keep practicing these patterns, until rhythm becomes natural for you.