How To Make Your Strumming Sound Pro

a fancy picture

Why rhythm is the foundational element in music:
The Three Rooms

If you’re learning to play a musical instrument, you probably love music and enjoy listening to music and hearing live music. So. Imagine you’re going to a concert tonight. You have to pick one of three rooms. The rooms have been programmed by the concert organisers with an unlimited budget commissioning the best performances and composers. They’re the best. They’ve been working hard to make the music you’re going to hear.

You can go to one of these three rooms and they each have different types of performance:

Room A. - They have been commissioned to write music which uses melody only, isolated as much as possible from all the other elements. So - no harmony, and no rhythm. Just streams of notes.

Room B -In this room, they have had to compose harmony only isolated from the other elements. No rhythm, and no melody.

Room C - Finally in room C, there is no pitch. It is rhythm only - isolated from the other elements.

You have to pick carefully, since you’ll be spending two hours in the room you choose.

Melody room can have any instruments, but they can only play one note at a time. So if one musician is playing a C, everyone has to play a C. Very soon, a string of pitches with no rhythm pattern will become very unsatisfying to listen to.

If you go to the room with only harmony, without rhythm that will also sound very tiring after short time.

If you go to the room with only rhythm - at the end, you might feel so pumped you’d be dancing, giving a standing ovation, etc. Rhythm is the indispensable element in music.

Why working on your rhythm skills in isolation
unlocks all areas of music

Being able to hear, read and write rhythms will allow you to play things by ear. You’ll be able to hear a guitar part in a song and know how to recreate it on your guitar, because you’ll know exactly what the guitarist is doing, just like when you hear someone speak a word that you’re familiar with, you’d know how to write that word down.

When it comes to playing, training your rhythm means your movements and strums will be very accurate and regular. The relationship between your gestures and the pulse that goes through the music will be close enough and consistent enough that those rhythms feel really good to listen to. That's the part of the diagram above and labelled “your inner rhythm clock". Having your inner rhythm clock means that when you play set rhythm parts, you’ll play in time and with great feel; and if you jam or improvise chord progressions, those will sound great right away. When you've trained your rhythm, even simple rhythm parts and chord progressions sound confident and musical.

It becomes much easier and more fun to play with others when you're confident with your own rhythm. Without developing your rhythm skills, you are more prone to being thrown off what you're playing if something else is happening at the same time.

Do this to improve your rhythm away from the guitar

The following task is a great way to evaluate where you're at with rhythm and coordination and what your baseline is for this skill area.

If it's hard to do, then trying to improve your rhythm and guitar is going to be slow and may be frustrating. Playing rhythm on guitar involves coordinating fine motor skills between your left hand and right hand, and doing all of this in specific rhythms. Training yourself to clap and stamp builds your ability to perceive exactly where you are in a rhythm, and prepares you to separate what your left and right hands are doing. When you bring rhythm down to the core level of stamping your feet and clapping, you can build up excellent skills and awareness in a short period of time. Then you can apply this to your playing and you'll see great progress.

Level 1:

Draw this on the top of a piece of paper so that you can put columns under:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +

Place X's under the numbers and & symbols. Start easy, i.e. on the 1 only. Then on the 1 & 3. Then on every beat. Then on the off beats (the & symbols).

Put a drum track on and count out loud "One and two and three and four and"- this part is very important - and clap where you have put the X

Your piece of paper may look something like this:

1 + 2 + 3 + 4 +
X
X X
X X X
X X X X
X X
X X X
X X X X
X X X X
X X X X
X X X X
X X X X X
X X X X
X X X X X
X X X X

Level 2:

Tap your foot on the beat. When you do this, you will have three things happening at the same time: you will be counting out loud, you will be clapping where you have the excess marked, and you will be stamping your foot on the beat end i.e. on one, two, three, four.

Doing this is challenging! It may take some practice before you're able to coordinate counting, clapping, stamping for all of the rhythms on the grid above.

Take it slowly and go back to the first three or four rhythms until you feel comfortable with those.

It's preferable to do these training activities with a rhythm track so that you know you're in time. I've provided one for you here to use, as you get more confident with this, you can move onto using faster tracked, or doing these activities playing along with your favourite songs. This will be more of a challenge, because there are more musical elements you'll be hearing alongside the ones you are executing.

Do this, and see your rhythmic confidence and skill flourish and grow.

About the authors: Sarah Gallagher & Diana de Cabarrus are professional musicians, guitar teachers, and co-directors of Key To Music, offering Guitar Lessons in Edinburgh.