Sunday, October 12, 2008

A lesson: Q&A: How to improve groove as a guitarist


Here's a darn good question that comes from someone we shall call "Mr. Eastwood."

Mr. E writes:

Hello Josh.. i just read your "Get On The Good Foot: Timing For Guitarists"on and it was very informative.. Thank you. I've been struggling with 'timing' for quite a while now...Maybe 8 months...I never thought about it before until I started to show some of my awesome riffs to friends, in the local music scene here in Utah and.. They have all said "your riffs are amazing.. But they aren't in time." So I've gone on a quest.. To get my music in 'time' but I haven't had any luck. I've also had a hard time understanding stuff like 4/4 time because through my many talks.. I've been told its not 'how fast you play something.. i.e.: BPM' .. and it's not how many times you play something within a certain amount of time.. and if its neither.. I'm just lost. I was wondering if you had any advice on helping me understand.. and/or possibly any other timing advice?

Yo Mister Eastwood! A very good question. And thanks for the compliments! First off, it's probably something in the Utah water that's tripping you up. I come from Lithuania, and they have the same problem. I think it's called "Caucasianitis." Ha ha! Jokes in good fun about my own color aside, I've got some stuff to help you.

First - congratulations about embarking on your quest! Remember, the dragon is never found, or killed, easily. Rock on and you'll eventually get there. Now, for some real advice.

Let's go ask Spongebob for some advice. Check this out. OK, so it's dubbed in, but do this for me. Count "1 2 3 4" along with the beats. Notice how there's an emphasis every time you say "one?" The band accents this beat. There are four beats to the cycle.

To offer a clear explanation, 4/4 time is felt with, again, four beats to the cycle. The cycle is technically called a measure. Another common time signature you've heard is 3/4, usually found in a waltz. It's counted "1 2 3 1 2 3" But don't worry about that right now.

Just count 1 2 3 4 along with the entire song. This will start to get you accustomed to "feeling" the beat. Beat is ideally felt, not intellectualized. To get it at first, we need to think. But the goal is to dance, not analyze. The good news is - you've been around 4/4 time all your life.

Next, we need to recognize the importance of beat 1. A drummer buddy showed me a cool trick once. Pull up the song again, and start dancing a lousy dance. Just shuffle your feet, and clap your hands. People will typically shuffle their feet on beats 1 and 3, and clap on 2 and 4 (unless you're my mother, bless her soul.)

Now, once you're shuffling and clapping, try playing a few riffs on your guitar. You can use existing riffs, or you can make some new ones. Sometimes, the stuff you've written might fall into an odd time signature. They're not intrinsically weird, just not 4/4.

5/4 time is a close cousin, and in a song written in this time, you'd count to five before starting your cycle over. The beat doesn't change, just the length of the cycle. Dave Brubeck's version of "Take Five" is a great example of 5/4 time. Notice how, if you start counting 1 2 3, etc, the riff will start again after you say "five."

So some of your riffs may be in a different "frame" than your buddies are used to hearing. The band Dream Theater is famous for composing wickedly complicated and awesome metal riffs in odd time signatures (or meters, as some folks like to say.)

Now, a beat can be subdivided into smaller pieces. The size of the pie doesn't change, just the number of pieces. Just as you can cut a pie so there's twice as many slices of scrumptious key lime awesomeness, but they're half the size, so to is it with riffs.

You can play over the same beat, but twice as fast. (Or three, four, six, eight, five, seven, you name it!) Try this for me: Cue up Jukebox Hero again, and count 1 2 3 4. Now, in between those down beats (as they're technically called), say "And." It'll pan out like this:

"1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and "

The numbers haven't moved, you've just added something in the middle. You've effectively doubled the number of pieces of musical pie. This is called subdividing the beat.

Next, grab your guitar, and strum down on beats 1 2 3 4. Once you're comfortable that you've got it in time with the band, add upstrokes in the spaces between the downstrokes. The downs are getting any faster, you've just doubled the time the pick hits the strings.

That should get you started there.

The second thing you need to do is a.) either use , or b.) even better, buy a metronome. Use it faithfully. It is the best investment you can make at this point. Order one today!

I hope this helps, Mr. E., and please feel free to ask follow up questions.

Quest on!


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