Rhythmic Variations

Weekly Newsletter #19

December 17, 2021

One of the most overlooked aspects of guitar playing is rhythmic complexity and the ability to express your musical ideas through a series of rhythms rather than pitches. That’s not to say pitches are unimportant (obviously that’s not the case), however the notes you play are really only one part of the story. 

All music is comprised of three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm. The caveat is that not all three are always present in every song or piece of music. However the one that is always present is rhythm. It is the rhythm that is the foundation to every piece of music. 

Many guitarists spend hours and hours trying to play scales and finding just the right notes to play over a specific chord, but precious few give the same level of attention to the rhythms they choose to play. Very often, we simply inject whatever intuitive rhythm we “feel” into a series of notes and out comes the lick. While this is a great place to begin, it is by no means the highest level of musicality. 

Learning to play with rhythms in the same way you might learn to play with a pentatonic scale is an incredibly useful, and honestly very fun, way of approaching guitar playing. Varying rhythms and becoming skilled at switching between them is akin to playing variations of pentatonic patterns, except you can inject any note choice you want and presto! Out comes a new and unique lick. Very often, it is more effective to convey your musical idea through fewer notes but a more intricate rhythm…that is what we will be addressing here. 

Download the TAB for this lesson here. 

Watch the video lesson here. 

Fig. 1 shows a simple series of four notes: D - E - G - A. However what makes this riff unique is how the rhythm is structured over a three-note rhythm pattern. Each beat is rhythmically identical, starting with an 8th note followed by two 16th notes. What makes this sound so interesting is that because there are four pitches played over a three-note rhythm figure, the starting note for each beat changes every time. Notice on beat 1 the starting note is D, beat 2 = A, beat 3 = G and beat 4 = E. As you get comfortable with this idea, try replacing these four notes with a different series of four notes. Then try five notes, then six and so on. You’ll notice that certain sets of notes are much more difficult to play instinctively than the ones written here. 

Fig. 2 follows the same concept, including the rhythmic figure. The rhythm of each beat still contains one 8th note and two 16th notes. However, in this example each beat starts with a 16th, then an 8th and finishes with a 16th. What we end up with is a dizzying cyclical effect because the downbeat is preceded by a 16th note and followed by an 8th. This puts the downbeat smack in the middle of three quick 16th notes. The end effect sounds as though the downbeat is being displaced, but in fact it is simply an illusion. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to play with a metronome and should be done slowly and with great care so as not to ingrain the wrong rhythm. Once again, try using any set of four notes for variety. 

Fig. 3 is reminiscent of the intro to Santana’s Black Magic Woman. The unique and challenging part about this rhythmic structure is that you are playing a series of 16th notes, which are groups of four notes per beat, but only using three separate pitches. See how the accent mark happens on the 7th fret E on the A string, every time? What you are doing is accenting one specific pitch, but because that pitch occurs every three notes it creates a “rolling” effect where the accent is continually moving and only sometimes lines up with the beat. The entire series last three measures before it recycles and lands back on beat one. 

Fig. 4 is actually the same exact rhythmic concept, only instead of playing a series of three notes, the non-accented pitches are removed and replaced with rests.  You can really feel this rhythmic structure magnified when hearing it against a click track. When playing this concept with rests instead of the non-accented notes you can get sort of an “out-of-time” feeling which can be used to almost confuse the listener and trick them into feeling the beat somewhere other than where it actually is. 

Fig. 5 outlines the same exact rhythm but uses an A minor blues scale so that you can hear the potential when using this idea over a larger series of pitches. 

I hope it has become clear that you don’t need a ton of crazy notes to create a challenging and musical way of playing the guitar. Instead, try focusing on the rhythms you use and limit your note choices. By forcing yourself to only play a small number of notes, you are somewhat backed into a corner. By forcing yourself to remain limited in pitches, you naturally must rely on rhythm to be musical and express yourself. This is a huge part of excelling at guitar and one that must be mastered if you want to truly become a musical player. 

Rhythm is the foundation of everything…master it and you’ll master the rest. 

-Max Rich