The Foundation Of Improvisation

Weekly Newsletter # 84

March 17, 2023

On a scale of one to Vinnie Colaiuta, how fluent are you at rhythm? 

It might not seem that important as a guitarist, but believe me, being a rhythm master is the ultimate key to improvisation. 

The main reason players find themselves stagnating when they try to solo or improvise is simply because they don’t have enough rhythm chops. 

Let’s face it, the major/minor and pentatonic scales will get you through most chord progressions you come across. 

Sure, there are more exotic options of scales and modes to choose from, but they’re not necessary. 

However, the rhythms that you use to express the scale you’re playing…that’s where the real creativity lies. 

Don’t be Stubborn 

When was starting out as a music student in college I didn’t pay much attention to rhythms. 

I was way more focused on how technical I was, or what scales/chords I was playing. 

I thought, rhythms just happen. 

I can play in time, sort of, and that’s good enough. 

Then I got exposed to Grant Green and his playing. 

It changed my entire world (if you don’t know who he is, look him up immediately…especially Live at the Lighthouse.) 

I realized that this guy was improvising an endless series of amazing phrases over jazz, funk, r&b and other chord changes using mostly the pentatonic scale! 

It blew my mind. 

Then I began to notice people like Joe Bonnamassa did the same thing. 

Sure he uses a different scale occasionally, but he’s mostly playing pentatonic notes. 

Why didn’t I sound like that? 

I had the good tone, I had the vibrato and bends…but I still didn’t sound good. 

I realized that my rhythms were dull and boring and their rhythms were catchy and always different…keeping me interested and never knowing what was coning next. 

I vowed to become a master of rhythm, so I could effectively use a simple scale and make it sound amazing. 

And it worked. 

Visualizing Rhythms 

The first step to becoming a great improviser is to have rhythm chops that rival a drummer’s. 

That may sound impossible, but it isn’t. 

What I mean is the ability to come up with a non-stop variety of rhythms, using only your voice, hands or something other than the guitar. 

Rhythm is an internal thing and you don’t need a guitar to get good at it. 

But one thing that can help you get good is learning to “see” what rhythms actually look like. 

It helped me a lot, and it’ll surely help you. 

If you know how to read rhythms, then imagining them, creating them and expressing them becomes so much easier. 

So let’s learn how to read them… 

Reading Rhythms 

I’ve attached a whole series of rhythms that you should practice reading, tapping with your hand and eventually playing. 

But first you have to learn what each symbol is… 

Here are a series of rhythms from quarter notes down to sixteenth notes. 

There are many more that exist, but these will be more than enough to challenge you. 

The way you count each one is spelled out above each note. 

-Measure one is quarter notes: each note would get one beat or metronome click. 

-Measure two is eighth notes: there are two eighth notes per beat/click 

-Measure three is sixteenth notes: there are four sixteenth notes per beat/click. 

Put on a metronome at around 70 BPM and see if you can count all three measures out loud. 

Each subsequent measure is “subdivided”, meaning the rhythms get cut in half. 

1/4 becomes 2/8 becomes 4/16 

This means you have to say (or play) twice as fast with each measure. 

There are also rests to deal with when playing music.


These are what each type of rest looks like for these three notes (quarter, eighth and sixteenth.) 

A rest just means silence. 

Don’t say or play anything. 

As rhythms get more complex it might be hard to not say anything, particularly if there are a lot of sixteenth notes. 

In this case it’s good practice to make an “mmm” sound where rests are. 

This allows you to keep the rhythm and tempo going without actually sounding out the count of the rested note. 

Why Am I Doing This? I Just Want To Play Guitar… 

Obviously you can play guitar without learning to read rhythms, so why am I advocating this? 

I’m doing this for the players who truly want to become better guitarists and improvisers. 

If you’re happy with the level you’re currently at, then no worries, but if you strive to become truly good at this instrument, then mastering rhythm is a must. 

For many of us, seeing what rhythms look like allows us to execute them more accurately. 

If I can picture something in my head, then I can more easily recall and express that thing. 

Now, if you can read or tap these rhythms on the attached pdf, then you really should try playing them on the guitar. 

Pick a group of simple pentatonic notes and one of the rhythm measures. 

See if you can come up with a lick using those pentatonic notes but have them line up exactly with the rhythm on the page. 

You’ll quickly notice that it isn’t that easy. 

But you should also notice that it’s very likely a rhythm that you haven’t played before (especially the more complicated examples). 

If you’re having trouble with this, no worries, we all go through that; keep working on it daily and it’ll become second nature. 

I encourage you to start taking rhythm much more seriously. 

Without it, you’re basically stuck with lame sounding quarters and constant eighth notes. 

Subdivided rhythms and rests create a huge amount of variation that will make your licks stand out and force you to become a better player. 

-Max Rich