How to Groove – Improving Your Rhythm

Video Transcript (video at end of article):

Hey everyone. Dan Vuksanovich here at, and today’s lesson is called “I Suck At Guitar Because I Have The Rhythm Of The Average Wedding Dance Floor Participant.” We’ve all seen them on wedding dance floors, people dancing to some beat that none of us can hear. It’s certainly not the beat of the song that’s playing. Take that dance floor image and apply it to guitar and that’s about how I used to sound. Many other guitarists unfortunately have this problem as well, and today we’re going to talk about how to fix it.

There are two main causes, I think, for why guitarists in particular have rhythmic deficiencies on the whole. The first is that we spend a lot of time practicing and playing by ourselves, with no other instruments to keep us rhythmically honest. Think about a horn player, for example, and the kinds of ensembles that horn players are usually in. There are usually multiple horns playing the same lines and there’s usually some rhythmic intricacy in the lines, so if one horn player gets rhythmically off, everybody’s going to know about it. Guitarists usually don’t have that when they practice and play. The second reason is that many guitarists focus way too much on lead playing and not enough on rhythm playing. The interesting thing here is that by focusing on rhythm you can make your leads a lot better, because solid rhythm helps when you’re playing leads as well.

A little bit about what rhythm is. Rhythm is the division of music into units of time. So while melody and harmony are about what notes to play, rhythm is about when to play the notes. Rhythm is a core element of forward motion in music. Without solid rhythm, music typically stagnates. The one thing from this lesson that you need to know is that if you can’t hear it, you can’t play it. In other words, unless I can hear the rhythm in my head, there’s no way that my fingers are going to be able to play that rhythm on the guitar.

Let’s talk for a moment about how to diagnose rhythmic problems. The first step is to put down the guitar, because what we need to do right now is train our ears, not train our fingers. If our ears don’t know what’s going on, our fingers certainly won’t be able to play whatever it is we’re trying to play. Once you’ve put down the guitar, you need to figure out how to count out the rhythm. This has two parts. First, determine the rhythmic structure, and if we’re playing rock and roll, ninety nine percent of the time (or more) it’s going to be four beats per measure. Second, within that rhythmic structure, where do the notes occur? One the beats? If so, which beats? Do they occur between the beats? Once we start to get an idea of what the structure is and where the notes occur within that structure we want to be able to verbalize the rhythm, still without the guitar. We want to be able to say the rhythm, slowly at first because we want to make sure that we get the rhythm right before we increase the tempo. Then once we get the rhythm right we can slowly increase the tempo so that even we get up to the tempo of the song we can say the rhythm along with the beat. Once that’s done we can pick the guitar back up and see if we can play it.

[Demonstrates Examples]

Here are some possible root causes of rhythmic deficiency. We’ve already covered the most likely one, and that is that you just can’t hear it. In that case we’ve talked about how to fix it. Put the guitar down and spend some time listening. Spend some time figuring out what the rhythm is. Once you can say the rhythm pick the guitar back up again. There are also some other possible root causes.

The second most likely cause is that your technique is getting in the way. If, for example, you can put down the guitar and you know exactly what the rhythmic structure is and you can say the rhythm along with the metronome, but when you pick up the guitar again you still can’t play it right, you probably have some issues with your picking hand, your fretting hand, or both. Your hands may not have the ability yet to do what your ear is telling them to do. In this case you may want to take a look at some of the lessons in the “Physical Problems” area of this site.

Finally, it’s also possible that you may need to shore up your understanding of basic rhythmic concepts. We’ve already talked about how simple a rock beat typically is, but if you want to play jazz, blues, latin or classical music, you may want to find a place where you can learn some of the different meters and what those mean, how they sound, etc. An understanding of those concepts will help you to hear what’s going on inside songs that are using those rhythms, such as 6/8, 3/4 and 12/8.

Let’s talk for just a minute about some of the benefits of good rhythm, and there are a lot of them. First is easier memorization of music. Rhythm is a great way of compartmentalizing the music that you’re learning. If you can take twelve notes or fifteen notes and turn them into one rhythmic pattern, you’ve just taken a bunch of things and turned it into just one thing that you have to remember. Second, there will be more forward motion in your music, and that’s part of what music is all about. If you can drive your music forward with good rhythm, it’s just going to sound better. Third, other musicians are going to want to play with you. If you are a guitarist that has good rhythm, you are a commodity, and other musicians are going to want to have you around because you’re going to be playing stuff that sounds good. Fourth, people are going to want to listen to you for the same reason that other musicians are going to want to play with you, because your music has groove and forward motion.

Your first piece of homework for this lesson is to take two or three songs that you really like and figure out some of the basic rhythmic patterns used. How do those rhythmic patterns contribute to the song? Listen to the song and just count out the beats as you go through the song. Then go back and start verbalizing some of the main rhythmic patterns against the beat. I think you’ll start to notice that part of the reason you like certain songs is because of the rhythmic groove that’s going on and it’s pretty cool to figure out what that groove is. This can help you a lot in reproducing the song if you want to play a cover, or even in writing your own music because you’re going to start to understand what it is that you like to hear.

Your second piece of homework is to take a song that you’re already playing and get to the point where you can verbalize the rhythms. I guarantee that the song will sound better when you pick the guitar back up.

Thanks for watching, and I’ll see you next time at