So, here is the first post in my ‘Back to Basics’ articles. Let’s see how it’s going to go!
In an article I read from an interview with Steve Vai, he said something like "With the availability of inexpensive drum machines, there’s no excuse for having poor rhythm." (Ok, so it’s not the exact quote, but it was something along those lines). The quote is over 15 years old. And it rings true as much today as it did then.
Why am I getting on this particular subject? Because, this weekend, I was listening to a clip someone had posted for a new piece of gear. What was really painful was that the guy had a drum machine running, but wasn’t even in the ballpark with the rhythm. It was incredibly cool that the guy took the time to record some playing and demo the gear. The sound was good enough that I plan to check out the gear myself. But, it got me thinking about how that’s one of the ‘basics’ that is really hard to get right. And, it’s one of the most important. People may not be able to quantify it, but a poor rhythm player will sound ‘bad’ no matter how good their lead chops are… (I know. I struggle with rhythm ALL the time!)
Since rhythm is so important, how does one practice it? And why is the quote about the drum machine important?
Computers and music seem to go hand-in-hand. The recording software has virtually eliminated the monster boards and tape machines of old. Almost every home musician has a computer with some sort of recording capability. And those machines make GREAT drum machines and/or metronomes!
The first thing to do is get software that emulates a drum machine and/or a metronome. I’ll post a list of software in a later post. I use GarageBand and Sonar, but that can be overkill for some people. Next, build a simple one measure 4/4 drum pattern. Bass drum on beats 1 and 3, snare on 2 and 4, and a closed hi-hat on every eighth note (every half beat). If you want fancier drum patterns, but aren’t a drummer, try this book on drum patterns. But, I would suggest keeping it simple. Now that you’ve got a basic pattern, either set your software to loop that measure, or copy it to many, many measures. That sets up the computer side of things.
Now, on to the important part! To actually practice rhythm, start with quarter notes. Take any chord, and play it on 1, 2, 3, and 4. Get your playing to the point that the bass and snare sound at EXACTLY the same time as your strum. What you should hear is a very percussive chord. That’s how you get a ‘punchy’ rhythm. Then try eighth notes. Again, you should have the same effect. The hi-hat should disappear, or sound simultaneously with your strum. If you are using a metronome, when playing, the click should disappear. This is VERY, VERY tough. But, the benefits very much worth the effort.
How do you know if you are getting better? Record yourself. With the drums. With the metronome. Is the playback the same as what you are hearing? Be critical. If you are not happy with what you hear when recording, put more time into it. Use the K.I.S.S. principle (no, don’t try to hide behind makeup!)… Keep It Simple Stupid. Play slow. Play fast. Always play perfectly. Fancy rhythms come later, but one has to ‘lock-in’ with the drums to get a good sound.
One last thing… have fun with this. Make up your own exercises, but always remember that the goal is good rhythm. With a bit of practice it will come very naturally.