Timing And Rhythm

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Timing and rhythm are important in playing the guitar. What are the different types of time?

Playing in time is a critical skill that every musician simply has to develop. But what does this actually mean? Keeping time is the ability to play a piece of music of accompany other musicians at the correct speed, without getting faster or slowing down. For most beginners it is the hardest skill to master, especially when most of the attention is focused on getting the fingers to behave properly. The fundamental problem is that whenever you play a note or chord, your right hand has to anticipate the exact moment that the pick or fingers will strike the string. Don't be put off if at first your playing sounds ragged or inconsistend. Eventually this skill becomes second nature - and will improve with practice.

Tempo and Rhythm

Tempo is one of two elements of timing; the other is rhythm. The tempo refers to the specific speed of a piece of music, which is usually measured in "Beats Per Minute" (BPM). Printed guitar music often shows a tempo instruction at the top of the page above the staffs. The example below indicates that a piece of music should be played at a tempo of 90 beats per minute.

Most classical music is specified only in terms of a general tempo, using Italian terms such as Presto (very fast),  Allegro (fast) or Adagio (slow).

Strict Tempo

If you perform with a group of musicians, unless you are playing to a mechanical rhythm - a drum machine or software sequences, for example - the group will almost invariably create its own groove, pushing and pulling against the basic tempo at various times. (This is, of course, outside of an orchestral setting, where the tempos maintained by the conductor represent strict instruction.)

Far from being a sign of poor musicianship, the creation of a unique and unified "feel" is the hallmark of a good ensemble. If you doubt this in any way, listen to the house bands of the Motown or Stax labels, who backed some of the greatest soul singers of the 1960s, or James Brown's 1970s backing band, the JBs. If you tracked the beats per minute on a bar-by-bar basis, you may well find tempo variations of up to around 5%, and yet each band is playing so tightly as a unit that these time differences are not perceptible to the ear.

In an era when much of our popular music is based around computerized rhythm, it's interesting that many producers and manufacturers have gone to great length to "humanize" their sounds by using digital samples of real drummers, or by building slight changes in tempo into computer sequences.

Rhythm and the Guitar

The term Rhythm refers to the way in which notes are played or accented. It is the rhythm that creates the "feel" of a piece of music. The rhythm guitar has played a vital role in all forms of ensemble music since the early days of jazz and blues, and before amplification had given the guitar a voice "above" the music. It was only during the 1930s, when pioneering jazzmen such as Charlie Christian started experimenting with guitars fitted with electronic pickups, that the guitar joined the brass and woodwind instruments capble of having solo or "lead" parts that were audible in a large orchestra or band.

Developing Timing Skills

There are many different ways in which you can develop your sense of timing, but one truth is certain: it will only come with practice.

The time-honoured approach is to play along with records or CDs. However, your favourite music will not be tuned to concert pitch, so you may have to re-tune the guitar. Alternatively, you can use a traditional metronome - a clockwork device which you can set to "click" at a specific tempo. A drum machine or computer sequencer can also fulfill the same kind of function.

All About Notes

 A note played on the guitar has three basic characteristics: Pitch, Volume, and Duration. The pitch is governed by the fret position; the volume by how hard the string has been struck; the duration by how long the note is allowed to sustain. In written music, the overall tempo is governed by how many beats are played every minute. An individual note obtains its value in relation to the length of that beat. The longest note value is a semibreve, or whole note, which is a note sustained for four beats. Subsequent notes may be halved in value until they reach the hemi-demi-semiquaver, or sixty-fourth note, whose value is a sixteenth of a beat (although in practice this is very rarely used in guitar music).

Each note type has its own unique symbol, all of which are shown on the table below. Each note below a crochet or quarter note, has a series of "flags" attached to the stem. When groups of these notes appear on the staff, the flags are replaced by "beams" which join the notes together.

Understanding Note Values

A simple exercise to help you understand the breakdown of note values is to strum a chord and count out beats while the notes are still ringing. Continously count in seconds from to four, emphasising "one" - the first beat of the bar - each time. If you have a metronome or drum machine, this will be easier.

Semibreve Chord - Strike the chord on "one" and let it sustain through "two", "three", and "four".

Minim Chords - Strike the chord on "one" and let it sustain through "two"; strike the chord again on "three" and let it sustain over "four".

Crotchet Chords - Strike the chord on "one", and again on "two", "three", and "four".

Common Time

When notes are written down, they are grouped together in small blocks called Bars. These are represented as vertical lines that run from the top to the bottom of staff.

Each bar contains a defined number of beats. It's easiest to explain this idea in terms of counting numbers out aloud. Slowly and evenly count out: 1-2-3-4-2-2-3-4-3-2-3-4-4-2-3-4, emphasizing the numbers in bold. You have counted out four bars, with each single bar containing four beats.

You may have noticed that some of the written music you've seen on some musical compositions begin with a pair of numbers, one sitting above the other on the staff to the left of the notes. These two numbers indicate the time signature of the piece of music. The number at the top tells you how many beats there are in each bar, and the bottom number tells you the time value of each of those beats.

This can be a tricky notion for many beginners to grasp, so let's look at the example above. You will see three beats in the bar, each one with a value of crotchet (quarter note), with a duration of a quarter of the bar. It does not mean that each bar has to consist only of four quarter notes, but simply that irrespective of how many notes are played in the bar, their total value must add up to the top figure, which in this case is three.

A piece of music like this, which has four beats in the bar is said to have a time signature of "Four-Four". (This is usually written in text as "4/4".) Four-four time is far and away the most commonly used time signature in rock, pop and just about every other musical genre. Indeed, its use is so wide that it is also known as common time and is sometimes abbreviated on the staff as the letter "C", or in its more stylized form, a thicker "C".

Simple Time

There are three basic time signatures that accomodate the majority of Western music. They are 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4. These are known as simple time. The 3/4 time is also known as "waltz time" or "triple" time and has three beats in each bar.

Compound Time

All of the simple time signatures (or meters as they are also sometimes known) can also be grouped into triplets - groups of three. This produces what is as a compound time signature. Bars of triple time(3/4) can be played in groups of three, producing a compound time signature of 9/4 or 9/8, both of which have nine beats to the bar.

When bars of 4/4 time are grouped in the same way, a compund time signature of 12/4 or 12/8 is the result, with twelve beats in each bar.

Even though this article is long, i hope it really helped a lot. Thanks for reading!

1 comment

Aunty Ann
Posted on Aug 14, 2011