Strum-a Strum-a Strum: A Rhythm Primer For Songwriters

A lot of songwriters learning to play the guitar have it backwards, and in all
fairness it's hard not to get wrapped up in the paradox. You want to play the
guitar to accompany your songs, but your songs end up getting limited by your
ability of the guitar. So you might call a teacher and ask if you can learn some new
strums to spice up your vocabulary. But a strum pattern is exactly that, just a
series of motions....what you really want are new ideas and new sounds. So the idea
is to get past the strumming to the sound... in other words, to be guided by your
ears and not your hands. Your ideas can lead your fingers, rather than your fingers
limiting your ideas.

Yes, this requires practice, but it doesn't require as much skill as you might
think. What we want is to allow the lyric or even the idea of the song to suggest
the rhythmic feel, and then figure out how to produce that sound on the guitar. For
example, you can find the natural rhythm of a lyric by just speaking it, and see
where you feel the stresses. Then try to tap out the beats where you feel them.
Don't be afraid to be simple! And if you can tap or sing a rhythm, you can play it
by asking the hands to follow the beat you've just established. The following
exercise will help start you along the way.

Remember that your strumming hand is your rhythm generator. Hold a chord, hit the
strings and feel a single beat. Hit the strings four times in succession and feel a
measure. Then hit the strings repeatedly, counting to four each time and accenting
the first count of each group. Now you felt a meter, four-four time (or just 4). Do
it faster, and the song is uptempo. Do it slower, and now it's a ballad.

Subdivide the beat by swinging the right arm back and forth. We're still counting,
one-and-two-and-three-and-four-and as we alternate down and up strums. Notice that
strumming down accentuates the bass strings, while strumming up brings out the
trebles... so don't try to hit all the strings on every stroke. Let your arm
swing like a pendulum from the elbow, steadily back and forth, two parts of the same
cycle. The down strums are downbeats, the up strums upbeats.

So now we have eight different beats, some of which could be accented (or played
more strongly) and some might be skipped (counted, but not played... the hand just
misses the strings on that pass). Experimenting with different combinations of
accented, less strongly accented, and skipped beats will reveal many different
rhythmic feels, and as long as the back-and-forth of the right hand is consistent
your hand will always be moving in the right direction at the right time.

This might all seem very mechanical right now, and really it is... but through
mechanics we develop control and possibility, which together add up to freedom.
Great musicians know how to make music feel good because they have mastered the
mechanics and therefore are free to conceive and execute ideas. And if you let your
exploration of mechanics be guided by the pursuit of sounds you hear in your head,
then your practicing is never abstract but just another aspect of your songwriting
process. Above all, remember to be patient with yourself... mastery of large tasks
takes a long time, but mastery of a single, small idea doesn't seem so daunting.

Dave Isaacs is a Nashville-based freelance guitarist and teacher, and he has made it a his mission to make performing musicians and songwriters into better listeners. His approach is transformative, aiming to make immediate changes in the way a student thinks... for example, applying the simple concept of ears leading the fingers can guide a student`s note choices from that point forward.

As a performer, he can be heard as co-lead vocalist and guitarist of Americana duo Good Souls.

Dave Isaacs