Time is an inescapable fact. Einstien called it the fourth dimension. Time is what we live in, can you imagine life without it? Nope, you can’t because we never experience a second without it. Music occurs in time. A musician’s ability to play in time, and what we call his feel, is as important as melody and harmony. In fact, melody and harmony can’t exist without time! Time is the fabric we weave our music through.
I’m writing this on a plane from Charlotte to Seattle coming home from a guitar show. At the show yesterday several people came up and tried out gear at the Roland and Boss booth. There were maybe, seventy booths with various guitarists trying out vintage, rare and some not-so-rare guitars.
This brings me to an axiom I learned years ago: “The worse the guitar player, the louder and longer he will play.” Probably the main reason he’s so bad is that he doesn’t know it. At least, if he knew he was that bad he wouldn’t broadcast it to everybody at the show. Here’s an example, a guy came up to our booth, plugged in and played fast. At first I thought, he’s pretty good. Then, as he continued to play I noticed his fault, he had a terrible sense of time. It was awful to listen to!
When I was a kindergarten, about age 5, my report card read: “Paul plays nice with the other kids, he is good at art, but in music he has a terrible sense of time!” Because I became a professional musician my Dad kept that report card as a joke. But it was true. I had to work hard at developing and perfecting my sense of time. If you feel like you could use some work in this area I have a couple tips involving counting and picking.
First understand, in music, time is the process of subdividing the bar, and individual beats. Drummers learn this right away, they don’t really deal with melody so they are all about subdividing.
At GIT, I knew guitarists who would buy drum books full of rhythms and learn them. For me, I’d learn music off recordings and figure out how to play the rhythm perfectly. A song with a tricky rhythm that pops into my mind is “Mean Street” by Van Halen. Eddie’s guitar parts are single notes and chords in a syncopated 16th type rhythm. Syncopated means: accenting notes on weak beats.
In music, the best way I know how to divide time is to count. In 4/4, when playing sixteenth note rhythms, we divide each beat into 4 separate notes. Since there are four beats, we have a total of sixteen notes available per bar. When counting through the bar any note must fall on one of these counts. If not, the note is late or early, and it will sound wrong. Count the bar like this:
“one-e-and-a two-e-and-a three-e-and-a four-e-and-a”.
Furthermore synchronizing your picking to this counting will force your picking motion to keep you in time. Maintain “one” as a down stroke, “e” an upstroke, “and” a down, “a” is up. Following the rule: down strokes on strong beats, upstrokes on weak beats.
Below I underlined where the notes or chords occur in the first bar of the main Mean Street riff:
“one e and a two e and a three e and a four e and a”.
If you maintain the down-up picking for the Mean Street riff it will be: down-up-up-up-down-up-up-up-down-down-up. Maybe it’s easier to just follow the picking:
∩ V V V ∩ V V V ∩ ∩ V
Try this on one note, or a chord. It may be hard, but if you maintain the picking this way you’ll very likely subdivide well and play this syncopated rhythm “in good time”. This is because physics makes your hand want to move: down-up-down-up all the time. When you have three ups in a row, the act of bringing your hand back into position for another upstroke will force the time to be correct!
This “downstrokes on strong beats and upstrokes on weak beats” is not carved in stone. I see a lot of great players who don’t always follow this principle, but then again those guys are usually great players with great time! I was born with less that perfect time and that’s why I know how to subdivide the beats by counting and I use my picking direction to help too. This way I can compete with the guy who was born with great time!
Don’t forget a poor sense of time is as painful to listen to as being out of tune. Some of the guys I heard at the show yesterday actually hurt me to listen to them, ouch, no kidding! Ahh, but the opposite is true too! When a musician plays a rhythm “in time” so perfect, like Van Halen or Steve Lukather, everything sounds great. That’s when people ask: what pickups is he using? What tubes? What pedals? You just can’t always put your finger on it, but it sounds and feels good!
Time makes the tone!!