The ToneWay® Project: helping people play music


keeping time

Hi Luke, this is Jody trying to post as you requested. I have been singing since I was a child and have no problem remembering most lyrics and I know when to come in on a song but, I have been trying to learn to play chords on my guitar and I haven't had much success. I practice and I jam whenever possible, but I still can't keep time. Several musicians have tried to give me pointers, no go. Somebody help!

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According to Earl Scruggs:
“Tap your foot to what the group is playing, then play to the time your foot is keeping”. I'm not sure if he was kidding or not.

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I'm a huge fan of Earl, but not necessarily that idea, unless your foot is an exceptional timekeeper. I think most aren't. Mine certainly isn't; I've made a conscious effort to tap my foot in time (especially for performance situations where the tapping is audible) but it's surprisingly challenging. If I followed my foot I'd have terrible rhythm. And yet… getting the foot involved does seem to lock down the rhythm (in a good way) even more, so I'm all for tapping your foot if it helps you.

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I think the key is to first feel the beat (to steal a phrase), and if you can't feel it in a piece of music, start off with a clock or metronome. Then physically move a part of your body in time with the beat, LISTENING to that beat the whole time, and DON'T PLAY anything if this feels hard. Count the beat out loud. Once counting and moving feel natural, try starting to play, without getting fancy. If you get fancy, or feel stressed about technical details like where to put your fingers, bowing etc., you'll loose the groove. And start slow and keep it simple.

Now, the above paragraph seems stupidly obvious, but I know that I regularly violate every point I just wrote about, and when I do, my rhythm suffers. A video by the late, lamented jazz guitarist Emily Remler comes to mind. Check her out on the video lesson below. She advocates feeling the beat, moving in rhythm, and even states that she herself had trouble with rhythm and groove. Bear in mind that Emily Remler was one of the world's most accomplished guitarists! So don't feel bad if you can't get it right away, but keep practicing and you will get there. The segment you want to view is between 8:13 and 12:24, especially the last bit from 11:17 or so to 12:24. Note that she advocates setting the metronome to emphasize the two and the four counts in 4/4 time (one TWO three FOUR). This applies more to the style she's teaching, although it can also apply to some of the tunes on Toneway too.

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Now, the above paragraph seems stupidly obvious, but I know that I regularly violate every point I just wrote about, and when I do

Right you are Ralph. I suspect that the more “obvious” the principle, the more likely we are to lapse. The “obvious” is what we become blind to first. Part of it is that we over-think just about everything in life which distracts us from the simplest and most “obvious”. Simplify and consolidate are how I strive to deal with this affliction.

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At Cabrillo College in the music lab is a program I believe is called the tap machine. You start out with simple rhythms and hit a key pad in time. It progresses to harder rhythms as you improve.

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